Streaming Media: Opportunities and Challenges in 2013

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If you’re a developer at a media company these days, you’re sure to run and cower in a corner the minute your biz/dev team announces they have some new ideas around distribution. You’ll be asked to deliver to content to Apple devices, which use native media players on their phones but allow for HTML 5 players on their tablets. You’ll be asked to develop an app for one of the dozens of ‘over-the-top’ boxes that have their own unique requirements. And when someone says flippantly, ‘we’ll only develop this for Android,’ you’ll pipe up and shout out that there are multiple Android operating systems in use and a never-ending list of hardware manufacturers using the platform. In short, things were never easy when it came to digital distribution, and it’s not getting any easier.

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Streaming Media East, a conference that took place in New York City on 5/21-22 brought together some of the strongest minds in the media industry to walk through emerging trends that are disrupting the very nature of the television screen as well as the pathways to get to those screens, wherever they may be. Below are some of the big takeaways from the conference:

No Silver Bullets
If you were hoping that 2013 would be the year that we saw device and platform fragmentation wither and die, keep dreaming. MLB reported that they see thousands of unique Android device models hit their services everyday. You were able to get a sense of how fragmented the industry is by just visiting the conference Streaming Pavilion where you could lose yourself in the line of 50 leading hardware devices and platforms (and, no, they did not have the new Xbox One there). As you can see in the chart below, globally there are no clear platform winners for digital delivery. Even digital powerhouses like Google have seen low sales on their Google TV device (1,000,000 active units, world wide) and Roku has only recently hit the 5,000,000 units sold mark. The smart move for media companies is to try to target specific regions or demographics and cherry pick platform development that are the best fit.

IPTV Device Usage

Source: NPD DisplaySearch Quarterly Smart TV Usage Study, April 2013

It’s Gotta Just Work
If you want your digital media delivery to be taken as seriously as a traditional television network, then your apps, whether on a phone or over-the-top box, need to work flawlessly. Users expect things to ‘just work’ (just like that good, old fashioned TV set) and meeting that demand may mean that you have to scale back on features that can slow performance down. Damon Phillips of ESPN spoke about starting simple and the care the digital team takes to eliminate buffering when delivering video assets to the user. Additionally,  there was a lot of conversation around making the most of the team that you have by focusing in and taking care to develop great performing apps on key platforms instead of trying to get on as many platforms as you can.  Again, you’re better off having a lite, optimized app on one platform that users enjoy using than a handful of apps that don’t feel native to the platform they are on and are not prime time.

Interactive TV Ain’t Easy
There have been endless critiques of the Huffington Post interactive TV effort, Huffington Post Live, but it’s impossible to deny that from workflow and scale perspective, the folks at HuffPo are pushing the limits of innovation. Tim McDonald was on hand from HuffPo to discuss the work that is involved to deliver programming for 12 hours a day, every day. One of the biggest parts of the effort is the search to find, as Tim calls them, ‘contributors that have skin in the game.’ The community managers at HuffPo are not looking for your standard talking head…they are looking for folk who are passionate and normally do not have a major media platform to voice their opinions on. Finding these people requires a good deal of trolling for experts in the HuffPo forums and also searching through the high volume of user ‘auditions’ that come through the site. Once guests are identified, HuffPo employees then train the guests on how to make use of the Google Hangout or Skype conferencing interfaces, and go over things like mic controls and lighting. Even though there are some bumps, it is astounding how much of the HuffPo Live experience goes off without a hitch.

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Forget What You Think You Know
If you read digital strategy blogs, you can be lulled into submission when experts start to talk about ‘engagement on the second screen’ (meaning mobile devices used while watching a traditional TV set) and the benefits of personalization. But the conversations at Streaming Media East were more forward looking, providing new ways to look at these emerging themes. First up, there were brain twisting conversations about what makes a ‘second screen’ in the first place. A user may start watching a show on a mobile device on their commute home from work (acting as a first screen here), but on entering the home, the viewer may throw the programming to an over-the-top box like Apple TV. Now, the mobile device becomes the second screen and is ready to be used for engagement instead of straight consumption. The challenge is there for content producers to create exciting experiences around this sort of functionality transition. In the case of personalization, we normally thing about specific content sent to your device based on what media orgs know about you through analysis of your past viewing behaviors. You see this all the time in the ‘you might also like’ list of recommended clips on any video asset page you visit. However, we are entering a time when device capabilities can help transmit more data about who you are and what your likes are than your past viewing habits. Apps like Google Now can make use of the accelerometer in phones to learn how much you travel, if you like to bike vs. walk, your favorite places to get coffee, etc. Content can be delivered around these themes (example: travel, sports) based on intelligence gleamed from your normal behavior. Of course, someone in your org will request that the personalized recommendations work across all platforms, which is a daunting task. Mobile analytics experts at Flurry recently reported that developers who want to reach 90% of the market of active devices need to actually write for 331 unique models. That’s a lot of developer overtime.

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This is a magical time for publishers as they are able to reach viewers with personalized content and on devices that didn’t seem possible before. Publishers are bound to feel like they’re already behind in distributing to all platforms and services, but the smart move would be to take a deep breath and find the most relevant audiences, see how they are consuming content and deliver to those places first. In short, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

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Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson

Randy Abramson is the Director of Product Management and Operations for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @randyabramson.

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