Routinely Streaming Large-Scale Live Events Is Too Costly To Happen Anytime Soon, Comcast Exec Says

Love Island
'Love Island' ITV/REX/Shutterstock

One of the most bruited-about concepts in the media business is whether — or when — major live telecasts will move entirely online and leave linear television behind.

That paradigm shift won’t happen anytime soon, a senior Comcast executive predicted Tuesday, even though the technical solutions exist to make it so. The biggest obstacle is money.

Routine streams of large-scale live events is a “fundamental challenge” that will “maybe never be solved,” said Bart Spriester, GM and VP Content and Streaming Provider Solutions for Comcast Technology Solutions. “It’s not a huge technology problem,” he said. “It’s a cost problem.”

After a “hugely successful broadcast,” he continued, “everybody in the television business and the media business high-fives each other because you know you have great ratings. When you have a hugely successful streaming event, everyone’s exceptionally nervous because the infrastructure has to scale with the event. … The next thing they do when they come in the office the next day is they try to look at their [content delivery network] bill because the CDN bill also scales with the number of subscribers.”

Spriester, who joined Comcast in 2018 after stints at Cisco Systems and Encompass Digital Media, did not weigh in as he did because of his employer’s stake in the legacy TV ground through cable systems and NBCUniversal. In his role at Comcast, he oversees sales, service and product management for the tech unit, working with hundreds of media and tech companies around the world.

The virtual conversation, “Streaming in the 2020s – An Industry Comes of Age,” was convened by research firm Parks Associates. It also featured Tom Griffiths, director of technology for ITV, and Jon Watts, senior adviser for the consultancy MTM. The conversation followed the launch of HBO Max, the last of five billion-dollar streaming offerings to hit the market since November, joining Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock and Quibi.

Love Island, a signature ITV show, “has broadcast-level streaming numbers associated with it. The expectations of reliability and quality of that service are just as high as they are for broadcast,” Griffiths said. That scrutiny means that as an organization ITV has to “bring together the best of both worlds” in an “intentional” way, he said.

Watts said his extensive surveys of media companies ramping up streaming operation shows that harmonizing as a company is not always their strong suit. “Huge progress has been made,” he said, particularly when there is a high-profile live event in which an entire company is invested. “But there’s a kind of cultural parallelism.”

Ten years ago, at the dawn of the streaming age, tech and TV workforces were much more separate, even when they shared a corporate parent. Spriester wryly but sincerely noted that such a division made sense at that point, given that pay-TV was still growing and the threat of newer players like Netflix was not yet apparent.

“Streaming 10 years ago was perfect,” he said. “The investment in the infrastructure matched the monetization models. The monetization models were terrible, and the investments were quite low. Therefore, it was kind of Wild, Wild West. It was a hobby. It wasn’t a mainline business. The streaming departments were in the basement or off in a separate building or a totally separate group. It matched the business model at the time.”

As the streaming boom continues, Griffiths said, the experience of watching internet-delivered programming will only become more satisfying. “By 2025, the quality of the experience of [internet-based] services is likely to outstrip broadcast,” he said. “As the capability of the internet continues to grow in terms of its capacity to carry content, I think there will be a tipping point … Even today we have some instances” of that.

Technology is an ongoing challenge, but business models are a whole different conundrum as many traditional companies explore areas where they have comparatively little expertise over their long histories.

“We’re going to see a mixed economy” of subscription, free/ad-supported and hybrid models in the coming years, with “a lot of interesting complexities,” Watts said. “If I’m launching a major primetime drama, do I put episodes behind the pay wall after a week? Do I put the whole box set on AVOD for six months and then put it behind the pay wall?”

Advertising, the panelists agreed, represents the biggest opportunity — particularly the potency of being able to target viewers more precisely as live, linear viewing continues to decline.

“We still today have an ad market where broadcast and streaming inventories are sold side by side and not in a really integrated way,” Watts said. For advertisers looking to understand reach and effectiveness across broadcast, digital and streaming platforms, “all of which can be viewed on the same device in the same household, it’s still surprisingly complicated.”

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