Thursday, October 30, 2014

A quick look at CBS All Access video streaming

The technical problems will be resolved, but I don't want to watch commercials, so I will pass.

Last week, CBS announce the availability of CBS All Access, allowing subscribers ($5.99 per month) to watch CBS TV shows online. You can stream episodes of CBS series using a browser or portable app and, in selected markets, you can watch live programs as they are broadcast. Broadcast episodes are available the following day for streaming.

I signed up, and streamed an episode of the Big Bang Theory as my first test. As you see below, I viewed it on my phone (a Nexus 5) and mirrored the screen on my TV set using a Google Chromecast.

The video quality was decent, but not super sharp and from time to time it jittered or the audio got a little bit out of synch. Still, it was definitely watchable. That was the good news. The bad news is that in addition to the monthly fee, you see tons of commercials -- before the program starts and at commercial breaks -- just like broadcast TV.

Next, I tried watching in the Chrome browser on my laptop. The picture quality was fine as long as I watched it in a small window, but, when I went full screen on my 15-inch, 1920x1200 pixel display, the quality was very poor, as you see below. (Click the image to see it in its blurry full size).

But wait, it got worse. After a few minutes of viewing, my (admittedly slow) laptop fan started running and the video stuttered and eventually froze. I restarted the video and watched the task manager as it ran. This is what I saw:

It was using about 3 GB of 8 GB of memory and the CPU load was highly variable around an average of about 50%. Then the CPU load jumped to 95-100% and stayed there, rendering the video unwatchable.

I'm not sure what caused the change of state -- perhaps it tried to raise the frame rate and and overwhelmed my laptop. I have an 802.11 ac access point, but the laptop radio is a/b/g. Perhaps it had exhausted an initial buffer, but there was not a noticeable pause for buffering when the stream started.

Next, I tried watching a live stream. The live stream is only available in certain parts of the country, but the small map on their site seemed to have a dot over Los Angeles, where I live. It may have been a temporary outage, but all I got was a message saying to wait:

I gave up after about five minutes of watching the little animated circle rotate.

My test went poorly, but the technical problems will be solved. I'm sure they will get live streaming working soon and improved video algorithms and my getting a new phone and a new laptop will take care of my quality complaints. But, even if the video is rock solid and high definition, I will not subscribe if they continue to run commercials.

I don't want commercials (but maybe you do)

Major content providers like HBO and CBS offering Internet service marks the beginning of the end for cable TV as we know it. Eventually, we will all cut the cord and get our video online, but regardless of the technology, we have four video business models:

I suspect that in the future, most of our viewing will be on demand and scheduled viewing will be mostly used for sports and other events. I can wait to see the current episode of Big Bang Theory until the day after it is broadcast.

When I asked my students whether they would pay $5.99 a month to watch CBS TV with commercials, they all said "no." When I asked if they would watch if it were free, but had commercials, they said "yes." Before the courts put them out of business, Aereo also showed us that there is a market for on demand local TV with commercials. My students are young and on limited budgets, but, as Netflix and Amazon Prime have shown, there is also a substantial market for paid, commercial-free video.

I've no idea what the prices of these video options will be in the future, but I doubt that we will be paying less after we cut the cord. Our ISPs are also our video providers, and, since we generally have only one or perhaps two ISP choices, I expect them to raise broadband prices to compensate for any lost revenue. We will end up with ala carte video and higher monthly bills.

But, that is the speculative future. For now, I will stick with Amazon, Netflix and Hulu Plus, and watch an occasional CBS program over the air with my trusty rabbit-ears antenna.

Update 10/31/2014

There is a fairly long discussion of this post on Slashdot.