Jumping into a dynamic year for online video

As Editor in Chief Sue Marek let folks know last week, my colleague Josh Wein is moving on to bigger and better things, and I am taking his place as editor of FierceOnlineVideo. He's also celebrating the birth of his first child, a beautiful girl, and we couldn't be happier for him here at Fierce. With that said, Josh's experience and insight in the industry is a tough act to follow.

If anyone had told me, six or seven years ago, that I would eventually be writing almost exclusively about the online video industry, I probably would have laughed. Short-form video ruled the over-the-top space then, with YouTube rising to prominence above video aggregator sites like ebaumsworld. But users and entrepreneurs were still trying to figure out what direction the Web would take, and video was just one feature in a sea of new online ideas.

This week in Austin, executives from companies like AOL, Netflix, WWE, Fox Sports and NBC Sports sat in front of SXSW audiences and talked, very seriously, about how they plan to put their content in front of audiences by taking it over the top. They're presenting alternatives to content juggernauts Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), and talking about the latest trends in licensing both long- and short-form videos online. Two speakers, Ran Harnevo of AOL and Scott Rosenberg of Roku, even suggested in a Tuesday session that people take the word "online" out of the picture and just call all of it "video."

Anyone who doesn't see 2014 as a year of large-scale changes to the way online video is marketed, packaged and perceived hasn't been paying attention. Cable operators are rolling out more second-screen options for their subscribers, finally acknowledging that they need to compete directly with online video providers to sate viewers' demand for always-available content. While many are still limited in scope and available videos--some subscribers still can't watch outside their homes--that is changing as expanded licensing deals lock into place and increase the content options available to pay-TV subscribers.

Pay-TV providers also are putting much more attention toward their on-demand catalogs, with Verizon (NYSE: VZ) integrating Redbox's rental service into its FiOS on-demand service--along with an instant watch option for its subscribers. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) is chasing down electronic sell-through licensing deals with providers like Sony Pictures for its Xfinity platform, enabling its subscribers to buy movies and TV series.

What this means for Amazon and Netflix is that they're facing increased competition from a direction they've long expected: MSO, IPTV and DTS (digital terrestrial satellite) providers that have finally admitted that long-form online video providers are rustling customers right out of their corrals.

At the same time, a host of smaller content providers are continuing to stake their claim in the market space. Vimeo, for example, has found its niche in hosting high-quality video uploaded by subscribers and is continuing to cement a place as a go-to spot for original content with a $10 million investment fund designed to attract independent filmmakers.

While growth in the online video space is still dynamic, it may only be a matter of time before the window for smaller content providers closes. Large multinationals are continuing to consolidate their holdings and you can be certain that a number of startups will be folded into larger companies this year.

And that's just content. The vendor space is just as dynamic, if not more: For example, Roku's new streaming stick will take on Google's Chromecast, and even Amazon is rumored to be developing some kind of device.

Underneath all this, though, is the Web supporting online video. We saw clear evidence last week that content delivery for some providers does not yet match demand. HBO Go subscribers trying to watch the "True Detective" season finale this past weekend were greeted with a buffering message instead, and ABC's limited streaming test of the Oscars to pay-TV partners in selected U.S. cities saw complaints from many viewers--and advertisers--that the feed didn't work for long stretches during the event. It's not exactly clear where the fault lies in these cases, but it's abundantly clear that content delivery technology needs to evolve much more quickly.

All this points to one definite thing: Online video players and consumers need to strap themselves in. This year promises to be an interesting ride.--Sam