Saturday night’s college basketball matchup between Wisconsin and Kentucky was the most-watched Final Four game in 22 years. Unless, that is, you were one of a thousand or so Sling TV subscribers who instead got to witness a sputtery mess. It’s the latest in a string of high-profile streaming failures, and it won’t be the last. Being a cord cutter in 2015 is great—until there’s something you actually need to watch live.
The Final Four lapse recalled similar recent outages, notably last spring’s stunted Oscars stream for ABC, and Game of Thrones’ season four premiere collapse for HBO Go. The only thing all three have in common? They’re among the first real tests of how the streaming age handles appointment television. So far, the results aren’t promising.
According to a mollifying Sling TV tweet, the culprit in this case was “extreme sign-ups and streaming,” which sounds like a gaggle of wakeboarders gumming things up. Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch corroborated in a statement, citing “an unprecedented combination of new customer signups and high levels of viewership,” two factors that “stressed our systems.” So, yes, the hiccups were largely due to an onrush of Sling enlistees. But not in the way you might think.
Being able to access big, Twitter-friendly TV moments as they happen was supposed to be the final shove into the streaming future.
By blaming overwhelming traffic for its struggles Sling is trying to convince you that its only failure was being too popular, a prom king who can only invite so many into his court. But according to streaming-media analyst Dan Rayburn, that’s almost certainly not what’s actually going on.
“The whole reason you go to a CDN is because you can handle the traffic whether it spikes,” explains Rayburn. The CDN, or content delivery network, is the third-party company used by services like Sling TV to send you the live video you requested. They’re also built to handle spikes of all sizes; just look at last year’s Olympics, which transpired glitch-free, or even the WWE Network, whose Wrestlemania 31 live stream last week went off without a suplex. (WWE, notably, piggybacks on the infrastructure of similarly glitch-free MLB.) So let’s stop blaming the servers. If there’s such a thing as a critical mass of streamers, we haven’t found it yet.
What we have found, says Rayburn, is that a sudden influx of customers can expose breakdowns in other parts of the ecosystem. Getting live television from a camera to your iPad requires a tremendous amount of synchronization across numerous moving pieces, from transcoding to authentication to tracking to monetization to delivery. Any one of those parts can snag thanks to technical glitches. Or, more often than you might think, to good ol’ fashioned cost-cutting.
“How many people signed up for Sling for 30 days just to get March Madness and tried to cut it?” explains Rayburn. He’s talking about the many Sling customers who sign up for just one streaming event and then cancel their subscriptions immediately afterward. “So Sling has to decide how much money it has to put in place… Everybody’s always making the cost versus quality trade-off on the internet. That’s what you do.” It doesn’t make much business sense, in other words, to ramp up operations to handle the kinds of numbers you’re only likely to see a few times a year.
Ultimately, whether Sling TV—and ABC, and HBO, and a host of others before them—was genuinely caught off guard or simply made a calculated decision not to accommodate a user base that included a few March Madness passers-by ultimately doesn’t matter. The end result is the same: another black mark against the future of television, as yet again, a number of people didn’t get what they paid for.
All of which puts potential cord-cutters in a difficult position. Being able to access big, Twitter-friendly TV moments as they happen was supposed to be the final shove into the streaming future. But it’s those same events that the streaming services are least-equipped (or motivated) to pull off. The Final Four stream may have only affected a fraction of Sling TV viewers, but are you willing to spend a minimum of $20 per month on a bet that you won’t be one of the unlucky the next time?
And that’s before you even get to all of the other malfunctions that can and do disrupt the streaming experience. Your router probably sucks sometimes. Your ISP definitely does. And if they suck in the middle of next season’s Game of Thrones finale, you’re going to regret that HBO Now purchase, whether HBO executes a flawless streaming experience or not.
Sling is trying to convince you that its only failure was being too popular.
At least in Sling TV’s case, help is apparently on the way, hopefully in time for the service’s launch of HBO Now later this year. A spokesperson tells WIRED that the company has plans to update its apps “to improve stability and manage the demand as we prepare for the launch of HBO,” though it’s not clear exactly what those improvements entail. Or whether they’ll be enough to handle the next onslaught. At the very least, the service appears to have stood strong through last night’s NCAA championship game between Duke and Wisconsin.
The point is this: You have more opportunities to sever ties with your cable company than ever. Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are here. HBO Now will be soon, with an Apple-powered streaming service reportedly on its heels. Over-the-top television has never been closer to finding mainstream appeal. But these frequent flame-outs make it hard to embrace. You’d just as soon buy a shovel that disappears whenever a blizzard passes through.
Look, nothing’s perfect. Cable and satellite TV aren’t immune from outages either. But unlike those incumbents, internet TV finds itself most vulnerable during its most important events. Until that’s fixed, live streaming’s going to remain a dead end.