Is ‘Broadcast Quality’ the End Game for OTT Video?

Over-the top (OTT)–or Internet–video is currently in a transition. What was an innovative novelty for most viewers and video providers/operators is quickly becoming THE business. Arguably one of the greatest challenges in this transition from childhood to adolescence is improving the consistency of the viewing experience, with current industry concerns around subscriber churn driving much of that conversation. However, this evolutionary challenge is not unique to the OTT industry, and we can learn from the lessons of the past.

Let’s take a moment to consider the product lifecycle in general. At the beginning of a product’s or industry’s life, the focus is on functionality and market viability. It’s all about innovation and market validation–identifying the critical characteristics that appeal to a sufficient number of customers.

At this point the product either flies or flops. If it manages to find the right market and necessary traction, the market grows nicely for a while. However, as the market grows, scaling issues and additional complexities can have adverse impacts on quality, resulting in increasing customer complaints. If the quality issues are not addressed, and customer expectations are not met, the market potential will be reduced, and consumers will seek competitive alternatives for their time and money.

In most cases, the initial response to the quality problem is a final inspection by a “quality assurance” team, which may help for a while. However, simply weeding out the bad items at the consumption level can be very inefficient, and depending on the product, may be ineffective. Eventually, as complex competitive industries mature, they place the necessary attention on establishing quality indicators and metrics throughout the development cycle and production pipeline. Quality becomes part of everything they do.

History offers many examples of the product lifecycle in action. Consider the automobile industry. The automotive innovators were focused on new features, style, power, and a variety of other car “options.” But continuous quality improvement was arguably not a primary focus, opening the door for Japanese automakers who were laser-focused on quality improvement. William Deming, an American engineer, recognized this, and was instrumental in sounding the quality wake-up call for the U.S. auto industry. As a result, automobile quality has improved immensely since the 1970s.

The software industry is another good example. Early software was bug-prone, but that was tolerated by the early adopters because the PC was such a powerful, novel innovation. But once the personal computer gained mass popularity, the industry adopted development standards, processes and tools to measure and infuse quality throughout the development process.

As a third example, consider the traditional television broadcast network, which was built around delivering content over a purpose-built network to a single device type. Compared to the complexities of OTT’s unmanaged networks, number of formats and devices, and multivendor distribution ecosystem, the traditional broadcast quality challenge was far simpler. Yet even with that relative simplicity, quality measurement/monitoring systems and standards were developed by the industry to simplify quality management.

This all brings us to today’s OTT quality challenge. There are a variety of analytics tools that take the “final inspection” approach, measuring the playback quality on the user device. Unfortunately, this approach merely identifies the defect at the same time the customer experiences it! The poor quality gets to the customer, and the best we can do with this “reactive” tool is identify apology opportunities. And some in the industry are bypassing even this basic level of monitoring, relying on social media to get their quality metrics!

It is time for the OTT industry to leave childhood behind;
• time for the participants to collaborate on identifying well-defined real-time quality metrics at clear hand-off points between the multiple elements–and vendors–in the distribution pipeline;
• time to move beyond seeking blame for the latest streaming failure, and worrying about how social media will blow up;
• time to focus on preventing the issues in a collaborative manner, BEFORE they occur;
• time for real quality-focused service level agreements, and open access to real-time, end-to-end metrics for the content/service providers who own the customer relationship and pay for the services.
This will require collaboration between the many vendors who have a vested interest in building this industry to meet and even exceed the “broadcast quality” standard that our viewers expect.

As history has taught us, quality is not an end game. It is a continuous end-to-end game; and for OTT, the true industry leaders cannot afford to sit it out.

Kurt Michel is senior marketing director of video analytics company IneoQuest. He has over 30 years’ experience in telecom, datacom, and networking, in development, sales, product management and marketing roles. His prior experience as Akamai’s media global product marketing director provided a solid perspective on the OTT industry and its need for more robust analytics solutions.

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