July, 2018

Radio is Fastest

If you wanted to know what was happening in Moscow as fast as possible last night, your best bet was the radio.

I’ve mentioned before that when a big fixture goes to penalties, I always listen on the radio, because I get the news first. More regularly, if there’s a match that’s both being covered by Five Live and Sky TV, I might have the TV switched on in my lounge, but the radio on in my kitchen. If I hear a goal described on the radio, I know that I can take my time strolling into my lounge to see the goal scored.

This was beautifully illustrated in a Tweet that showed some Brazilian fans watching a game on a big screen, with one fan listening to the radio:

During the England semi-final, at a point of tension, I decided to see what got me news from Russia fastest. Here are my non-scientific findings in order:

Fastest to Slowest

BBC Radio Five Live AM

— ~0.2 seconds ahead of —

BBC Radio Five Live DAB

— ~5 seconds ahead of —

ITV Freeview SD
ITV Freeview HD
ITV Sky HD

(All TV roughly the same)

I didn’t bother with streams because they introduce too many variables based on the technology I’m using, the internet speeds I have, and so on. But I do know that UHD is especially slower than other streaming options. I also noted earlier in the tournament that BBC’s VR experiment delivered video faster than regular iPlayer! (I was, however, completely underwhelmed by the VR experience)

Note that I can’t accurately measure the time because I comparing things I can see myself with things that are being described by a commentator. In other words, radio is perhaps even further ahead than I’m estimating here, since the radio commentator has had to see and describe something before I hear it. On TV, I can simply see the net bulge with a goal.

What’s more, I’m told that AM is deliberately delayed by about a second – perhaps to keep it closer in sync with DAB.

I suspect that the overall delay is closer to 10 seconds for events happening in a stadium and me seeing them on a television. There will be uplinks and downlinks from the venue to the broadcast centre, then more from the broadcast centre to the UK broadcaster’s playout systems. Then that signal too is probably propagated by satellite to many transmitters and direct-to-home satellites. Each satellite “hop” might take 250 milliseconds, and then there encoding and decoding delays to account for. Finally a broadcaster may deliberately introduce a delay to ensure that they can cut the picture in case something happens that they don’t want to show (the equivalent of the “dump” button in many radio studios).

All of this shows that if you want to know what’s happening fastest, radio gets there first.

Is IP TV Really Ready for Primetime?

Last night YouTube TV went down for an hour. That’s not YouTube the platform, but the premium TV service that YouTube offers customers in the US a range of broadcast TV channels in exchange for a monthly fee. The service went down right in the middle of the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final in Russia.

Every time a set of major sports rights comes up for sale, there is more and more discussion about whether a major internet platform like Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple will be bidding. So far, there have been a few toes dipped in the water. Amazon has a small package of Premier League games from the season after next; Amazon also has ATP tennis in the UK from next year, and has had a few tennis tournaments this year; Amazon has streaming Thursday Night NFL rights, sharing them with free-to-air and pay-TV ; Facebook has bought Premier League and La Liga rights for a handful of Southeast Asian countries.

But at the same time, there are ongoing problems with many of these streaming technologies. In Australia, Optus had massive issues with its World Cup rights as I’ve mentioned previously. They’ve ended up refunding subscribers, and allowing all their games to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV. ITV Hub has had various issues during earlier games in this World Cup (although I’ve seen few reports for the semi-final last night). Hulu’s stream of this year’s Super Bowl went down towards the end of the game. There are plenty of other examples.

Streaming is hard, and the resources to ensure no breaks are not to be understated. You might get angry if you can’t stream an episode of GLOW on Netflix because something between Netflix and your ISP isn’t working right. The worst that might happen is that you have to wait a bit and watch it later. But that’s not a remotely satisfactory solution for live sport.

If a company the size of Google can still have a major outage during a global event like the World Cup, then you know that this isn’t easy. During the Sweden v England quarter-final, the BBC reported a record 3.8m live streams at one point. And of course, there were also reports that the stream fell over towards the end of the game for some.

It’s notable that for the World Cup, the BBC’s UHD streaming experiment was initially limited, to ensure that those who got a stream weren’t going to be disappointed half way through when too many other viewers caused the whole system to fall over (Of course, viewers would quickly find out that they were well behind other versions of the picture meaning that you could be hearing your neighbours cheering a goal minutes before you saw it yourself).

The same fixture had broadcast viewing figures of over 19m, with many more watching in pubs and at outdoor events. And while we need to be careful about comparing audiences (1 stream does not equal one viewer; they are not measuring exactly the same thing), it’s clear that the vast majority still watch via the more robust broadcast systems. The question is, for how long?

Talk to a TV engineer and you’ll begin to understand why broadcast is still better. The Freeview transmitter network is very robust with built-in redundancy to ensure that TV channels’ signals reach local transmitters. While local transmitters can fail, these tend to be extraordinary events, and their “up time” is high. If the transmitter is working then the only reason you don’t get a picture at home is down to your set-up (e.g. a faulty antenna on your roof). Satellite transmission is also remarkably robust – with perhaps only extreme weather causing picture degradation.

With IP, there are many places that the system can fail. Broadcasters are reliant on large Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) to distribute programming. And that complexity increases with live. Then there might be a local problem with your “exchange”, or even the local fibre cabinet near to your street. Perhaps your the free router your ISP gave you has failed. It can be hard to diagnose, and there are many potential points of failure.

For the most part, service will probably resume quickly. But just how quickly is another question.

I’m not arguing that IP can’t fix some of these problems, or be more robust. But I do think that it’s going to be a significant technical challenge, with many parties involved, and broadcast is better in many respects. From a broadcaster to transmitter might only involve a couple of specialist companies. The pictures arrive faster, and there are fewer places for things to break. One viewer or 30 million viewers? It makes no difference.

On the other hand, some future live event will take the record for streaming again, but these will be more worrying moments as systems are put under bigger pressure than ever before.

I’m not ready to give up broadcast as efficient video and audio propagation methodology just yet.

Marketing TV

If you’re a TV channel and you’ve got a new show you want to tell people about, it should be relatively simple. You make a trailer or two for it, and then you run that trailer around programmes that the audience for the new show are already watching.

You might want to be a bit cleverer than that, perhaps pulling in viewers of less obviously related programmes. Indeed if you’re really clever you might make different trailers to target different audiences.

But for the most part, TV companies use their own channels, which makes a great deal of sense. Or perhaps did. Because as the audience becomes ever more dis-aggregated, it’s getting harder to reach potential audiences. Viewers are spread far and wide, and you can’t be certain that you’ll reach a large potential audience just using your own channels.

It’s instructive that if you visit a big US city like New York, you’ll see advertising for movies and television shows everywhere. When I visited in April, even the city’s bike hire docking stations had advertising for Showtime’s Billions.

TFL Have Missed a Trick

Yes, Times Square has historically been full of movie and TV billboards, mostly elaborate digital screens, but it was interesting to see just how many Netflix and Amazon shows were being promoted. Beyond those, you have bus sides, taxis, and subway carriages. Traditional media. Ads were everywhere.

Times Square Ads

Tourists

Americans

Bosch

Compare and contrast with the UK, where advertising budgets seem more modest. Yes, BBC One advertised Troy reasonably heavily on posters, and indeed their current World Cup coverage (I’m not at all certain that the latter is the best use of marketing spend incidentally). Sky has put significant budgets behind Bulletproof and Patrick Melrose in recent weeks. And ITV and Channel do occasional campaigns for bigger shows. But there’s not the same consistent spend as you’ll see in the US.

Yet even those US spending levels aren’t enough.

A really good piece in The Information explains that although Netflix is upping its spend on marketing alone to $2bn, that’s not always enough to gain cut-through.

The story cites a Netflix show called Disjointed, that they promoted via a pop-up weed store in Los Angeles costing $20,000. I would point out two things from that. Yes, it will have created some local buzz (pardon the pun), but that doesn’t particularly do anything much for viewers outside of the Los Angeles area. Secondly, the marketing had zero impact outside the US. I like to think I pay reasonably close attention to the television landscape, and have never heard of this show, even though it had a big star in Kathy Bates! That $20,000 might have been better spent on regular advertising.

It’s also worth noting that the story compares Netflix’s $2bn spend with CBS’s $246m. The difference, though, is that the former is spending across the globe, while the latter is mostly spent in the US.

Netflix today has dozens of original films and series that I simply know nothing about. Unless I’m willing to watch a trailer to learn what a title I’ve never heard of is about, then they are heavily reliant on traditional routes to media. That could be sending stars onto the promo circuit, or just word of mouth. But as the volume of production intensifies, things are much more likely to get lost.

Even a couple of years ago, a die hard Netflix viewer would probably have been able to name most of their big dramas. Today, I no longer think that’s possible – assuming you’re not an industry exec with a professional interest.

“The most common complaint I hear from fellow Netflix showrunners is that they would make a great show, and no one would know that it was on,” said a creator whose show is currently being produced by Netflix.

I don’t know what the answer to Netflix’s problem is, with their vast number of productions, from all over the world, fighting to break through. But I do think some British networks need to probably invest more in off-network promotion.