By Stefan Birrer, PhD & CEO, Phenix
Viewers are tired of being delivered less-than-stellar ‘live’ streams of their favorite content. As we’ve seen over the past few years, viewers are looking for creative and alternative ways to watch an array of live events on the go and outside of traditional cable packages. This has opened the door for all types of content providers – nontraditional alternatives to broadcast – to enter the industry and try to engage consumers with inventive new methods of viewing.
Facebook’s live stream of MLB games is the latest example of such a venture. This March, Facebook announced they would live stream 25 MLB games – one game per week – on its MLB Live page. The streams are offered for free to anyone with a Facebook account. In theory, this seems like a great method to distribute games to a global audience that consists of over one-billion users on the platform. Things quickly took a negative turn however, once fans actually got a look at the first streamed game.
The games have faced intense scrutiny from fans, but not because the stream was riddled with delays and crashes – plenty of sports streams have been criticized in the past due to these same issues. From the Mayweather-McGregor fight to the Super Bowl, latency and buffering are the most widespread problems in the live streaming space. What we saw from the Facebook backlash was something relatively new: the issue was the presentation of the broadcast that displeased fans (clunky graphics, wasted screen space and nonsensical closed captions).
The challenge streaming providers are currently facing is delivering high-quality streams that are pleasing to view. Fans are constantly disappointed from live streams, which means there’s an opportunity to improve. Until these changes are made, Facebook and many other live streaming content providers will continue to miss the mark and lose out on building a repeat, loyal base of viewers.
Delays Stunt Growth
In order to increase viewers, content providers and platforms need to address the most fundamental issues that are holding back the live streaming industry. For example, “Live” isn’t actually live. Most live streams are delayed from a few seconds up to a minute long in most cases. If live is delayed, then live is too late. Streaming providers need to be committed to delivering streams in real-time, meaning sub-second latency that parallels the action on the field. In addition, users expect the quality of the stream to be as good as what they see on television, but many providers today are having difficulty delivering a high-quality stream because their technology is not up to par.
These issues (delays, buffering, picture quality and crashes) are so widespread that fans anticipate running into them when watching a live stream. Recent research found that these problems impact viewers’ willingness to watch and invest in live streaming platforms, especially in the sports space. Specifically, 63 percent of fans are reluctant to sign up or re-subscribe to sports live streaming platforms in 2018. The study also found that 34 percent of sports fans would consider cancelling a service that was giving them issues. These findings point out the frustration of fans and demonstrates that latency and quality have a measurable impact on whether viewers tune into live streams. If Facebook’s MLB games were also broadcast on TV simultaneously, the backlash against the live streams would have been much worse.
Visuals Present Problems
As we saw with the backlash Facebook received about its MLB games, presenting a visually-appealing live stream is crucial. Another study found that 42 percent of U.S. adults are only willing to spend between $1-$20 per month on streaming subscriptions. If fans aren’t willing to put up with Facebook’s disorganized MLB presentation when it’s free, they certainly won’t be willing to pay to view similarly-clunky streams.
The platform war is on. Streaming providers are competing for viewers, and when consumers are only willing to spend a limited amount, only the highest-quality presentations delivering the greatest user experience will stand a chance of survival in the long term. Fans are clamoring for the Facebook MLB games to be put back on television – a quick look at the games’ chat section reveals that – because they expect broadcast TV to deliver the highest quality presentations available. When live streaming providers are up against broadcast TV quality, it’s necessary for the streams to be seamless both in quality and presentation.
Facebook’s venture into MLB streaming has shown us how fans will react to unappealing presentations. Content providers need to realize that the only way to get fans to latch onto their live streams is through engaging presentations that are so smooth, it makes fans feel like they’re in the stadium. Until these two components are offered together, we will not see the true potential that live streamed content can offer.