In all realms of tech, latency hobbles usability. In a mobile social era, streaming latency is a buzzkill of epic TV proportions for live sports, betting and social TV. But this isn’t only bad for sports. It’s holding the entire ecosystem back in a manner that can best be described with the Curb Cut Effect.
The Curb Cut Effect is a policy idea that goes like this:
We implemented curb cuts to help disabled people. In practice, they benefited everyone. Joggers with baby strollers, skateboarders, shopping carts, bicyclists. Similarly, closed captioning data are mandated for those that can’t hear. But it’s great for sports bars, hotel and gym TV experiences – not to mention producers of near-live multi-platform media, who can drive workflows enhanced by the data.
In the same way, I’m here to argue that solving the latency challenge in livestreaming benefits everyone – and probably in unforeseen ways.
But first, I’ll back up and explain the basics.
What is TV signal latency? It’s the time it takes for moving images filmed at a live event to travel to everyone’s living room TV. It takes six seconds for a home run in a baseball telecast to hit TV audience eyeballs. At six seconds, it’s never noticed. But if I’m livestreaming that same game, it takes at least 30 seconds to arrive – and sometimes much more. Why?
Streaming is successful today in large part because a company called Move Networks figured out how to use HTTP protocols – and thus commodity servers – to deliver streams in little video chunk downloads. But this Adaptive Bit Rate (“ABR”) revolution brought very long latencies compared to broadcast or cable TV.
So, while six seconds isn’t a big deal, 30, 45 or even 60 seconds has a huge impact on the future of streaming TV monetization. There are some classic use cases that require low latency streaming which are fairly well known:
- Twitter spoilers. Twitter is one of the most popular apps for conversations about TV. Of course, Twitter is real-time in nature. And so even back in 2016 we saw a New York Times report of this delay-of-game bug. If you enjoy watching live sports and using Twitter simultaneously, you’re opening yourself up to spoilers. Below is a February 1, 2020 tweet from Baris Aksoy, a tech VC: “Stay Away from Twitter while Watching Super Bowl LIV.” (He also provides a handy chart quantifying the size of the lag leading me to believe he might be invested in the trend.)
One big challenge with streaming #SuperBowLIV to millions is managing latency.— Baris ☁️📱🤖🚗🛰 (@Baris) February 1, 2020
You will be exposed to different latencies depending on where you watch i.e. Fox Sports, NFL, Youtube TV, Hulu, etc.
If you don't want spoilers while streaming, I'd stay away from Twitter.🤫 pic.twitter.com/tuFexTkUAp
- Huge moments at massive sporting events. When truly behemoth events roll around like the World Cup, another damaging dynamic pops up. In apartment buildings, people with satellite will be cheering for a goal about a minute ahead of the livestream. In dense cities, horn honking can spoil streams. World Cup 2014 suffered from latency – and sadly 2018 saw a repeat. As Halo game designer David Ellis tweeted on July 6, 2018, “... I wish these World Cup streams had the @WatchMixer latency. Want to engage on social media but bummed when goals are spoiled.” Mixer was Microsoft’s Twitch competitor – now defunct. But their latency was very low.
Gonna sound like such a company man here, but boy I wish these World Cup streams had that @WatchMixer latency. Want to engage on social media, but bummed when goals are spoiled.— David Ellis (@DavidEllis) July 6, 2018
- Scores app notifications and text messages from friends. In truth, many sports scores apps today provide the ability for users to protect themselves from spoilers. After all, these are useful not only for streaming latencies but also for the widespread practice these days of watching sports in a time-shifted capacity, something I’ve written about for years. But how many people actually apply these settings? And do they work as promised?
- In-home spoilers. In yet another scenario, some homes today have both streaming and cable set-top boxes. In that case, you’ve got to be careful just walking from the bedroom to the living room. It’s true, you’re probably multitasking at that point and so shouldn’t be too religious about the spoilers you’ll get -- but it’s just another unseen benefit to a better TV experience.
- Sports betting. This is perhaps the easiest to understand. You can’t have fairness and integrity in sports betting without latencies of a second or less.
But believe it or not, while these above use cases are driving the industry toward low latency streaming, they’re not doing so fast enough – and I think that’s because we’re not appreciating the positive externalities that are going to result from that transition.
One such example? Interactivity.
I’ve been chasing interactive TV for an embarrassingly long time, having built a few innovation prototypes in this domain. (See https://Get.IRLchat.tv for my latest.)
But with the recent launch of AWS IVS, a low latency video service dedicated to interactivity, a world of interactivity is now open to all comers. While most use cases above are focused on fixing something wrong with streaming, interactivity is a use case that offers an enhancement, or add-on, to the overall experience of TV.
Sports fan engagement teams poll fans on the video board at the venue: Why not do the same thing on the living room TV?
Or think about the massive historical success of American Idol voting. What’s next on the horizon? From Kahoot to Slido to Mentimeter, the field of live audience engagement is rapidly growing – conditioning business audiences, educational audiences and increasingly television audiences – to pick up the phone, point it at a QR code, and interact on a webpage that requires zero app download.
This isn’t second-screen, it’s two-screen. It’s one experience blended together. And I’m hopeful it’s coming to a connected TV soon.
Brian Ring is principal analyst at Ring Digital llc, a revenue growth agency that uses consumer surveys to understand viewing behaviors, inform client product strategies and execute go-to-market thought leadership for vendors serving TV providers, networks, studios and broadcasters around the world. Access all of his research for free at: https://www.RingDigital.tv/FutureOfTV
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.