Last Thursday night felt like a milestone moment to me in the continued mainstreaming of online video viewing. At 9pm, I turned on my 46-inch Insignia HDTV, toggled to input 3, grabbed my Fire TV remote control, scrolled to the app section, downloaded the Twitter app and began watching the Jets play the Bills over my 100 mbps Comcast broadband connection in pristine quality. Just like that I was watching an NFL game outside the traditional TV ecosystem.
The whole process took just a few minutes and likely could have been accomplished by the least tech-savvy among us. On the surface it might seem like a relatively trivial undertaking, but in reality, the experience reflected the significant technology and consumer behavioral advancements that have taken place in just the past 10 years or so. Every one of these advancements was critical in enabling the Twitter broadcast. And every one of them is also causing the seismic changes roiling the broader TV industry.
1. Robust wired and wireless broadband - Without robust broadband infrastructure, there would be no skyrocketing use of online video. Period. As I’ve said countless times over the years, the billions of dollars invested by broadband ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Charter, etc. are the key underlying ingredient to both online video and the Internet in general. My Comcast 100 mbps connection allows multiple family members to simultaneously stream to separate devices without any hiccups, all via WiFi.
2. Delivery - Behind last-mile wired and wireless home broadband are the Internet’s backbone networks and content delivery networks that have been continually updated so that fast-action sports and other live events can be reliably delivered. As we just witnessed with the Olympics, CDNs like Akamai and others have invested heavily such that video quality and reliability are basically on a par with broadcast.
3. Connected TV devices - It may be hard to believe, but less than 10 years ago, when Netflix launched its streaming feature, Watch Instantly, viewing was only possible on Windows PCs. Flash forward to today and there are dozens of devices that allow video viewing, including the pivotal connected TV devices like Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Throw in game consoles, TiVos and smart TVs and the choices are bewildering. With at least 65% of U.S. homes now having 1 or more TVs connected to the Internet, watching online video on the big TV has gone completely mainstream.
4. Apps - Not that long ago the intersection of TVs and the Internet was hobbled by the prospect of running browsers on set-top boxes, as we do on our computers. For a whole variety of reasons this was technically and pragmatically challenging. But apps running on connected TV devices have entirely solved this dilemma. The concept of an “app” was only popularized by Apple in July, 2008 as an iTunes update to support the iPhone. But less than 10 years later, apps are now becoming a standard way for content providers to easily deliver their video and other features to mainstream users.
Broadband, delivery, devices and apps - to me these are the 4 big enablers of both the Twitter TNF broadcast last Thursday night, and the millions of hours of online video that are now watched each week on TVs. None of this is trivial and if any one of these pieces was not in place the prospect of viably watching TNF on Twitter would not be realistic. And again, all of this has really only come together in the past 10 years or so.
When Twitter first won the rights to the 10 TNF games last April, I was skeptical about whether it was really a game-changer for the social media company that is aggressively trying to remake itself through online video. Watching last Thursday’s game on Twitter on my TV didn’t change my mind much. There was little Twitter branding, no capitalizing on Twitter’s core interactivity, and no big new revenue streams apparent. Word has it Twitter’s main goal for the first TNF was just delivering the game reliably and in high quality. Accomplishing that may lead Twitter to do more interesting things over the 9 remaining games this season.
Regardless of how TNF turns out for Twitter, the momentum behind the 4 enablers will only grow: broadband and delivery systems will continue getting better, more homes will have connected TV devices and app usage will expand. The Jets-Bills game on Twitter drew an average of 243K viewers who watched for an average of 22 minutes. That was dwarfed by the 15.3 million who watched on CBS and the NFL Network, but Twitter did get 2.3 million people to tune in for at least 3 seconds, exposing many people to the future possibilities.
Regardless of audience size, it felt like a milestone event, portending that the biggest changes to TV and sports are still ahead.