Super Bowl 50 wasn’t just a golden milestone in the traditional TV sense—the live stream of the Denver Broncos’ big win also shattered previous records.
Between CBS and NFL digital outlets, the live stream of the Feb. 7 game racked up 3.96 million unique viewers across a host of devices, with viewers consuming more than 402 million units of coverage (an average of 101 minutes per viewer). The results flew past the 2.5 million-plus people who checked out NBC’s Super Bowl live stream a year ago (with viewers averaging 84.2 minutes for that live stream).
But while CBS execs certainly savored the outcome, it didn’t come without a lot of headaches on the front end. And others in the streaming video field, while marveling at the numbers, say the industry will face challenges meeting viewers’ rapacious demands. And let’s not forget the expectations of advertisers fretting about latency and connectivity issues compromising their $200,000-per-second messages.
After the game stats were tallied, Jeff Gerttula, senior VP/GM of CBS Sports Digital, agreed to give Next TV insights into the planning and execution of the stream.
“The biggest challenge was building a stream for as many different platforms as we did, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, where you can do it once for different devices,” he said. “We actually had to invest time and development and testing into each platform independently. All of the devices we streamed on required incremental, independent work, and it was a challenge to focus on as many platforms as we did, develop for it, [do quality assurance], test it, prepare for scale, and let it rip.”
Gerttula continued: “We had high expectations, and we certainly met them, and I think it was interesting because of the unique nature of connecting to all these devices, in addition to desktop and mobile. The sheer size of it, you need to be ready with enough capacity to be able to handle the demand that comes in. And it’s hard to replicate that environment until you’re really in it, so we had to do a lot of testing going in to make sure we were prepared for the audience size.”
CBS was already prepared to deliver the live stream on desktops and tablets via CBSSports.com, but it had to also prepare for delivery via its CBS Sports app for the Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, Google’s Chromecast, and Roku TV players and Roku TV models. NFL Mobile from Verizon and the NFL on Xbox also carried the stream. And if there was one thing that surprised CBS, Gerttula said, it was how many people accessed the live stream on over-the-top devices.
“That was probably the one trend that surprised us,” he said. “Overall we came in thinking it was going to be a large audience, since we’ve seen increasing in demand for these live streams across multiple platforms, and it certainly delivered.”
Still, the nearly 4 million people tuning into the CBS live stream was a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 112 million who tuned in to the TV broadcast. Nielsen data showed that about 72% of U.S. TV homes tuned into the broadcast (marking the highest household share for the Super Bowl since 1982), with an average of 54.3 million homes.
Gerttula said that won’t change any time soon: TV will remain the dominant platform for huge sporting events like the Super Bowl for the foreseeable future. All CBS and others can do is be prepared, and be on as many platforms as possible, he added.
LATENCY STILL AN ISSUE
One of the issues that still needs to be addressed when it comes to live streaming sporting events like the Super Bowl is latency.
“[Latency] is dependent on the platform, where you are, the congestion in your neighborhood, so different people will experience different degrees of latency… we got it as reduced as we could, and we’ll continue to strive to make it even faster,” Gerttula said, saying that on average the live stream was about 30 seconds behind of the broadcast, depending on the platform and device. “Latency is just part of the nature of distributing these events, but we take a lot of time making sure that the difference between television and the digital streams was as low as possible. We spent a lot of time there.”
Jon Alexander, senior director of product management at content delivery network Level 3 Communications, said the streaming technologies used to handle live sporting events help avoid buffering or delays in playback. (One of the most prevalent is Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming, or HLS, an adaptive format that will shift to a lower bit rate if it starts to encounter bandwidth constraints.) Regardless, latency is simply a reality that both networks and the consumers streaming live sporting events will have to deal with for the time being, he said.
“Latency is one of the biggest factors limiting the amount of throughput you’re able to achieve, just by the nature of the way the protocols are architected,” Alexander said.
John Bishop, CTO of media for content delivery network Akamai Technologies (which has helped various rights holders for every Super Bowl that’s been live-streamed, going back to the first one by NBC in 2012), said that—latency aside—the incremental streaming numbers for the Super Bowl can’t be ignored. “Figures that the respective rights holders in the U.S. have published show well over 100% growth in a number of key streaming metrics, including average viewers per minute, engagement time and total minutes streamed,” he said.
He added that the companies behind live sports streaming are increasingly asking for help in delivering not just better looking video, but also faster load times and no re-buffering. “We’re really getting to the point where the online experience has to at least meet if not exceed that to which we’ve become accustomed with broadcast,” he said. “And that’s the type of thinking we’ve applied as we prepare for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio, which trends indicate should set a whole new set of viewing records.”
MILLENNIAL AND MOBILE FACTORS
If recent data from Adobe is any indication, networks live-streaming the Super Bowl and other major sporting events will need to be especially mindful of how millennials are watching.
Shortly before Super Bowl 50, Adobe Digital Index (ADI) released findings based on a survey of American consumers who viewed a live sporting event in the last year, and found that millennials were planning to view at least part of the Super Bowl on smartphones or tablets, at a rate 3.5 times higher than people aged 35 and up. In general, Adobe found that more than a third of consumers were watching live sports on platforms other than television sets, and that 35% of millennials said they would watch the Super Bowl on a connected TV. A quarter said they would download an app to watch a live stream. “It’ll be interesting to see what the future will look like as millennials and generation Z become the majority of the consumer base,” Tamara Gaffney, principal analyst at ADI, wrote in a blog post. “What will Super Bowl look like 15 years from now? Digital channels will definitely take over.”
Gaffney noted that CBS, for the first time, sold its advertising time for the Super Bowl (with a 30-second spot running at $5 million) with the understanding that the ads would both air on the traditional broadcast, and stream online simultaneously. That’s a nod to how prevalent OTT and mobile has become, she said, and CBS’ Gerttula agreed.
“It’s the right answer,” he said. “Commercials are such a part of the Super Bowl viewing experience on television, not offering that on digital doesn’t present the true Super Bowl experience. Fans were very excited that we did that, experience the full Super Bowl, not just the game, wherever they were.”