Oprah's Webcast: State-of-the-Art, But Not What You Think

Oprah, the smartest, richest, most successful person in the television business, decided to do a webcast. The demand that an Oprah-sized audience put on the Internet was just too great and the system crashed.
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By now, everyone has heard about Oprah Winfrey's webcast debacle earlier this week. Oprah, the smartest, richest, most successful person in the television business, decided to do a webcast. She promoted it as only she can. To execute, her people assembled the absolute best practices and organizations available anywhere. They used the best online distribution platform: Move Networks. One of the best content distribution networks: Limelight. And, they served it up on Oprah.com, which is as industrial strength a website as you are likely to come across.

With all that going for her, it was reasonable to assume that a fairly large group of people could come to the party and expect to be served. But that's not what happened.

According to dozens of published reports, the demand that an Oprah-sized audience put on the Internet and the related infrastructure was just too great and the system crashed. Pundits everywhere used this particular event to tout their own theories about how many gigabits of bandwidth can actually be handled and, more importantly, why the Internet is not suited for live streaming at scale.

Many were comparing this event to New York Magazine's problems when they published nude photos of Lindsay Lohan on their site. Others were reminiscing about the Victoria's Secret streaming crash of 1999. And still others put forth the idea that "millions of people will never watch TV online." They all got it wrong!

Move Networks does not use ordinary streaming techniques to move video around the Internet. Their platform uses a client-side request schema that is more related to downloading little .gif files than it is to playing back streaming video packets from a server. They have moved over 200 million streams of video for ABC alone. The platform truly provides one of the best long-form online television-like viewing experiences available.

Limelight also lives up to its reputation. They have servers all over the place and as far as content distribution networks are concerned, you can pay more, but you can't do much better.

What actually happened? According to an executive closely tied to the project, they were up to about 800,000 users when a logical error in the caching servers caused the system to crash. It is important to understand that the only way to ever find a coding error like this is to put a system truly under stress. You can't simulate 800,000 users in the lab, you need to play with live ammo. Kudos to Oprah and her team for pushing the envelope this hard.

The crash was not caused by a lack of bandwidth, an overwhelming number of users or any infrastructure issues at all. It was a simple coding error - nothing more. The error was identified and is now fixed. It is entirely possible that next Monday's webcast will enjoy over a million users, maybe more.

Perhaps the key take-away from this experience is the fact that the Internet is truly global. This webcast was available in 149 countries. Oprah has the communicative power to bring people together from all over the world and this technology makes it possible with two-way, interactive connections. What a fantastic use of the Internet. I'm pretty confident that next week's webcast will easily reach all of the people who want to watch it live.

As a practical reality, the current limit on a Move Networks/Limelight CDN system is probably 2 million simultaneous users. This number is a function of infrastructure, but it has nothing to do with the public Internet's capabilities. It's about the deployment of certain pieces of Move Networks technology around the net. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that Move will be the first organization to demonstrate 10 million simultaneous online viewers and I don't think that demonstration is too far in the future.

As for Online Video is quality -- it is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder. But a quality video signal could be described as a continuous viewing experience with good color space at resolution that is acceptable to the viewer and suitable for the content.

Oprah has a very large, diverse audience with feet firmly planted on both sides of the digital divide. When a viewer asks, "why can't I get good quality?" the answer could be a simple as, "your machine is too old and the CPU or video card is not fast enough." Or, as complicated as, "there is too much contention on your LAN." The benefit of Move is that it "breathes" correctly, lowering or increasing bit rates to match the best possible or expected playing environment. This native capability to leverage caches is the best way to get the job done. It's not TV - it's Online TV and, when taken as a whole, the benefits are huge.

So, let's debunk some myths:

1) The Internet cannot handle a television-sized live streaming audience. False.

2) No current system can deliver over 1 million simultaneous video streams. False.

3) The cost of delivering that many one-to-one connections is prohibitive. False.

4) Oprah is so popular, she crashed the Internet. False.

5) The Internet cannot handle a Super Bowl-sized live streaming audience. True, but that's what Television is for.

Oprah is one of the most future-thinking media executives in our business and her vision is second only to her ability to assemble extraordinary teams. What is the state-of-the-art for long-form video distribution on the public Internet? You can see an on-demand version here, or you can catch the next show live on March 10th.

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). He is the Vice-Chairman of the National Academy of Media Arts & Sciences an organization dedicated to education and leadership in the areas of technology, media and entertainment. Palmer also oversees the Advanced Media Technology Emmy® Awards which honors outstanding achievements in the science and technology of advanced media. You can read Shelly's blog here. Shelly can be reached at shelly@palmer.net

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