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Why do Indian streaming services use sub-par websites and apps?

When a live stream gets broken at a crucial point in the game, it can be frustrating.

When a live stream gets broken at a crucial point in the game, it can be frustrating.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock


Indian sports fans have been complaining about Hotstar and SonyLIV for ages now

Here’s a truth universally acknowledged by Netflix addicts — a streaming experience depends as much on the quality of streaming as the quality of the film/ show. Even if the movie you’ve picked is an old favourite, you can’t enjoy it if the darned website keeps hanging or the buffering reminds you of Internet speeds in the late 90s. This is why Netflix constantly experiments with user experience. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch became the first choose-your-own-adventure story in the streaming era. Seth Myers introduced a new idea in his recent stand-up special Lobby Baby — a button that allowed viewers to skip the Trump jokes, much like the ‘skip intro’ button that Netflix offers on most shows.

Netflix’s Indian competitors, however, are intent on fighting the global giant with poorly made websites and apps. I’m mostly thinking of Hotstar and SonyLIV here (Prime Video’s interface isn’t brilliant, but it manages bare-minimum competence, which is more than can be said for the other two). You don’t have to be a tech geek to understand just how wide the gulf in quality is: the difference is painfully obvious. Indian sports fans have been complaining about Hotstar and SonyLIV for ages now, and yet there seems to be no improvement in sight.

Hotstar owns the rights to the perennially popular English Premier League (EPL), football’s blue chip property as far as telecasters are concerned. They also own the rights to international cricket matches played in India and the Indian Premier League (IPL) — another super-lucrative market. SonyLIV have the UEFA Champions League, a slew of international cricketing rights (like the recent Ashes, the ongoing Pakistan vs. Australia series), the NBA for basketball fans and so on. And yet, neither streaming service seems interested in providing a decent, hassle-free viewing experience.

Big disaster

Live streams are broken every few minutes (if you’re watching football, there’s a 99% chance that this will happen during goals). Often, the stream stops working altogether until the end of the game (last week, SonyLIV’s stream of the Pakistan vs. Australia Test match simply did not start for the first two days of the five-day affair). Oh, and the audio volume on advertisements will make you switch off the stream, log on to Quikr and sell your laptop for thirty-nine rupees and a dozen unripe bananas. (SonyLIV, this is especially for you — how can you be so massively stupid? These are not audio levels intended for human beings; you’re going to cause real physical damage to someone soon.)

And it’s not like the problems are restricted to sports coverage. Both Hotstar and SonyLIV offer poor user experiences for movies and TV shows as well. Shows that feature large chunks of footage shot in the dark — Game of Thrones and Chernobyl come to mind — are an absolute disaster when sifted through Hotstar’s terrible resolution-bit rate ratio. Simply put, because most Hotstar accounts are mobile phone accounts, its video encoding caters almost exclusively to poor-network devices (so that coverage is not lost altogether in areas with poor networks, like Metro tunnels). A Hotstar blog post from 2018 (about Hotstar’s video encoding process) said: “The cellular experience must shine on an unreliable and variably choppy cellular network”.

So, if you’re using Hotstar on your home PC, and want to watch something in 1080p quality, odds are it won’t work for you. 1080p videos typically require bit rates of at least 8-10 mbps, whereas Hotstar uses bit rates of 4-5 mbps for most videos, often even less than that. This results in patches of video ‘lingering’ for seconds after the rest of the video has moved on, plus other output errors along those lines. Overall, the 1080p (or ‘high’ quality resolution) option on Hotstar is really more like a 720p or even a 480p experience elsewhere.

By now, a mature company would have added an adjustable bit rate option for desktop users, whose network and data plans support 1080p streaming (or failing that, just invest in better encoding designed for lower bandwidths!). But then, a mature company would also have found the loose change to improve its basic infrastructure in a year where they paid $120 million to telecast one cricket tournament.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 1:53:03 AM |

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