The Streaming Tsunami: Part 9 - Changing The Game For Broadcasters With Streaming’s Return Path

Our series examining the pressures created by exponential growth in streaming demand, continues with an examination of how the constant feedback from measurement of viewer experience statistics is driving change.

Streaming Operations at Broadcasters have their own personal edge-of-their-seat drama. Every month or quarter they are seeing new streaming consumption records and wondering whether a new record audience size will be achieved on the next big live event or the next big VOD launch. Major sports rights can cause nail-biting apprehension within Operations followed by enormous relief when things are alright on the night. For all the good content that broadcasters deliver to consumers, we consumers are, in fact, delivering this running drama series back to them. Given this position, broadcasters are continuously improving and refining their service KPIs, validating KPI correlation with surveyed customers, introducing changes to close performance gaps, and re-measuring their viewers’ experience. This article looks at how the “viewer experience return path” is driving broadcaster streaming operations to evolve.

Today’s Norms

Streamers see the return path, which is the constant flow of data and information back towards them from viewers using their streaming app. While the return path is revolutionary for broadcasters, and has made broadcasters true direct-to-consumer businesses, it has already been the new reality for over a decade. Yet the return path dynamic, when coupled with continuous and fast growth of streaming consumption and a more complex technical environment for video delivery, means that streaming operations and product teams must place intense focus on understanding how best to use this information to make good and timely business decisions.

In most streamers, the main areas of technical work are in service availability, service performance, and device support. In many large streamers, internal teams are focused on app development, app availability and device support – these areas are generally treated as the service differentiators that reflect the broadcaster’s brand. While in the service performance area, streamers rely on technology service providers and partners for delivery availability and performance, which is often perceived as a mixture between a commodity service and a complicated network environment that must be left to the video delivery specialists.

Performance monitoring resides with the streaming operation. Data is collected from clients, distribution networks, and cloud platforms which creates a big data crunching opportunity that is difficult to leverage due to the sheer volume of data. With most internal resources working on the App, priority is generally given to App performance and improvements, yet there are growing signs coming from viewers that video playback experience and delivery performance should get a higher level of focus.

Streamers run customer surveys to correlate internal data-fed views of operational performance with the reality that customers are experiencing. The purpose of this validation exercise is to highlight to the Product and Operations teams which improvements are most important to make for the success of their streaming service. The top-level KPI for most streaming businesses is Viewership – i.e., how many people are watching and for how long. It turns out from the surveys that video playback performance correlates strongly with viewership. In other words, the better the playback the more people watch. Personalization, content search, and recommendations also correlate strongly with viewership.

Another customer survey outcome is that the major SVOD services like Netflix and Prime generally get the best performance results. Broadcaster streaming services are chasing this standard in order to give people every reason to use their App instead of another.

This current state of play reveals two fundamental points about streaming services and signposts broadcaster streaming operations towards a need for deeper supplier partnerships. First, to perform better for viewers SVODs have invested significant time and money to build delivery technology and workflows that reach high performance levels at scale. Broadcast streamers need to follow in those footsteps somehow, even if budgets and resources are slimmer. Second, delivery of video to the client needs greater focus at a time when audiences are growing quickly and consuming streamed content for longer compared to the traditional TV platforms. While expert service providers are necessary to navigate the complex networks that we use for streaming video, the time has come for broadcast streamers to work forensically with video-delivery experts to manage and guarantee video playback performance.

Correlating Service KPIs & Customer Experience

Experts in the streaming world point to the fundamental need to gather and understand the data about streaming performance and viewer experience. There is so much data available from the systems involved in the streaming ecosystem, yet sometimes the data can mislead, or it can be weak in the area you really want it, or it can just be an overwhelming task to interpret it to the level that is desirable.

Experts in the customer experience world highlight the importance of correlating system-captured technical performance data points with the survey-captured customer experience data points that people can tell us about. They also warn about the risk of over-dependence on one form of data over the other form. Strong correlations between the data sources are key if we want to use the data to make big business decisions.

When customer surveys highlight a strong correlation between Viewership and Video Playback Performance, it becomes important to focus more on playback. Playback performance is typically based on technical metrics like video start-up time, bitrate delivered, and rebuffering, measured at the viewer’s device. But as streaming services scale-up, the classic video quality metrics like Audio Out-of-Sync become important as well, which needs different measurement tools to detect and can often be a weak spot in the streaming monitoring chain. Overall performance depends on the devices being used by viewers, the playback technology on those devices, the networks that deliver content to the devices, and the encoding, packaging and origination platforms. It is a complex environment of multiple device vendors, multiple operating systems, multiple network service providers, and multiple software solutions.

In parallel, App performance is equally complex. Apps include many different micro-services or functions, including authentication, search, recommendations, payment gateways, and more. These functions run in a mix of on-prem and cloud platforms, as well as on the device itself. Their ability to support large audiences during prime-time major events has often been a weak-point in large live event streaming. Assuring the performance of this myriad of micro-services across multiple platforms is also a big job.

Most streaming organizations have a natural tendency to focus more resources on what they can control best, which often means the availability and performance of the App. While synthetic testing of the App during product development cycles may expose a large number of reliability weak-points and stability risks which can threaten App availability, the big question is “does the customer notice?”  The surveys in some broadcasters suggest not. So, we enter an Availability vs. Performance dilemma. The dilemma is how to direct finite resources to take care of what matters most to Viewership, which of course ultimately drives the streamer’s revenues.

Aligning KPIs & Customers

Forward-thinking streamers are grappling with this challenge as their streaming audiences grow. Channel 4 in the UK has had a streaming service since 2006 and has been recognized as a highly successful streamer in the UK market, even alongside pioneers like the BBC and more recent significant advances by ITVX. Channel 4 now has 12% of its viewership from its streaming service and repeatedly breaks its own streaming viewership records, recently recording its biggest ever streaming month in October 2023 with 6.7 billion viewer minutes and its biggest-ever single day of streaming consumption at 268 million viewer minutes on October 25 2023.

Figure 1: Average daily minutes viewed of linear and BVOD (Broadcaster VOD), by Broadcaster, in 2022.  Source: Ofcom Media Nations Report UK 2023, published August 2023.

Figure 1: Average daily minutes viewed of linear and BVOD (Broadcaster VOD), by Broadcaster, in 2022. Source: Ofcom Media Nations Report UK 2023, published August 2023.

“As broadcasters, we tend to have an expectation of near-perfect reliable delivery to viewers,” states Declan Toman, Digital Service Delivery Manager at Channel 4. “However, comparisons between streaming and broadcasting delivery are often unfair given the differing technologies, investment levels, pace of change, and service maturity. But there is probably an inherent bias depending on your role and department in the organization. Those with a technical background in streaming and web delivery have a bias towards service reliability KPIs like uptime, that apply equally to a video app as an e-commerce website. From an App perspective, video - whether live or VOD - is still supplied into the App and looked after by another part of our tech department, rather than being fully integrated with our App delivery model.”

While the transition to being a D2C Streamer is fully underway for broadcasters, which brings with it the requirement to know the consumer in detail, there is still a broadcast-legacy for video delivery that is yet to be fully resolved. On the one hand, video delivery is perfected frame-accurately at the point of Playout and Transmission, upholding the strong culture of video quality for broadcasters around the world. On the other hand, video delivery is not yet managed through the multiple networks and millions of viewing devices in the streaming service to enable it to match the quality of delivery provided by the broadcast infrastructure. As Declan Toman notes, there is a level of service maturity today in streaming that still has some way to grow.

Overcoming this challenge is perhaps more cultural than technical, but either way it requires a change of mindset and perhaps a change of budget allocation. One of the most pivotal levers any organization possesses to change itself is its corporate scorecard and objectives, which directly impact how people are paid and rewarded for their efforts. At Channel 4, there is an aim to create a new single metric for Playback Performance, to align corporate objectives with Viewer Satisfaction. The ideal metric is one that combines the aforementioned KPIs of start-up time, bitrate, and rebuffering. But this also needs to be blended with the customer experience reality, or else organizational efforts become misguided and will not deliver the required results.

Declan also highlights another challenge with setting the right objectives, “Different viewing devices have different thresholds of customer satisfaction for each element of Playback Performance that we measure. A SmartTV could require a higher bitrate, a faster start-up time and lower rebuffering than a Smartphone to achieve the same level of viewer satisfaction. Or a 5-year old SmartTV might require a lower bitrate and a slower start-up time to achieve the same viewer satisfaction as a 5-month old SmartTV. There are also differences between Live and VOD delivery to take into account. It is not easy to find a single and simple measure to express “great performance” for a corporate scorecard, but we are working on this area as we strive to improve viewer experience and our Viewership results.”

Leveraging The Return Path

The visibility created for broadcasters by streaming’s return path is where the value and the challenges in streaming are found. While visibility creates knowledge, there is a lot of information to sift through to find the facts that matter the most. There is also a new obligation that is difficult to ignore, which is to take greater and more sophisticated ownership of the total Viewer experience. Brand reputations and business revenues will rely on it.

Broadcasters like Channel 4 are working hard to be prepared for the streaming-centric future they are facing. Aligning and streamlining organizational metrics to be more customer-centric and correlated with Viewership will bring ever-greater alignment between viewer satisfaction and service investment decisions. Ultimately it will make the service experience better and the investment decisions more profitable.

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