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The Downloading Renaissance

When Apple’s iTunes Store kicked off the streaming revolution back in 2005, it was by offering downloadable copies of popular TV shows.

13 years later, downloading is staging a comeback as networks and viewers realize that there are still major benefits to being able to watch a show without having to rely on the availability of a wifi signal or 4G mobile.

While the tech industry often assumes the pervasive availability of free and fast wifi, anyone who travels knows that is not the case. Hotels and airlines may all offer wifi, but rarely at speeds that allow for successful video viewing. And while 4G mobile can be a great way for travelers to check Facebook or email, watching video over 4G can make even the most generous data plans disappear in a hurry.  “The whole vision of a utopian connected future isn’t really happening,” observes Joshua Pressnell, CTO of the pioneering video download applications developer Penthera. “People are used to living in an intermittently connected world.”

Add in the ever expanding storage capacities of our mobile devices (the Apple iPhone X starts at a whopping 64 GB) and the rapid increase in binge watching, and you have the perfect storm for the current downloading renaissance.

That renaissance began in 2015 when Amazon announced that TV shows on its Amazon Instant Video service would be available for download. They were quickly followed by Starz, Netflix and Showtime, all of whom added downloading to their mix.

That initial burst received a boost this year as AMC added downloading to their AMC Premier service on Comcast and Hulu announced they’d soon be adding not just downloading but ad-supported downloading.

The rising interest in downloading comes at a time when video viewing over mobile devices is continuing its rapid expansion. Ericsson’s TV and Media 2017 report, based on a global survey of 20,000 people, found the number of consumers who watch video on smartphones has doubled since 2012, to 70 percent, with smartphones now making up one-fifth of all TV viewing. In non-western markets, where costs keep TV set few and far between, the percentage of mobile viewing is even higher.

But as usage rises, so do opportunities to disappoint, even in this era of high connectivity.  According to a 2018 consumer survey Penthera commissioned, 92% of U.S. streaming video users reported at least occasionally being frustrated by poor-performing streaming sessions, with buffering cited by 65% of respondents and slow-loading streams by 40%.

The stats also show why more and more streaming services are adding on a download option: more than 50% of users say they often give up trying to stream altogether. If those viewers know they have a download option, chances are they’ll be much happier and more loyal customers.

“It’s all about making your brand and your content available all the time, anywhere. And that’s what we do. We fill in the gaps,” says Daniel Taitz, a former Oxygen Media and Univision Communications senior executive who is Penthera’s Chief Operating Officer. Taitz describes downloading as an essential ingredient in the “TV Everywhere” promise. Without it, he says, it’s impossible to promise anytime/anywhere availability and truly back it up. “If your app doesn’t offer downloading, at those moments when subscribers want to watch something but don’t have connectivity, your app is useless to them,” Taitz says.

One piece many networks are surprised to learn is that downloading can be more than just a fall back system for frequent travelers and commuters—it can actually add to the quality of every viewer’s experience and allow for innovative new features.  

For instance, it’s possible to integrate download functionality into a streaming session so that the first few frames of a video asset are downloaded and played while the remaining elements of the session setup—the video manifest, the proper DRM authorizations, the ascertainment of network conditions—are happening in the background.  That means users experience a quicker-than-usual start, so that their shows begin playing almost instantly once the “play” button is pressed.

Penthera has also developed the underpinnings for a new “mobile DVR” business model built around auto-downloads of upcoming issues from a user’s favorite programming. The service keeps track of the user’s preferences and automatically downloads new episodes onto their devices the minute they’re available. “No matter where you are, you have the next shows available,” explains Pressnell. The idea has applications not just for scripted and episodic series, but for news and sports content too, creating a daily video show similar to the audio “Flash Briefing” available from Amazon’s Alexa.

The Business Side Of Downloading

One of the primary benefits for networks that allow downloading is the increase in customer satisfaction. The goal of any subscription network is to retain (and obtain) subscribers, and providing viewers with the ability to download can provide a huge boost for both those goals.

Nearly 40% of respondents to Penthera’s 2018 consumer survey said they’d be more likely to subscribe to a video service that offers download-to-go capability. And 53% said they’d be willing to pay (up to $5 per month more) for the capability.

Those tendencies are further borne out in metrics shared by one of Penthera’s customers: The premium video provider reported the percentage of users who convert from temporary free trials to paid subscribers rises significantly—to more than 30%—among those who have tried the service’s download-to-go application versus those who have not. That’s an impressive boost and proof of how much value consumers place on the ability to download.

Ad Supported Downloads

The biggest news for downloading however, came this spring when Hulu’s Senior Vice President of Advertising Sales, Peter Naylor, announced that not only would Hulu soon be enabling downloading, but those downloads would be ad supported. As Naylor told Forbes, “If viewers subscribe to Hulu’s limited commercial plan, a marketer can underwrite the download and make it possible for the viewer to watch untethered. A sponsored download is a reasonable value exchange, one that elevates and reminds people that, yes, marketing helps pay for these amazing shows. It also gives advertisers the chance to market to one of the most coveted and arguably hard-to-reach audiences out there.”

The ability to place ads into downloaded video should help to expand downloading to the broader world beyond the subscription-only services. If the ad loads on downloaded shows are reasonable—and industry talk about the need to reduce ad loads suggests they will be—then viewers will gladly watch them in exchange for the free—and downloadable—content that they can now watch on their own schedule, even when they are offline.

The ad-supported downloads offer more than just a new monetization stream to broadcast and cable networks—they offer them much needed data about their viewers. Up until now, broadcast and cable networks have had precious little data about their viewers since they have no direct contact with them: viewers are either watching via an MVPD or over the air. By allowing downloading, cable and broadcast networks will be able to capture email addresses and IP addresses from their viewers, valuable data that they can then use to understand who their audience is and what shows they are watching. They can then use that data to promote their existing line-ups and to gauge the effectiveness of the advertising they are running by partnering with multitouch attribution providers like iSpot. It’s a huge win for the networks … and for their customers who can get a full TV Everywhere experience in return for watching a few relevant commercials.

The recognition that downloading can contribute to broad business objectives has been rising, as can be seen by Netflix’s changing attitude to downloading. The Powers That Be at the streaming giant were initially skeptical of the value of downloading. “I’m just not sure people are actually that compelled to do that,” Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt told the tech publication Gizmodo in the fall of 2015.

But a year later, Netflix started to allow users to download select titles for offline viewing, and it’s been full speed ahead every since: the number of titles available for download has increased dramatically, and, as might be expected of a company devoted to providing the ultimate streaming experience, Netflix was equally aggressive in addressing early-stage bugs.

To give just one example, Netflix initially limited the number of downloads for each title to three per year. But the application failed to account for instances in which an attempted download failed. If a user tried to download a video three times, and encountered a glitch each time, the title would automatically become unavailable per Netflix’s rights and usage formula, and the result was one unhappy Netflix subscriber. Once that glitch came to their attention, Netflix changed its system to ensure the issue wouldn’t come up again.

The Problems With DIY Download Solutions

Netflix’s experience actually highlights a common issue for networks, who often fail to realize that implementing downloading applications is a lot more complicated than it looks

As with OTT in general, it’s often tempting for video providers to decide they can do it themselves and build their own download solutions. And truth is, building in basic select-and-download functionality is relatively uncomplicated.

That’s the easy part.

Unfortunately today’s video landscape is a complex mishmash of devices and operating systems, all of which are being updated on what can seem like a monthly basis. Suddenly that simple download function has to work across Android, iOS and Windows, on multiple smartphones and tablets, all of which may or may not function identically depending on model, and suddenly you need an entire department just to keep up with the various versions and their current issues.

Then there are the unforeseen issues, such as Netflix’s problem with counting failed attempts as completed downloads. As that experience attests, developers have to be prepared to quickly adjust and update software to account for surprises along the way.

For example, how does a download app handle a situation where a hotel Wi-Fi network returns a sign-in page after a user has requested a video from a cable or OTT provider’s application, confusing the video application and creating an unresolvable loop? Or when a user initiates a download over their home Wi-Fi network, but then takes off in their car minutes later, severing the Wi-Fi link. Or when the available storage on a user’s device fills up and/or the battery dies just before a download is completed.  “Stuff that happens in the wild is always different from what you plan for in the lab environment,” says Pressnell. (As it turns out, his team has created workarounds that address each of the circumstances listed here.)

The Future of Downloading

What is the future for video downloading? Penthera’s Taitz thinks the world is still a long way off from realizing the ideal of always-available, always-reliable connectivity, meaning downloading will continue to play a big role in how video gets to consumers’ screens for some time to come. “It’s possible that world will exist one day,” he says. “But I don’t think we’re near it. And I’m not sure we’ll ever get there.”

Then there’s the emergence of video formats like 4K video and, beyond that, virtual reality. Both of those formats require massive amounts of bandwidth to stream, thus giving rise to more situations where the user is going to find downloading to be the better option.

Finally, there’s the continued growth of time-shifted and binge viewing, where users want to watch shows on their own schedules. And if those schedules have them in places where a usable wifi connection is not always available, then they’re going to want to download their favorite shows just in case.

If the video industry truly wants to make good on the TV Everywhere promise, providers have to recognize that even though broadband is present in lots of places, it’s not always available everywhere it needs to be: that’s where downloading comes in and why it’s going to play an even larger role in years to come.