Editor’s Corner—Could HEVC have saved HBO from another ‘Game of Thrones’ streaming crash?

Game of Thrones Season 7 (HBO)
Regardless of what caused the issues during the "Game of Thrones" season 7 premiere, it seems possible that HEVC could have helped.
Ben Munson

As sure as the seasons change, this year again brought more streaming problems for HBO during the “Game of Thrones” premiere. But with HEVC on its way—complete with an important Apple cosign and the promise of reducing bitrates while maintaining quality—I think it’s worth exploring whether the emerging video codec might have been able to prevent another hiccup.

The season 7 premiere of “Game of Thrones” drew a record audience of 16.1 million viewers (10.1 million on linear and the rest from DVR and streaming).

RELATED: DirecTV Now, HBO have livestream meltdowns during 'Game of Thrones' premiere

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With that demand came issues for various HBO digital platforms. According to the Hollywood Reporter, HBO.com crashed during the premiere and HBO Go experienced outages in Latin America. A spokesperson for the network said that no widespread outages for HBO Go or HBO Now occurred in the U.S.

Still, many Twitter users reported outages for both HBO Go and HBO Now during the premiere.

For what it’s worth, I streamed the episode on HBO Now and it ran smoothly, save for a tiny bit of latency, allowing me to cringe at the distracting Ed Sheeran cameo in perfect picture quality.

It’s unclear what caused the issue for HBO, but the problem was not caused by the content delivery network, an industry source familiar with the situation told FierceOnlineVideo. Some other reports suggested the problem was caused by account authorization issues.

RELATED: Apple’s blessing crowns HEVC king of video compression

Regardless of what caused the issues, it seems possible that HEVC could have helped. The high efficiency video codec (also called H.265) is capable of providing high quality video at bitrates about 50% less than H.264. And with Apple’s recent announcement that it would add support for HEVC to iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra, the codec is now even a bigger topic of interest for the online video industry.

Stefan Lederer, CEO and co-founder of Bitmovin, an adaptive streaming company, said HEVC could certainly help with streaming video quality of experience.

“That’s definitely a big step toward reduction of server load,” Lederer said.

Mark Donnigan, vice president at Beamr, wasn’t sure that HEVC could have prevented what happened last Sunday during “Game of Thrones,” but said that the shift to the codec will still have positive benefits overall.

“Any time you reduce bitrate, it stands to reason you’ll improve streaming quality,” Donnigan said.

The problems last Sunday could have stemmed from a data center or feed distribution issue, said Donnigan. But he added that whenever there are fewer bits that are flowing over the networks, the better the odds that the stream won’t fail.

Tom Vaughan, manager for HEVC encoder x265, said that the issue during “Game of Thrones” may have stemmed from web or database server capacity, and therefore lower bitrates likely wouldn’t have helped.

But he said that HEVC could help online video companies overcome what he called a “last mile problem,” where many people in the same area are streaming during peak hours, causing network congestion.

“So even if your ISP tells you that your service has a peak bandwidth of 20 Mbps or more, you might not be able to sustain the 5 to 10 Mbps needed to enjoy a movie (encoded in AVC/H.264) at the highest HD quality level if the network is congested,” said Vaughan, adding that “smart” service video providers are already using HEVC on all quality tiers so that consumers with compatible devices—like newer smart TVs and set-top boxes like Roku—can get the optimized streams.

An HBO spokesperson said that the company had nothing to share about its plans for HEVC at this time. But, as Donnigan pointed out, it’s likely that Time Warner and HBO executives will be pursuing all the latest online video technology (including HEVC) to help ensure service disruptions of any kind on the company’s digital platforms become a thing of the past.—Ben | @fiercebrdcstng