News Analysis
Last week, I was watching a Kansas City Royals-Cleveland Indians game on MLB.TV when suddenly the stream began buffering in the fourth inning. Until then, everything was fine. I was even remarking to myself how clear the image was. But for roughly 20 minutes, the picture would stop and start, ruining an enjoyable evening.

After a few innings of this inconvenience, the stream magically returned to normal and stayed that way for the rest of the game.

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Now you might be saying that the technical snafus were triggered by a faulty Internet connection on my end. But my Comcast Internet plan delivers speeds of more than 100 mbps, and I even tested my connection during the height of the buffering problem. It was registering at more than 100 mbps. The MLB.TV stream should not have been interrupted.

But it was, which is not uncommon with a live stream, particularly during an event that will be watched by a relatively large number of people. There are very few live streams of a multiple-hour show or game that are not marred by at least one or two short technical blips. And sometimes, the entire event is unwatchable because of various issues that last from beginning to end, such as login issues, system outages and other technical gremlins.

By now, anyone who watches live streaming on a regular basis knows that it’s not ready for primetime. Unlike Netflix, Hulu or another subscription Video on Demand streaming service that is able to upload its stream so you rarely feel the technical pothole when it comes up, live streaming is, well, live. If a technical problem occurs in the delivery of the stream, it will likely show up on your screen. The live streaming service doesn’t have time to correct the issue before you experience it.

Live streamers try their best to handle this problem by delaying the action as long as possible. That’s why you may notice that a live stream of a game may be one to two minutes behind the real-time action. The streamer tries to build in time to correct any technical issues before they reach the home.

But it’s often not enough to prevent any errors, although you would certainly see a lot more if they did not delay the stream.

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So here we are with live streaming, an increasingly popular but still technically inept way to deliver video.

And what’s wrong with that sentence?

Why is live streaming increasingly popular? Why are so many people subscribing to live streaming services when we know that their picture will frequently have issues?

To be accurate, the number of subscribers do not reflect a large movement of people shifting to streaming; based on various analyst estimates, the number of subscribers to ‘cable-like’ streaming services such as DIRECTV Now and Sling TV is less than five million in the United States. And other live streamers such as MLB.TV, NBA.TV, DIRECTV’s Sunday Ticket stream, HBO Now, Showtime, etc. are likely collectively generating fewer than 10 million subs.

But that’s still a relatively large number of people paying for a service that has to be deemed technically inferior, and consequently, frequently frustrating.


Why do we do it?

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I ask myself that question every day when I see the hundreds of streaming complaints on social media sites as Twitter and Reddit. People are so angry about their picture going awry every night that it’s unfathomable that they continue to subscribe.

But they do, or at least, they say they do.

Are they hoping that, somehow, the technology will suddenly transform, delivering a consistently reliable picture the next night, and the night after that?

Well, even streaming’s most ardent advocates acknowledge that 5G, and other emerging Internet technologies that could improve things, are a few years away of having any real impact.

So what you see is what you get. For now, at least.

So why do we subscribe? Pay good money for bad product?

Based on user comments, my only explanation comes in two parts.

1. The media has done a poor job of informing people of the ups and downs of live streaming so many are subscribing without knowing what they are getting into.

Why the media isn’t doing a better job is subject to interpretation, but it says here that many journalists are striving for more page views because live streaming is a hot topic, particularly with millennials who are more likely to reach online articles. Their page views will decline if their stories cast a negative spin on live streaming. Ergo, journalists, particularly online journalists, are usually very upbeat about the technology.

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2. The pay TV operators may offer a reliable picture and a more varied lineup. But they have raised prices so many times, and delivered poor customer service so many times, that people are so fed up that they will try any alternative, even a technically frustrating one.

Seriously, the idea of spending just $35-50 a month for TV — and not paying for those infuriating fees such as broadcast fees and regional sports channel fees — is very powerful. Plus, you can cancel anytime you want, unlike your arrangement with a cable or satellite operator which sometimes feel like you’re seeking parole when you try to cancel.

I suspect many of the most frustrated subscribers to live streaming services are not ready to go back to pay TV because they still have scars from their experience as pay TV customers.

So that’s why people keep paying for an inferior service, and will likely continue to do so. It’s not a good situation for anyone, but it’s the television we have today.


— Phillip Swann