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BUFFERING

Welcome to the rickety, fickle, barely reliable future of television

  • Zachary M. Seward
By Zachary M. Seward

Chief executive officer

This article is more than 2 years old.

The dream of live television delivered over the internet has finally been realized. Now it’s time for the nightmares.

Customers of Sling TV, the new streaming service from Dish Network that offers a handful of coveted cable channels in the United States at a competitive price, reported serious problems watching the semifinals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on TBS.

Sling TV apologized and blamed the issues on “extreme sign-ups and streaming.” The service said not all of its customers were affected.

The breakdown was reminiscent of other recent streaming fails during major American cultural events: Aereo’s Golden Globes, ABC.com’s Oscars, and HBO Go’s True Detective finale. All buckled under the weight of excessive demand.

The irony is that these events are precisely why people who have otherwise abandoned traditional television maintain any interest in paying for live broadcasts over the internet. Shows like awards ceremonies and major sporting events can’t easily be replaced by on-demand services such as Netflix. That dynamic is the premise behind services like Sling TV, which costs $20 a month for a package of channels that includes the popular sports network ESPN.

Apple and HBO are trying to outsource the problem.

It’s also likely to generate enthusiasm for the live television service that Apple is expected to launch this year (paywall). But cognizant of the engineering challenges posed by internet TV, Apple has reportedly asked programmers to provide their own streams. Similarly, HBO has outsourced its forthcoming streaming service, HBO Now, to MLB Advanced Media, which is widely regarded as the leader in providing such technology.

Streaming high-definition video to millions of people at the same time is a complex challenge, particularly in the US, where broadband internet infrastructure is behind other developed economies. Depending on the circumstances, the problems can lie with streaming providers, content delivery networks, or internet service providers.

But customers are unlikely to sympathize with the challenges or apportion blame discriminately when their streams start to buffer with a minute left in a tight game. They will get mad at whatever company they are paying to watch the show, whether it’s Sling TV, Apple, or an individual programmer. Those that can avoid such issues may be rewarded.

About 100,000 people signed up for Sling TV in its first month. It’s not clear how many have subscribed since then, but the service had aggressively marketed itself as a convenient way to watch portions of March Madness, including the semifinals. One of those games, Wisconsin’s surprising upset of Kentucky, generated the highest ratings for the tournament in 22 years across all forms of television. Programmers striking deals with Sling TV have reportedly limited the number of subscribers it can sign up to two million in the US.

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