Netflix and Live Streaming

Netflix and Live Streaming

Over the past couple of months, Netflix has dipped its foot into the world of live streaming.

Back in March, they broadcast a Chris Rock comedy special live. I can’t think of a real reason for making it available live, aside from building up some audience excitement. But I’ve no doubt it was a useful experiment for Netflix in the future. They have certainly been rumoured to have been interested in live sports rights, and while nothing has come to fruition so far, the ability to stream live is going to be key.

The Chris Rock special seemed to pass without much issue. Which then takes us to a live Love Is Blind reunion special last weekend. The popular reality show was also scheduled to broadcast live, but Netflix ended up with lots of egg on its face after delays meant that it eventually had to pre-record the entire show and release it the following day.

As reported in Joe Adalion’s Buffering column:

…[A] bug related to some new tech the company was using to try to improve upon the livestream performance of its earlier live Chris Rock special (the one which went smoothly). “We just didn’t see this bug in internal testing,” [Netflix co-CEO Greg] Peters confessed, adding that the glitch in the software didn’t become apparent until after it was scaled up on Sunday night.

And it’s obvious that they are scaling up.

That Chris Rock special aired at 10pm Eastern Time in the US, which was 3am in the UK, and 4am in most of Western Europe. By the time you get to Asia, you’re into early morning and so on.

That timing, whilst appropriate for US-centric comedian, doesn’t feel accidental if you’re not trying to have your entire service globally fall over.

The Love Is Blind special was set to air a little earlier, at 8pm Eastern Time on a Sunday evening. But that was still 1am UK time. That’s a Monday morning. Again, that almost guarantees that the majority of the demand will be limited to those in US time-zones.

It’s important to remember that live is very different from Netflix’s usual model. The reason that their servers don’t fall over when they release new episodes of Stranger Things globally is because they’ve encoded the episodes in advance and distributed the encoded files to their network of servers globally in advance as well. Netflix works with ISPs across the globe to ensure that when you want to watch a show on their service, there’s a local copy cached relatively nearby. Furthermore, they encode each show in about 15-20 different encoded formats to ensure that everyone from those on the highest speed fibre seeking the 4K HDR version can get it just as easily as those on a flaky 3G cellular signal. They’ll obviously deliver the latter a much lighter and lower quality encode, but there’s minimal buffering that way.

With live, you can’t do all that pre-encoding.

I’ve no doubt Netflix will keep trying with live events to make sure that their systems work. At least they will if they have any wish to bid for live sports rights down the line, because they will need to have this working properly to deliver those.

I know that when Amazon bought their Premier League rights, they spent a lot of money upgrading a lot of UK streaming infrastructure to minimise any problems they might have. Amazon’s UK Premier League rights and their US NFL rights mean that they’ve probably got live streaming sorted. Disney has done a bit with things like Dancing with the Stars in the US, and of course have ESPN experience too. This is a whole new world for Netflix however.