Letter from America: Streaming - Enough of the How, Now, What and Why!

By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. In my past few Letters I have talked quite a bit about the 'how' and 'how to' of streaming content, with an emphasis on the various devices and technologies in the market that may be used to access one service or another. This month I will finish up the series of Letters with some tales of the content services themselves. After all, if a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, did it fall? If a device is capable of receiving content but there is nothing to watch, what value is the device? Put another way, what good is the best mobile phone on the market when there is no cellular or Wi-Fi service? There is still a need for physical media, but.. There will always be a place for physical media, if for no other reason than for those who have legacy material. It might be an old LP or that Beta tape of Junior's first pee-wee football match, or that priceless elementary school pageant with a child or grandchild in full costume, or the VHS of a wedding. Regardless, unless and until every last piece of archival family content is converted into a new digital format, you need to provide something to play those memories back on. And yes, there is renewed interest in vinyl, and yes, CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs are still being pressed. Vinyl perhaps for the nostalgia factor, and optical media as a video or high-resolution audio content carrier in order to compensate for the bandwidth limitations of streamed content, particularly when it comes to 4K and eventually 8K. [caption id="attachment_5644" align="aligncenter" width="368"] The Audio Technica AT-LP60 USB offers the best of both worlds: vinyl playback and transfer to digital media files.[/caption] That all said, the reason why we have been paying so much attention to streaming media devices recently is that no matter what arguments might be proffered to the contrary, we have to face the fact that they are gaining dominance and have to be dealt with. Prepare your clients for streaming If, occasionally, you run into a client or prospect who is a physical media die-hard, I offer some thoughts this month to prove the coming pervasiveness of streaming delivery as the clear direction in which things are going. Hopefully, they will be of use to you somewhere along the line. Case #1: 'I don't feel like going out to the cinema tonight. Let's rustle something up or get a take-away and rent a movie.' I suspect that is a common experience, no matter where you are located, and it is a frequent case in our house. In days gone by, that would have required a trip to the video rental shop; in our case here in the US, that would typically be Blockbuster, with a local independent shop as the fall back. Remember prowling the shelves to see if there were copies of the new release you wanted to see? Early on, I tried streaming with first-generation set tops and services, but in the days of limited bandwidth and content delivery network (CDN) issues, I often ended up with the dreaded 'BUFFERING' message just as the movie was reaching its climax. It soured me, as I suspect it did other early adopters. Things, however, have changed. First and most importantly, many, if not all, of the local video stores have disappeared. Blockbuster, by far the largest of the video store chains, is to all intents and purposes, gone. Few have the desire to risk opening a store renting 'movies and games' in a streaming world, although even as our local Blockbuster closed, we were amazed to see a new rental store open in our neighbourhood. An exception, to be sure. [caption id="attachment_5639" align="aligncenter" width="600"] As is the case virtually everywhere, my local Blockbuster Video is closed… REALLY CLOSED.[/caption] Thus, if it is a 'stay in' night, like it or not, it is quickly becoming a case of streaming or nothing, and people need to get used to it. Besides, in most cases, improvements in delivery bandwidth, CDN and in-home networking have all but eliminated the buffering bugaboo. Yes, the quality of the video may notch down if the bandwidth chokes, but rarely does it totally freeze anymore. [caption id="attachment_5638" align="aligncenter" width="454"] Despite Blockbuster having folded, some brave souls have actually opened a new independent video store in our neighbourhood. How will they fare in the on-coming storm of streaming media services?[/caption] Case #2: 'They don't have what I want on the streaming services.' OK, that is sometimes true, but the content availability window for the availability of ANY content is not set by the services, but is a decision made by the content owner or distributor, in other words, 'the studios'. However, even when a particular programme is available on one service, it might not be available on all. Layer onto that the fact that not all services are available on all devices. Finally, as the services themselves begin to produce exclusive content (think Netflix and House of Cards), you need a guide to service availability on a device. Despite the notion of the 'over the top' or 'cord cutting' world making it possible to reduce costs for media and programme consumption, the user still has to pay for the broadband service, and in most cases, the monthly or per-programme fee. However, in our world of bespoke integrated systems, one has to presume that if they can afford the gear you are providing and your costs to design, install and maintain a system, a few pounds, euros or kronas a month should be pocket change. Your challenge here will increasingly be to make certain that any per-bid questionnaire form or interview asks about any specific content or service requirements. Given the nature of some exclusivity agreements, the reality is that you will need one device with Netflix, one to accommodate any other services not on the set top or SmartTV used to bring in Netflix, perhaps something compatible with the Google Play store and local or regional services, and finally, most likely an AppleTV and/or ChromeCast to mirror from iOS devices or Chrome on a laptop. While you are at it, make certain that there is a sufficient number of HDMI inputs to handle all of these widgets and dongles! Persuading the Doubters OK, I will hereby stipulate that for some programme requirements you will still need a player or game console to play back those discs with content held on DVD or Blu-ray where the streaming services have not added it to their libraries yet. You may also have cause to include a CD player for content not yet on the home music server. As noted above, to some extent it will be many years, if ever, before ALL physical media and legacy content goes away. This will convince some, but not all. For that I close this month with an interesting proof of point, if such an argument is needed to close a deal on a streaming-based system for the doubters out there. I suspect that you have heard of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMAPS) - the folks who give out the Oscars each year. The parallel organisation in the US for TV may be less well known - it was the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS), although it is now re-focusing its branding to simply the 'Television Academy'. Its annual awards are the Emmys that are given out in a lavish ceremony each September here in Los Angeles. Thanks to my work at NBC Television some years ago, and continuing to the present with other work and activities, I have been a member of The Academy for many years, and have been a judge for the Emmy awards for some time. The path that process has taken over the years is both interesting and relevant to the move from physical to electronic media. The first part of the award process is the determination of the nominees, and based on the voting of the entire membership, the top vote-getters are then judged by peer group panels to determine the winner. When I first served as an Emmy Judge way back in 1988, things were much different from today. In that Pleistocene era, you had to have actually seen the programme to know about it for nomination purposes, or perhaps have attended a special by-invitation screening. Judging was then at the dawn of the physical media age as the judges assembled for a weekend of screenings of the nominated programmes, as viewed on a rental TV set in a hotel meeting room, with the procurators bringing in the individual nominated shows on 3/4" U-Matic cassettes. We weren’t called “judges”, but rather “Blue Ribbon Panels”. Yes, we got some nice lunches at the Beverly Hilton, but particularly if you were judging five long-form 'Made for TV Movies', you could write that weekend off as the rules require that the judges view each nominated show in its entirety. [caption id="attachment_5642" align="aligncenter" width="476"] Back in the old days Emmy 'Blue Ribbon' panellists got lunch at a swanky hotel and a nice certificate. Today we get DVDs in the mail and an email![/caption] Fast forward a few years and things began to change. With the arrival of video cassettes in the home, the programme suppliers and networks began to send 'For Your Consideration' (FYC) copies of the shows they were pushing for nomination to the membership. It marked a bit of democratisation as there was a greater chance that more people would see the shows, with the downside that shows from the less well-healed producers could not afford the duplication, fancy packaging and postage costs. However, it was a great step forward, and perhaps the only ones who did not like it were the letter carriers. I know that there are a few Television Academy members on my block and I always felt sorry at nomination time, as our friendly postman Neil was weighed down with all of these bulk packages in his letter bag. [caption id="attachment_5640" align="aligncenter" width="220"] Neil, our letter carrier, is happy when he delivers the last batch of 'FYC' discs to the door, as the load in his letter bag is now lighter![/caption] Similarly, some time in the 90s, the judging changed as well, with the advent of in-home judging. The nominated shows were sent out on VHS so you could watch them in your own home; lunches were then on you! Moving with the trend, for after all, this is the Academy of Television Arts and SCIENCES, the VHS cassettes were then replaced by DVDs, as were the programmes provided for judging. Better quality, particularly in the age of HDTV, and Neil had a lighter burden to carry. The funny part is that over the years as VHS moved to DVD, I don't recall more than a few 'FYC' packages with Blu-ray. That is probably due to the added cost of replication, or perhaps the producers didn't think the increased quality would help them garner more votes to be nominated, but the footnote is interesting. To the point of this month's Letter - in the past three nomination cycles, things have begun to change. We still receive a fair number of DVDs (and no Blu-rays), perhaps for the impact made by the often lavish packaging they come in, but the DVDs rarely offer every episode in a series looking to be nominated, so the question is what to do about viewing other episodes? The answer comes from, you guessed it, streaming. Many of the programme suppliers post programmes on the Television Academy FYC site allowing members to stream, but not download them. Some open their own FYC sites with series content. Neil likes this quite a lot, as we now simply get a nice card with the site URL and password, or it comes in an email blast from the Academy. The most recent development is that this year at least one of the networks has a special FYC app that is password-protected, but which makes it even easier to view content on an iOS or Android phone or tablet. Side note: Just as there were few Blu-ray FYC mailings, there are no Android or Windows Phone apps - at least not this year. [caption id="attachment_5643" align="aligncenter" width="600"] NBC takes no chances by giving Academy members a choice of media options: DVDs for the programme episodes that they are promoting for nomination, or both a streaming site and iPad app from which to view them. Sorry, site and app names and access info is removed to prevent unauthorized viewing![/caption] We have to wait until after the nominations are announced in a few weeks to see if streaming will be used for the actual judging process, but I doubt it. On the other hand, the ability of a download service for this might not be a bad idea as it would provide proof that the in-home judges actually did watch each nominated show in its entirety as the rules require. The bottom line in pointing this out is to say that streaming-averse clients might be interested to know that in a quality-critical application such as award nominations, the use of streaming has obviously been judged to be acceptable to the very people who create and distribute content to us. One can think of no better endorsement that that. Indeed, let's open that envelope. The tension is mounting. 'The award goes to..STREAMING! The streamers could not attend our Letter, but we gratefully accept the award on their behalf!' Know what your clients want No award show is complete without the acceptance speech and all the 'thank you' mentions and promotion of a favourite cause. Therefore, I would like to thank my Editor and Publisher, and I would like to thank you for reading through this month's Letter. My cause: Please be sure to find out what the requirements are for the content your clients and prospects view and listen to and provision accordingly. Remind them of the need for both physical and streaming playback and be ready to tell the above tale to allay any concerns over the quality of streaming content. Do that, and the award YOU will hopefully win will be to get the gig! Some award winners have been asked what they were going to do next, and sometimes the answer (paid for, to be sure) is 'We're going to Disneyland!' No, I'm not taking the trip down the I-5 Freeway to do that, instead I'm going to E3 and InfoComm. Look for reports in upcoming Letters. Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid. Comments on this article are welcome. See below.

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