Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Over the last decade, some of the world’s biggest entertainment and telecom conglomerates bet on streaming entertainment. The last 10 years have ushered in a rapid progression of at-home entertainment as Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Now, and more rack up millions of subscribers. As more people are forced to stay at home to try to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the concept of a bored, cable-cutting consumer searching for things to constantly watch for weeks on end has become a reality.
HBO’s parent company, WarnerMedia, looked into just how many of its subscribers are spending more time watching movies and TV shows over the last couple of weeks. While the television industry as a whole saw a 20 percent increase last week compared to the month prior, HBO Now saw the highest usage on its platform since summer. The percentage of people binge viewing series has increased 65 percent, while movie watching is up 70 percent on HBO Now.
WarnerMedia isn’t the only company seeing increases in traffic. Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, told CNN that although the company wasn’t going to release numbers, Netflix has seen a surge in streams. Third-party companies have reported seeing massive increases in usage and subscription signups for streaming platforms like Disney Plus (between March 14th and March 16th, when social isolation really began in the United States).
Amazon’s other streaming platform, Twitch, has seen a 31 percent growth in viewership, with total amount of hours watched jumping from 33 million on March 8th to 43 million on March 22nd, according to data given to The Verge by research firm StreamElements. YouTube Gaming streams have also seen a 15 percent increase since people started social distancing. While these aren’t traditional entertainment platforms, they all belong to the broad streaming universe.
This isn’t just Netflix’s moment, or Disney Plus’ time to shine, or Twitch’s breakthrough into the mainstream. This is it. If every streaming launch or direct-to-consumer pivot was a preamble teasing what streaming could do, our reality right now is a clear depiction of what it’s like when more people are forced to rely on entertainment they can access inside their homes.
So what happens if the internet’s entire infrastructure can’t keep up?
People prepared for a world where everything is available at the press of a button, but broadband networks might not be ready. Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music take up far less bandwidth than video streaming platforms — many of which are referred to as “bandwidth hogs.”
Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, YouTube, and other video platforms all committed to reducing streaming quality in Europe at the request of the EU. The reduction from Netflix specifically was in addition to other methods the company has implemented since 2011 to keep streaming steady in low bandwidth areas. Netflix already uses an adaptive streaming tool that automatically adjusts the quality of streaming video based on accessible bandwidth.
Internet service providers in different parts of the world have asked Netflix to start reducing streaming quality immediately. Ken Florance, vice president of content delivery at Netflix, noted in a blog post that it’s an understandable request “as different ISPs around the world have built their networks in different ways, and operate within different constraints.” ISP networks in dense cities take on a different level of strain than rural areas. Some ISPs will build networks with a notable amount of capacity, while others might not.
Other companies are following in Netflix’s footsteps and then some. YouTube announced earlier this week it will automatically make videos available in standard definition, instead of high definition, around the world for 30 days. It’s a proactive move from Google as concerns over broadband network limitations rise.
Amazon is much more reactive, preparing to reduce bit rate streams in countries around the world, including the United States, once local authorities request it, The Verge learned earlier this week. Florance also announced in Netflix’s blog post that the company will help ISPs dealing with “large government-mandated ‘shelter in place’ orders by providing the 25 percent traffic reduction we’ve started in Europe.”
Streaming increasingly putting a strain on broadband services isn’t just a concern for people trying to binge a show on Netflix. Internet service providers are seeing big surges in people using the internet to work and study from home or communicate with friends and family over video chat. AT&T’s mobile Wi-Fi calling is up 100 percent, while mobile data is up 40 percent, according to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. If streaming puts too much of a strain on networks, it’s not just entertainment that could suffer, but entire communication channels.
Stephenson also told CNN on Sunday that network infrastructures continue to perform “quite well,” but acknowledged the company is seeing some stress as more people work from home. Several internet service providers also signed a pledge with the FCC essentially promising to not take advantage of people relying on their networks more than ever. The pledge came one day after AT&T announced it would suspend broadband data caps from home internet customers, and Comcast announced it would raise internet speeds on its Internet Essentials tier.
Streaming eats up a lot of bandwidth. Normally, not everyone is trying to stream at the same time. It’s different right now. People are using the internet for videoconferencing calls and to work, to take online classes, and to distract themselves from isolation. The streaming platforms have to share that bandwidth.
When people are trying to use those same pipes for day-to-day essential acts, streaming quality has to be disrupted. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted in a tweet last week that the FCC “needs to report daily on the state of communications networks in this country,” especially now when “these are the networks we are all counting on for some semblance of modern life.” Netflix, YouTube, Twitch, Disney Plus, or whatever other streaming platform running all the time can create a problem.
Depending on how long health officials and governments recommend folks stay at home, there’s a chance that upcoming streamers like Quibi, HBO Max, and Peacock will launch at a time when people are looking for new things to watch. As analyst and venture capitalist Matthew Ball noted on Twitter, the fact that people are stuck at home “will give every new, nascent and yet-to-launch OTT video service a much stronger shot at success.” It also means more companies and platforms competing for a piece of bandwidth.
“They will still need to ‘earn’ long-term subscribers, but content sampling and free trials will be enormously higher, easier to get, and cheaper to ‘buy’ than before,” Ball wrote.
The situation the entire world has found itself in isn’t normal. Extreme measures are being taken to try to prevent coronavirus from spreading. While industries around the world are taking hits because of society’s recent self-isolation, streaming is seeing a boom. It is likely to continue seeing a boost, as WarnerMedia noted in its official blog, because people will continue to be at home. As usage increases, and services launch, it’s clear that companies with streaming businesses will be fine — as long as the internet’s infrastructure can keep up.