Premium cable network Showtime is being sued for not delivering an adequate viewing experience for those paying to watch the much anticipated boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and UFC champion Conor McGregor.
Held on August 26, the fight was the first top-tier boxing match offered via live streaming on a pay-per-view basis for those without a pay-TV subscription. The fight was won by Mayweather with a technical knockout in the tenth round, after McGregor put up a better fight than most expected. But the real battle may only just be beginning.
The UFC, organizers of the event, and Showtime Networks Inc. , the network broadcasting it, have both received a torrent of complaints claiming poor picture quality, regular buffering delays and stalls despite paying $99.99 to stream the fight. The platform provider was NeuLion Inc. , which was also responsible for streaming coverage of the fight to various other countries, though problems appear to be limited to North America.
Even the start of the fight had to be delayed, with both UFC and Showtime tweeting that they were hearing reports of login issues for users. However, users continued to experience problems even after it started.
Zack Bartel, a user from Portland, Ore., was so unhappy with the experience that he has filed a lawsuit against Showtime. He claims that "instead of being a witness to history" per Showtime's advertising, he just got to see "grainy video, error screens, buffer events, and stalls."
Bartel wants either $200 in statutory damages or "actual damages," and is seeking class-action status on behalf of other Oregon residents. He claims he tested his broadband connection to make sure that wasn't the cause, and was able to receive programming from YouTube and Netflix "in crystal-clear HD, as usual."
In his suit, he claims that Showtime rushed out with the streaming offer chasing the revenue opportunity without investing in adequate resources to support the resulting traffic.
Both UFC and Showtime have apologised for the issues and promised to refund the pay-per-view costs, if they can confirm that person was unable to watch the live stream -- though they haven't stated how they will be determining this.
The fight just underscores the challenges involved with live streaming major events. Broadcasters, leagues and other rights holders are keen to reach younger audiences who are increasingly cutting the cord. However, predicting traffic volumes for such events is increasingly difficult, and the cost of getting it wrong is significant. Not only will the two organizations have to refund a sizeable amount of money, but their brands have taken a pounding within the very same demographics they were trying to reach.
To be fair to Showtime, we don't know what happened or how widespread the problems were. But if Bartel is to be believed, there was no issue with connectivity. So it was to do with the delivery infrastructure, which either suffered a malfunction or was just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of traffic. That's why redundancy and on-demand capacity is critical for live streaming events, because traffic can grow unpredictably and blindingly fast. (See EE's Stagg Warns of Brewing 'Content Storms'.)
As Jeff Webb, principal streaming architect at Sky, said in a previous interview, "You can't have a single point of failure, you have to have redundancy, two of everything. You have to make everything work seamlessly across all the different little pieces of technology … In a sense our goal is to keep trying to close the gap between the more traditional digital satellite world and the very young OTT world." (See Sky's Webb on 'Closing the Gap'.)
It also appears that scalability is only one of the challenges for streaming providers. According to some estimates, three million viewers watched the fight illegally -- even as legitimate viewers like Bartel, who paid $99.99, were unable to. Security company Irdeto identified 239 streams that reached 2,930,598 viewers. Sixty-seven of these were from traditional pirate streaming websites, but the growth of live streaming on social media meant that 165 streams were originating off sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Periscope, Twitch and others, including Kodi. Paying users can simply set their phone up in front of their TV and live stream the entire fight -- it's now easy and seamless.
The transition from pay-TV and broadcast to online streaming is ramping up. There's little doubt that this genie will not be going back into the bottle. But the transition to a web-based, everything-on-demand, everything-on-every-device world will not be without its share of challenges.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation