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HBO GO app falters during ‘True Detective’ finale and ‘Game of Thrones’ premiere

Game of Thrones

One of the selling points of the HBO GO streaming service is that HBO subscribers can stream the station’s content at any time and from anywhere they want, as long as they are using an approved app or device. However, the HBO streaming service has faltered in the last month not once but twice due to demand for high-profile shows.

The first incident happened in March during the finale of the first season of “True Detective.” During the initial airing of the finale, HBO GO users experienced errors and were unable to access the content for several hours. A similar incident happened on April 6 during the season premiere of “Game of Thrones,” with users reporting outages and log-in issues. In a prepared statement, HBO blamed both of these outages on “overwhelming demand,” according to CNN.

High demand and content delivery networks

As the world becomes more mobile-focused and more users than ever are accessing television shows online in lieu of tuning in to the channel itself, streaming services will need to look to the future of content delivery and find ways to increase scalability when “event” television programming demand surges.

Because outages during these high-traffic periods can be the stuff of nightmares for channels and advertisers, content delivery networks (CDNs) are able to scale bandwidth on demand during high-traffic periods, alleviating the fears of those whose business hinges upon having little downtime. By having a flexible network that can open up bandwidth when traffic surges, content can be delivered and streamed in a timely manner regardless of demand, saving the drama for the screen.

Looking to the future

Streaming services have become an integral part of the TV viewing landscape, and with more consumers choosing to stream content now rather than watch it later through a DVR or on-demand service, TV content providers may have to take a hard look at their delivery methods to ensure downtime is minimized and audiences aren’t lost due to technical issues. It’s probably no coincidence that at the same time that HBO GO faltered, illegal downloads for “Game of Thrones” hit a record high, according to Variety.

It is easy for users to get frustrated when a streaming content provider goes down. This situation makes for an important case study in content delivery and highlights the need for solutions that provide high-quality video streaming with 100 percent availability to ensure audiences always have access to the content they want.

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Evolving digital streaming landscape requires more from content providers

Video on the Galaxy Tab

Video on the Galaxy Tab

As the world of digital streaming evolves and gradually becomes more mainstream, more consumers are leveraging their broadband connections to enjoy music, videos, movies, and other forms of rich media content. A growing array of devices are used to consume this streaming media: desktop and laptop PCs, smartphones, tablets, console and handheld video game systems, as well as new streaming hardware such as Apple TV, Chromecast, and Roku.

This places the onus on the purveyors of streaming media content to ensure near-perfect performance with minimal downtime or lag on a wide variety of devices. Additionally, as more users expect to be able to stream content while on the go, providers need to make sure that content is easily accessible anywhere there is a strong 4G or Wi-Fi connection. The bottom line is that the digital streaming audience is becoming more discerning day by day, and, if presented with poor performance or worse, downtime, they will get their content from another source.

Making the underlying streaming technology transparent to the end user

Part of the challenge for digital streaming media content providers is making any underlying technology transparent to the consumer. Whatever device they are using to enjoy the content, or wherever their location, everything should work in a seamless fashion with nary a hiccup. With new device types — wearables are making inroads to the marketplace — and new media formats on the horizon such as 4K video, providers need to remain on top of their technology game to be a relevant player in the media streaming space.

Mike Green, senior director for digital media solutions at Brightcove, likened the problem to a game of “Whac-A-Mole” during a panel discussion at the recently held Next TV Summit. As soon as one problem is fixed, he said, another one comes up. Beyond the technology issues, there are other problems such as digital rights management and piracy, or even improving the underlying metadata attached to media content to enhance its ability to be discovered during Internet searches. In short, providers need to make things easier for the consumer.

Michael Bishara, senior vice president and general manager of TV Everywhere, Synacor, commented on the need to improve overall usability for end users. “We’re making the consumer work really hard to get access to something that’s supposed to be fun,” Bishara said. Content purveyors must make investments in usability design and back-end technology to ensure customers enjoy a fun, easy-to-use streaming experience.

Adaptive bitrate an option to replace video buffering?

Video buffering is still the bane of many hoping to enjoy a seamless digital streaming experience. Users are frustrated when an important scene in a movie or a crucial point in a sports event is interrupted for seconds or more while media servers play catch-up. A new technology discussed at the Next TV Summit called adaptive bitrate may make buffering a thing of the past.

Adaptive bitrate allows streaming content to adjust automatically to the quality of the network that the consumer is currently on. For example, a user at home on their 50-megabit per second (Mbps) cable connection can enjoy HD-quality video streaming, and when they pick up the same program when on their smartphone’s 5 Mbps 4G connection, the content automatically downgrades to a lower quality. The user isn’t forced to change any settings or have to deal with lag or buffering when on a network with less bandwidth.

This is a case where advancements in technology, such as adaptive bitrate, improve both the usability and the quality of the digital streaming experience for the consumer. The old cliché “the customer is always right” still applies today, and rich media content providers must heed that rule or be at a competitive disadvantage. Partnering with a content delivery network (CDN) is a great way for providers to stay at the forefront of streaming technology.

CDNs make sense for digital streaming providers

Building a partnership with an industry-leading CDN makes sense for rich media providers hoping to successfully navigate the constantly evolving landscape of digital media streaming. Access to the Internet’s most important peering points ensures consumers are able to seamlessly stream content no matter their location. Bandwidth that scales on demand based on network traffic allows a customer base to grow in a viral fashion without any adverse impact on performance.

A robust real-time reporting engine allows data analytics to determine what content is successful and where it is most popular, which helps when creating new media. Most importantly, a 100 percent service-level agreement means that whenever anyone wants to stream media, the content is always available.

The best CDNs offer a significant technology advantage to their customers, allowing providers to focus on improving the design and usability of their product. Given the constantly changing digital streaming landscape, content providers need to pay close attention to all technology and usability factors. Offering an easy-to-use, fun experience to consumers — backed by state-of-the-art technology — is the best way to grow a digital media business.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Amazon Streaming Device Fire TV Released

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon entered the streaming device competition with its $99 Amazon Fire TV device, which was announced and released on April 2. But what capabilities could an Amazon streaming device bring to the table that Google and Apple haven’t already? A lot.

Voice control

One of the big selling points of the Amazon Fire TV is that users can search and play content simply by talking. Though this might seem like a new feature, owners of the Xbox One video console (and the Xbox 360 with Kinect before it) know all about the convenience that voice control provides. Much like Xbox’s functionality, Amazon Fire TV’s voice control is limited to in-app functions, and users can’t cross-search multiple streaming providers for a specific TV show or actor. However, those who prefer streaming video through Amazon Prime will find this voice control option to be quite useful.

Advanced Streaming and Prediction

Though the voice control feature is already offered by competitors, Amazon’s new Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP) feature could be a game changer for the industry. ASAP is designed to predict what users are going to watch by measuring time spent on show landing pages or previous programs viewed, and then start preloading the prediction in the background. This is supposed to make Amazon Prime videos viewed with Fire TV much faster than other streaming networks such as Netflix and Hulu and eliminate buffering time entirely.

Video games

Another big feature that will set Fire TV apart from the competition is that it will be the first streaming device to feature gaming functionality. Though the games will be played locally, Fire TV will be the first to even offer gaming as an option, giving Amazon an edge over the competition.

Content delivery is key

In order for a streaming service such as Fire TV to be successful, it must deliver both fast and high-quality video. Though this Amazon streaming device has partnered with third-party content vendors such as Netflix, its goal is to push customers toward its own in-house service. The company hopes that customers will choose to stream or purchase something from Amazon without opening another app. In order to achieve this, video content must be delivered consistently through a service that can minimize lagging. As demand for these types of services increases, companies that partner with industry-leading content delivery networks (CDNs) can ensure reliability will be paramount.

Whether this Amazon streaming device could lay claim to the market in a major way remains to be seen, but with its features and low price, it could be the next big thing to hit the streaming world.

Photo credit: Flickr

WWE Network gets off to shaky start

WWE Network issues

WWE Network got off to a rough start.

In an effort to connect millions of fans with the content they care about most, World Wrestling Entertainment launched its own streaming-only network subscription service. Dubbed simply WWE Network, this service allows users to access past, current and future content from WWE for $10 a month (think Netflix for wrestling, but with the added benefit of live-streaming future events such as Wrestlemania and Royal Rumble). However, the service got off to a shaky start, with content delivery issues hampering early adopters’ service with choppy video quality, downtime due to high demand, and log-in problems across multiple platforms.

Preparing for a smooth rollout

Though WWE Network has resolved its issues and users are now enjoying on-demand content, the issues that plagued its launch may have been preventable. Using a content delivery network (CDN) that can scale bandwidth on demand for high-traffic periods is essential when you are launching new content. Though WWE was likely expecting its network to be a hit, it was unprepared and “overwhelmed” by the amount of launch-day traffic it received, according to Deadline. As a result, quality and the user experience suffered. Having in place the flexibility that CDNs can offer before content is rolled out ensures that these kinds of launch-day woes don’t occur.

Getting content to multiple devices

Another widespread issue consumers reported was not being able to log in to non-PC devices to access content. Gaming consoles (particularly Xbox 360s) continued to produce errors, and users were unable to reach content via their chosen devices the same way they could by using a PC. Though rolling out content to multiple devices seems like a tall order, CDNs can ensure users have options when it comes time to launch these services.

Looking beyond launch day

Though launching new content certainly creates an early high-water mark for traffic, it is important to look to the future to forecast when larger traffic increases may increase. One fan, speaking with WhatCulture, expressed concern over “how the WWE will handle the high traffic they will most likely experience on the night of Wrestlemania XXX.” The question is certainly valid. Simply preparing for a launch isn’t enough anymore, and planning for the next big-traffic “event” is crucial when you are planning a content strategy and must adjust for spikes in demand.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pokemon online games take new form in ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’

Pokémon Games

Playing video games can be hard. Making decisions in RPGs, aiming long sniper shots in first-person shooters, or even judging jumping distances in simple platforming games relies on a gamer’s ability to judge the situation at hand and quickly execute the correct command to ensure success. Imagine if you had to judge a gaming scenario, but you were playing along with 1 million people who were also making decisions — with 36 million people watching. It might seem like an impossible scenario, but it became a reality with “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”

Pokémon online games have their place, but “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was something completely different. The social experiment consisted of nearly 1 million people inputting commands through a custom emulator running “Pokémon Red” (first released in 1996 for Nintendo’s Game Boy). The game started off slow at first, with literally thousands of commands coming in every second, which resulted in the main character spinning around and walking in unpredictable zigzags. However, as the game progressed and gamers became more collaborative and invested, progress actually began to be made. Sixteen days later, the members of Twitch TV had beat “Pokémon Red.”

Delivering Streaming in an Interactive Environment

The interactive streaming element was one of the biggest reasons why “Twitch Plays Pokémon” attracted so much attention. Though streaming service Twitch TV has hosted thousands of individual game streams, “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was the first interactive stream where user input dictated a player’s movement in the game. These types of real-time streams that rely on user input must run without lag so the true gaming experience can be preserved.

“Twitch Plays Pokémon” was also unique because it built viewership as the game progressed, garnering more than 36 million unique viewers over the course of the two-week-long game. This required Twitch TV to make some server adjustments to support the load, according to Ars Technica. When traffic unexpectedly surges, it is vital to have the scalability that content delivery networks provide so individuals streaming your content don’t get left behind.

Though the inaugural session of “Twitch Plays Pokémon” drew to a close in early March, the second iteration of the next generation of Pokémon online games has just begun. Although “Twitch TV Plays Pokémon Crystal” has yet to hit the viewership and engagement highs that the first round reached, it appears well-positioned to establish crowdsourced inputs as a legitimate trend in the gaming world.

If this type of group gaming does become the hallmark of streaming gaming services, it is important that companies hoping to provide users with the opportunity to experience streaming interactive content have delivery methods that ensure everyone can enjoy the game without worrying about technical issues like server overload or lag.

Photo credit: Flickr