By Phillip Swann
The TV Answer Man –@tvanswerman

TV Answer Man, I have a question. Will the Sunday Ticket games on YouTube be delayed like live sports usually is on streaming? That could be a problem if you are gambling on the game or just chatting on social media. You will be behind everyone else. What’s the deal here? — John, North Beach, Maryland. 

John, I’ve written here (frequently) about the conveniences and difficulties of watching live sports via streaming. And one of the great frustrations is that the live stream is often anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds behind the real time action.

Why is this?

There are two kinds of streaming: Live and On Demand. Netflix, for instance, is an on-demand service. That means its programming is loaded onto servers and distributed over the Internet to our homes.

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We choose the on-demand shows we want to watch, and they are usually delivered without any technical snafus because they have previously been stored on those servers. This gives the on-demand services time to ensure the distribution will be done with relatively few flaws.

However, live streaming from services such as Paramount+, DIRECTV Stream, Sling TV and now YouTube and YouTube for the NFL Sunday Ticket can not be pre-loaded because the signals from the live channels are distributed in near real-time. Consequently, the live stream sometimes encounters technical issues during the transmission.

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The live streamers try to minimize this issue by distributing the signals after a short delay, usually from 30 to 60 seconds. This gives them some time to reduce possible glitches in the stream which can cause buffering or picture freezing.

Super Bowl Delays
The streaming delay was particularly noticeable during last February’s Super Bowl game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, Phenix, a company which sells technology designed to shorten streaming delays, issued a press release to highlight the problem. The company’s survey of Super Bowl streamers found that:

FuboTV’s stream was 76.73 seconds behind the real time action;
Hulu Live was 69.8 seconds behind;
NFL Plus was 60.70 seconds behind;
DIRECTV Stream was 57.13 seconds behind;
And YouTube TV was 54.14 seconds behind.

Note that last line. YouTube TV, the new home of the NFL Sunday Ticket, was 54.14 seconds behind the real time action. John, as you note, if you’re gambling on the game, that could drive you crazy. If you’re conversing with your followers on Twitter, that also could drive you crazy.

With YouTube charging premium prices for the Sunday Ticket, a delay of that length could be unacceptable for many fans.

The good news is that Google, the owner of the two YouTube service, is aware of the problem and is looking for solutions. In an e-mail to Pro Football Talk, the company yesterday said:

“The YouTube TV team is working on building a high-quality Sunday Ticket experience. Overall, YouTube TV is built on the infrastructure that powers YouTube and reliably serves billions of playback every day. Users can check their Live Latency in ‘Stats For Nerds’ directly in the YouTube TV app. We’re always working to find the right tradeoff between latency, buffering and quality.”

The bad news is that the statement reflects that the solution has yet to be found. The live streaming industry is hopeful that the technology will improve and ultimately eliminate this issue.  But as of now, live streaming is still prone to technical hiccups and therefore requires a delay.

The Fox Lesson
Phenix also said the Fox apps on Super Bowl Sunday were only 23.76 seconds behind. That’s an impressive number considering that live streaming is often 30-60 seconds behind, if not more.

Why was Fox so much better in reducing the delay? Two reasons.

1. The Fox apps were national feeds.
The live streaming services such as YouTube TV and FuboTV streamed the local Fox affiliate feeds; they don’t have access to the national feed. There are more steps involved in transmitting a signal from the national Fox control center to the affiliate and then to the streaming audience via the live streaming service. And therefore, more time is required to transmit it. In addition, as is the case with all live streaming, ‘buffer time’ is added to ensure that any transmission glitches can be removed before the stream is sent to the home.

In contrast, the Fox app feeds came directly from the Fox control center, removing several steps in the transmission process and reducing the real time delay.

YouTube and YouTube TV are not expected to have the same national feeds for the Sunday Ticket.

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2. Fox invested heavily in reducing delays for the Super Bowl
Aware of the growing viewer concern over streaming delays, the network spent considerable time in the back shop to improve the quality and timeliness of the national feed. Paul Cheesbrough, Fox’s chief technology officer, commented on Fox’s effort yesterday on Twitter after the streaming delay numbers were floated online. (Note: Latency is industry jargon for streaming delays.)

“A lot of work went into massively scaling the streams, outstanding 4K quality and super low latency – not easy to do these 3 things together! Great to see these numbers,” he tweeted.

As more big-time sports head to streaming, the industry knows that it must improve the streaming experience if it wants to maintain current viewership. Fox showed on Sunday that improvements are possible.

John, hope that helps. Happy viewing and stay safe!

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— Phillip Swann