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Live sports broadcasting no longer sole domain of TV

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 7, 2014 06:00 AM

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Sitting at home--in front of the TV with friends or family--to enjoy the latest pop culture experience--together with millions of virtual companions--is increasingly not “the norm.” Why be tethered to a cord--or dish--when one can effortlessly stream the [pick one] State of the Union, Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics, the World Cup--and so much more--anywhere, on-the-go, on the mobile or connected device of one’s choosing?

No longer just a vessel allowing rabid college basketball fans--or office pool participants cheering for the next Cinderella--to watch March Madness during the workday, Internet-based live broadcasting has become a common viewing method of choice for content consumers (for sports programming and more). Rather than a “nice to have,” broadcast-quality live streaming has become a consumer expectation. And, content publishers are being forced to (willingly, though!) keep pace with consumer demand.

At Brightcove we dug into our own data to understand the number of live events that our customers have initiated on our online video platform over the last few years. We found that live streaming has surged in popularity, seeing a whopping 27x increase between 2011 and 2013.

Consider a few recent examples of major events that demonstrate the appetite for live streaming:

Prince George Meets the World: The birth of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first child was eagerly awaited by Royal enthusiasts around the world. Virtually every major outlet delivered a live feed from outside of the hospital--where Prince George was introduced, though still nameless, to the waiting crowds. Soon after, the scene outside of his christening was also available to the masses via Internet live streaming.

State of the Union Address: Every major digital print and broadcast outlet in the U.S. streamed President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address on their online property in addition to their traditional broadcast.

Super Bowl XLVIII: According to FOX, the Super Bowl live stream from MetLife Stadium averaged 528,000 viewers per minute to make it the “most-watched live stream of a single sports event in history.” In full disclosure, peak concurrent viewers reached 1.1MM viewers during the 3rd quarter, paling in comparison to the 8MM+ peak concurrent viewers of Red Bull Stratos and 8.5MM+ peak concurrent viewers of Riot Games’ League of Legends Season 3 World Championship.

Clearly, it’s not only media companies that are focused on the power of live streaming to boost audience engagement and build affinity. Brands--and beyond--are also capitalizing on their target audience’s appetite for widespread access to live programming. For example, Red Bull, mentioned above, consistently offers real-time access to a range of extreme sporting events that appeal to its target consumer--and align with its brand image--via its Red Bull TV Live Web channel. Faith-based organizations have also embraced live streaming as an effective method for uniting an audience that may be unable to participate in-person. On a less pronounced scale, but still widespread, live streaming has also become ubiquitous in high school sports, with offerings from cable providers allowing parents and fans who can’t make it to the event to tune in from afar.

Sports lends itself to the intense devotion that create fervor for access to broadcast-quality live streaming. So, it makes sense that this Friday, the event--and, really, the defining moment--for modern-day sports live streaming will commence with the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In the U.S., NBCUniversal has broadcast rights for the Games--and the network’s coverage will be extensive. In addition to 539 hours of traditional television broadcast, NBC will stream every single event and competition either online or via its mobile app (over 1,000 hours).

The network is offering tremendous access, but there is some fine print. To view the live stream of any of the events that are being broadcast on NBC’s cable affiliates, viewers will need to provide their pay TV credentials--a process known as authenticated viewing. Adobe--the technology enabler for authenticated viewing--has announced a number of improvements (from auto-authentication for in-home viewing for select pay TV subscribers, to free previews), but what remains is the underlying requirement for a pay TV subscription.

As a result, discussion is springing up across the Internet about how so-called “cord cutters”--those who have canceled their pay TV subscriptions--can watch any of the events they choose without rejoining the cable bandwagon. This is core to the factors that are critical to the long-term success of live streaming: access, quality of experience and monetization.

How so, you ask?

Consumers’ strong demand for live streaming content is indisputable. But, the aforementioned issues are creating friction between programmers and viewers. Viewers want to watch what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, on the device or platform of their choice and in the highest quality--licensing agreements, content rights and authentication aren’t top-of-mind.

With all of that said, what is the future of sports live streaming in a cord-cutting age? While networks are certainly entitled (and justified) to distribute live content online only to pay TV subscribers, there are alternative monetization routes that broadcasters and content providers can consider moving forward to make broader access to live streaming more “worth their while” from a business perspective. For instance:

  • Create standalone or a la carte live access packages. Consider the NFL’s deal with Verizon for the Super Bowl--access to the mobile live stream limited to Verizon mobile customers (but that’s still a very large audience)--or WWE’s pivot to over-the-top.

  • Use the live event as an opportunity to create new content that can be additive to the primary live broadcast. The “digital-only” content could be viewed before, after or concurrently with the live broadcast, similar to the Oscars Backstage Pass, offering 20 live cameras during the telecast accessible via their mobile app.

  • Offer open access to content but with strong monetization goals. Take advantage of developments in mobile live ad insertion technology--technology exists that makes the process of dynamically integrating individually addressable ads into live content on any platform simple and seamless.

  • Sell online-only ad packages--including live native advertising--to major brand partners; use this to subsidize content delivery while also enjoying a boost in brand awareness and contentment.

  • And, in every scenario, ensure that the social media strategy integrates live streaming content and video on-demand highlights to embrace the appointment-based viewing experience and amplify the social dialog.

Above all: programmers need to ensure that the quality of their live, online experience is on par with what’s available via traditional broadcast. Selecting the appropriate delivery, transcoding, distribution and monetization partners is an integral component of this process. Nobody wants to experience buffering during the big game’s final moments due to too high of a bitrate, or to be forced to watch a mid-roll ad of inconsistent quality, disrupting the quality of experience.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi will be a watershed moment for live streaming, and media executives will surely be taking notes on how to improve--and better monetize--live content for the upcoming World Cup and other future tentpole events.

Albert Lai is CTO for Media at Brightcove.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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