Comcast, Charter and more reflect on a year of pandemic

To reflect on the past year, Fierce Video asked executives across streaming video, broadband, pay TV, advertising, video technology and infrastructure to share their insights on trends that have emerged or accelerated during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Time has become a tougher concept to grasp since COVID-19 changed our world, but estimates suggest that we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the pandemic.

To reflect on the past year, FierceVideo asked executives across streaming video, broadband, pay TV, advertising, video technology and infrastructure to share their insights on trends that have emerged or accelerated during the pandemic.

We asked everyone the same question: “What has changed the most since the pandemic began, and what have you learned?” Here are their answers.

John Bickham, president and chief operating officer, Charter Communications

When the pandemic started the circumstances were changing almost weekly, and we needed to adapt quickly. We have direct contact with our customers, and we needed to keep our employees and our customers healthy. To do this we needed to reduce in-home visits and modify our business, while maintaining our commitment connecting our customers to their broadband services so they could work and study from home, access health care and watch their favorite shows.

One of the many changes we made was to accelerate our self-installation program, which we already were moving toward. We began shipping customers their equipment and having our field technicians focus on working outside of customer homes. Our self-installation program expanded dramatically from about 50% of sales prior to the pandemic to a new steady state of over 80% of sales during the fourth quarter of 2020. We also saw a significant increase in the use of our online and digital sales and self-service platforms, all of which improves customer satisfaction.

Tony Werner, president of technology, product and Xperience, Comcast Cable

We’ve learned a lot over the past year, but what will stick with me most is how well our people, our networks and our industry respond to adversity. In the midst of managing an historic traffic event, while transitioning the vast majority of our team to working from home, our people and technology rose to the occasion and helped provide a light in the darkness to millions. The pandemic also confirmed for us that our commitment to strategic investment, software innovation and building a world-class team was the right approach to be ready for the unexpected.

Peter Katsingris, senior vice president of Audience Insights, Nielsen

Even pre-COVID, media use was changing. The media options provided to the consumer have been increasing over the years. They have more options than ever of content to watch via free or subscription video-on-demand services, not to mention how that content gets into their home. Devices to access this content are more widely available through the home to either watch on the big screen in the home or on their portable digital screens.

During this pandemic, some of these changes were accelerated as more people were spending time at home. At first, strict quarantine measures to stem the spread of the virus boosted overall television usage but has since continued pre-COVID levels as the nation continues its reopening. However, one of the biggest behavioral shifts that has remained is the increased amount of streaming to the television set, which has grown from being a younger behavior to people of all ages engaging with content that way. I believe that some of these temporary behaviors we adopted will become, if not already, more permanent as we move forward.

Jeff Shultz, chief strategy officer and chief business development officer for Streaming, ViacomCBS

Meeting my partners and colleagues in person is important to me, and I typically travel very frequently. Zero travel and constant Zoom during the pandemic confirmed that it’s not always necessary. During the pandemic we unified the ViacomCBS group and strategy and launched Paramount+ without a single physical meeting. I once traveled 120 nights for business in a single year. I’m sure I’ll continue to be a frequent flyer but, based on the last year, I’d say that’s unlikely to happen again.

David Goodfriend, founder and chairman, Locast

The pandemic has put millions of people out of work and impacted loved ones and family members emotionally and financially. These hardships have placed renewed importance on Locast for those seeking ways to cut costs from their increasing cable, satellite and streaming TV bills and to watch their local news, weather and sports for free. As a result, our largest growth period among donors and non-donors has occurred in the past 12 months.

We’ve also helped prove the need for non-profits like Locast to compete alongside major corporate media giants. While the pandemic has swept across America, media giants have continued to raise rates on the backs of consumers, many who are struggling financially. At the same time, for people who have been hurt by the recession or natural disasters, Locast offers the interruption-free version of our service to anyone who lets us know they would prefer the uninterrupted service but cannot afford to make a donation. Overall, the pandemic has elevated the importance of local broadcast TV as one of the most important communication tools for staying connected to local news.

Steve Miller-Jones, vice president of Strategy, Industry and Partnership, Limelight Networks

The pandemic has pushed streaming into a realm beyond traditional entertainment. It has evolved into a lifeline. Online video is now the primary way that many stay connected with family and friends, and it’s also how we instantly access breaking news from our smartphones. In addition, streaming has given new meaning to how we interact and engage with others. For example, online gaming and watch-parties have become a primary medium for virtually “hanging out” in quarantine. Technology has advanced to enable real-time interactivity and communications functionality as seen in popular games like Fortnite and Call of Duty. This is a prime example of the bright future for online video; but only if the industry can work out the kinks and deliver an optimal user experience without lag or disruption.

The pandemic taught us the important role edge networks play in supporting real-time interactions and taking streaming to the next level. Consumers across the globe will continue to rely on online video to stay connected, entertained, informed and educated. We’re making sure our network is prepared for the surge in streaming content while supporting the next generation of interactive experiences.

Chris Thun, vice president of Product, TiVo

In the broadest strokes, the question “What are you watching?” became the centerpiece of conversations around the globe. With primetime programming and sports going dark, people flocked to local news. When they weren’t watching news, they were adding SVOD services to find new movies and shows to watch (e.g. the number of services through which broadband-only subscribers watch video grew by 35% since 2019).

The pandemic kept people in their homes and glued to their TVs. 92% of pay TV customers said they watched at least one hour per day, while the average viewer watches 4.2 hours per day.

With a deluge of new OTT offerings with no cancellation limitations, parents' underlying need to entertain their children, and others simply running out of things to watch, the stay-at-home COVID lifestyle led to “subscription-hopping.” In fact, 25% of consumers added a subscription since COVID hit, while 15% dropped a subscription service.

With everyone stuck inside, now, more than ever, viewers are learning about new content through their channel guides or other menus (+11% year over year). They’re also turning to streaming media players and their big screen TVs vs the small screen in their pocket to get their content.

As the pandemic rages on, shifting consumer patterns in the video service landscape are proving to be more than mere anomalies. People are adjusting to a new normal and that new normal means big, exciting changes for the video market.

Marcien Jenckes, president, Comcast Advertising

What I’ve learned is to never underestimate the power of TV or the power of the industry to adapt to change. Over the past year, people watched more TV across more screens, advertising plans pivoted, and TV ad sales and buying were executed by a largely remote workforce. This groundswell of change increased the need for data, automation and cost efficiencies like never before, and Effectv and FreeWheel rose to the challenge with new solutions and products to meet these needs. The pandemic really served as a catalyst for accelerating innovations that otherwise could have taken years to occur.”

Paul Pastor, Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder, Firstlight Media

The most striking revelation of the pandemic for many OTT providers has been the realization of just what’s needed to take their businesses into the future. Providers who had built services on legacy online video platforms saw multi-year increases materialize in just a matter of months; they’re seeing that continued growth requires building, buying or partnering on new capabilities that can help them continue to grow now that they’ve plucked the low-hanging subscriber fruit.

In many cases, they’re finding out now that they lack the next-generation, cloud-based infrastructure capabilities to reach beyond core subscriber bases who have a demonstrated passion for their content libraries. They’re recognizing a need for data resources and content management systems that can drive personalized recommendations and help bring new viewers into their orbits; for scalability that can more efficiently deliver services to a large audience; for advertising capabilities that can help them monetize across entire subscriber bases; and for rapid time-to-market that allows them to seize unanticipated opportunities for growth.

The bottom line is that for most providers, pandemic viewing was an unplanned business windfall. They realize they will need to rethink their platform plans to continue that growth in the future.

Peter Chave, principal architect, Akamai

‘How about a nice game of chess?’

It’s often rumored that the forefather of the internet, ARPANET, was built to survive a nuclear war. While not entirely true, standards and protocols that in some cases were born nearly 50 years ago did help the modern internet withstand last year’s pandemic-related traffic surge. Three pillars of internet video streaming – transmission control protocol (TCP), hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and adaptive bitrate (ABR) – helped us “bend” the internet without breaking under the enormous strain of more people than ever consuming more content than ever at the same time.

• TCP maintained shared connections in congested environments.

• HTTP helped content delivery networks quickly scale to accommodate unprecedented traffic levels.

• ABR enabled viewing continuity even with a large increase in demand.

Despite the internet having many of these “self-healing” capabilities built in, coordination among various stakeholders was still required to cope with the sudden, massive traffic spikes. Akamai CEO Tom Leighton, for example, published a great blog post on our work to manage video game download traffic with Sony and Xbox. In Europe, regulators had to make tough decisions on lowering video streaming quality for a short period.

Looking forward, emerging approaches to content delivery like dynamic protocol optimization, HTTP/3 and advanced compression techniques will play a part in further operationalizing and automating many functions that currently need human intervention. We know the internet can scale; now we can make it easier.

Ashwin Navin, co-founder and CEO, Samba TV

2020 found us glued to our computers, phones and TVs more than ever before, achieving a saturation point in screen time. Across linear TV, streaming and gaming, brands were forced into engaging their audience on every screen and platform in the home while contending with a narrower attention span. These lessons culminated in an omni-screen playbook for brands to ensure they’re reaching audiences across content platforms, deduplicated and in impactful ways.

Carlos Hernandez, chief revenue officer, SSIMWAVE

When bandwidth is at a premium, optimization is key. That was a lesson the streaming industry learned early in the pandemic, particularly when the European Union requested that the biggest streaming providers reduce bitrates to prevent the internet from becoming overwhelmed. Additionally, video subscriptions skyrocketed requiring infrastructure that could scale with reasonable costs and quality.

Resulting video issues – including “visibly blocky artifacts” and “degradation in video quality” – accelerated discussion of the need for surgical methodologies for bitrate optimization. Rather than brute force, one-size-fits-all approaches, the industry today has greater appreciation for reducing bitrate while still delivering the video quality that can maintain viewer satisfaction and loyalty. We believe this balancing act will find new life post-pandemic as a way for streaming providers to reduce delivery costs without negatively impacting the viewer.

Adam Davies, head of product marketing, Synamedia

It’s no surprise that the appetite for OTT streaming services spiked last year – even just from March to April 2020, around 25 million more U.S. households were streaming. The viewing landscape and viewer habits have turned on a dime multiple times throughout the year, with people navigating ever-changing stay-at-home orders, content production slowdowns due to studio closures and the rescheduling of sporting and live events – all while people had access to more services, and content reached a larger audience.  

And while the recovery timeline for COVID-19 remains unclear, what we have learned is that service providers will need to prioritize subscriber retention as the market gets even more crowded and consumer budgets are tightened. As subscriber retention becomes a focus for video providers, we’ve noticed that cord-cutting isn’t as clear-cut as previously suspected. We’ll start to see pay TV and OTT services merging, as some pay TV providers have started to launch their own OTT offerings. This blend of services creates a more accurate reflection of how viewers are consuming content together.

There’s a lot of change behind us, but even more ahead as we look toward what will be a pivotal year for OTT streaming services.

Patti Loyack, vice president and general manager, Xfinity Internet

With more people working and learning remotely there was a need to create new workspaces in different places throughout the home, and as a result, since March 2020, we have seen demand for xFi Pods Wi-Fi extenders double.

As Americans spend more time at home than ever before working and educating virtually, streaming TV, and connecting with friends and family online, establishing new screen time rules was a major trend for Comcast customers. Parents used the Xfinity xFi pause/unpause feature 87 million times in 2020, and more than 400,000 parents set xFi content filters for their children.

Sean Doherty, CEO, Wurl

Pandemic? What pandemic?

The 2020 pandemic outbreak severely damaged the global advertising business. Ad spend in (almost) all major categories is down double-digits in 2020 — display, legacy TV, search, out of home, radio.

Agencies announced layoffs and shutdowns. But not connected TV (CTV). The reason: Global hyper-growth in CTV fundamentals is driving ad revenue up so fast that the pandemic's impact was hardly noticeable.

At Wurl, we have a unique perspective. The Wurl Network underpins global streaming content and advertising delivery on virtually every major ad-supported streaming app in over 40 countries. Across our global network, streaming viewing time and ad impressions grew an average of 20% per month during 2020. Sure, global stay-at-home orders starting in April/May provided an approximate 20% bump in CTV streaming time per home and a related increase in ad inventory. Still, organic growth in ad-supported streaming has caused month-after-month-after-month increases throughout the past year — gains that make the pandemic impact on advertising un-noticeable. And there's no sign that this growth is slowing. Average daily ad impressions on the Wurl Network were up 26% in February 2021 over January 2021.

We've seen this movie before. A powerful force (growth) overcomes a terrible adversary (the pandemic). It's encouraging to see Wurl and our other CTV companies beat the challenges of a tough year.

Mark Trudeau, CEO, OpenVault

In more than a decade of helping broadband operators collect and analyze usage data, we’ve never seen a year like the past 12 months: the seemingly bottomless appetite for broadband connectivity that fueled unprecedented growth, and the ability of cable broadband providers to exceed expectations in meeting consumer demand.

We saw the number of subscribers using 1 TB or more nearly double year-over-year and the number of subscribers using 2 TB or more increase 120% in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone. We saw a one-year increase of more than 300% in subscribers provisioned for gigabit speeds. We saw continued pressure – a 63% year-over-year increase – on operators’ bandwidth-constrained upstream plant. And through it all, we saw that after an initial spike at the start of the pandemic, usage followed historic norms: consumption trends tracked the same monthly patterns as they had at the past – but at a higher level – providing useful guidance for operators eyeing the future.

Average monthly consumption at the end of 2020 was 483 GB per subscriber. Given the tendency of usage to follow historic trends, we see that rising in 2021 to at least 600 GB and possibly as high as 650 GB per subscriber per month.

Kevin Hunt, senior vice president of Global Marketing, SpotX

The pandemic accelerated a shift in how consumers are watching content. Audiences around the world have drastically changed their video viewing behaviors, leaning into connected TV and over-the-top (OTT) in record numbers, which has hastened the development of a post-cable ecosystem.

It's evident that streaming is becoming mainstream, and organizations are purposefully advancing their video investments as a result of this. For example, device manufacturers are building out their ad businesses, increasing their market share and their influence on the viewer’s experience.

We’ve also learned that there is a massive opportunity to apply digital technologies and audience data to make broadcast ads targetable and more relevant. As more linear TV inventory becomes available programmatically, the addressable opportunities for linear TV are ready for scale.

Daniel Barreto, co-founder and CEO, Haystack TV

When Haystack News launched a dedicated streaming channel to aggregate COVID-19 news in early 2020, we thought it would be something viewers would want for a few weeks. Instead, Haystack viewership kept growing as we tracked the virus spread through communities in the U.S. and the world. Today, with demand for coverage still strong, Haystack News continues to connect viewers to coverage as vaccines roll out and we warily watch the spread of variants. Haystack News was proud to be an AVOD bridge where local news providers and viewers could meet, helping our news partners extend their reach and viewers get the information they needed during such a critical time. Haystack broke records for usage and engagement. Millions of new people turned to us to get easier access to the news they trust, via the differentiated experience Haystack News provides, with hundreds of news sources in a single app and Newsline, the world’s first completely interactive news ticker.