What the future of streaming will look like

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Across the content streaming landscape, many publications have run articles claiming who they think is the winner of the so-called “streaming wars”. The term emerged in 2019 and continues to be bandied around to describe the state of play in the streaming industry, but the reality is that despite market turbulence, streaming services are continuing to invest. They’re buying into upcoming films, television production, more original content, and even mobile gaming. 

About the author

Grace Ensell, Project Manager at Western Digital.

In 1996, Bill Gates published the “Content is King” essay on Microsoft’s website. It is a widely-used, most of the time worn-out phrase – but it’s the entertainment landscape’s business model. Estimates from Ampere Analysis pose that streaming platforms will be spending more than $23 billion on original content in 2023. In fact, one of the leading streaming giants is set to maintain its content spending at an impressive $17 billion throughout 2023. 

But as the cost-of-living crisis continues to permeate the UK economy, households have been cutting back on their spending across the board. This also includes their monthly subscriptions. According to analytics from Kantar, the number of people in the UK with at least one paid-for video subscription fell by 937,000 between January and September 2022. The same report saw 234,000 UK households ditching video streaming altogether. Where does this leave streaming platforms in the UK, the eighth-largest country in the world for sign-ups? 

The kingmaker

With so much content to consume across the market landscape, over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms are investing in more localised and more relevant content. We are already seeing this with everyday background effects made to match the regional market the film or television show is distributed in. The purpose of this is to maintain and exceed subscription figures. By delivering on content that the subscriber as an individual is interested in, they are establishing a better relationship with the customer and instilling a greater sense of brand loyalty.

To overcome rising costs and subscription fatigue, streaming platforms have expanded their content libraries, creating even more choice for the consumer than ever before. As the number of films and TV shows continues to grow on individual platforms, this is driving the requirement for higher capacity storage from a data perspective. Higher data consumption creates significant challenges for platforms as they strive with delivering a seamless experience to a larger user base.

Faster cutting: furious editing

Long gone are the days of old Hollywood – where the average studio-financed movie from development to post-production took somewhere between four and five years to complete. Even the 2013 sci-fi thriller, Gravity took five years to produce! This was a challenge that the movie studios faced since the birth of the motion picture, but something the streaming platforms set as a priority to break the norm.

For the streamers to justify their content spend, a platform’s key challenge is to start monetizing from their original content as quickly as possible. The industry leaders are trying to reduce principal photography, transporting the captured material to an editing suite in an effort to get the most amount of content into post-production at any one time. For insurance and security purposes, these high amounts of data need to be stored securely. In some cases, one piece of shot film can have three copies, on two different hard drives on-site with one in a different location altogether, known as the 3-2-1 backup rule. 

As recently as 1998, Pixar was getting ready to release Toy Story 2. The film was nearly complete, and the final edits were being made. Somebody on the team hit the wrong button and, to their horror, the files began to disappear before their eyes. Thankfully, the supervising technical director had been working from home with a newborn baby and had a most recent backup on her home computer. This is a mere example as to the sheer paramountcy of safe and secure data storage in the entertainment industry, and the potentially cataclysmic results if a team get it wrong.

With these turnaround times only increasing – from principal photography to post-production to make it to the small screen, efficiency is key to the streaming process. To capitalize on speed, streamers need to scale and better insulate their investment. Faster hard drives will only continue to help supply and maintain a full trail of recorded data. 

VFX – data, content and genre

As the content streaming landscape continues to evolve, it seems that every streaming platform has its own franchise. These vary from true crime dramas to musicals and, as Martin Scorsese once put it, “theme park” movies.

Fantasy, sci-fi epics, and big superhero movies and series are continuing to grow as their own marketable franchises. These sales concessions have transcended borders and cultures and have become a part of our collective popular culture. In essence, some franchises are themselves becoming brands. We see them in our supermarkets when we buy clothes and in other forms of merchandising, building a fully immersive consumer experience that reaches far beyond a simple feature film or series. 

These concessions look to one-up each other at the box office and weekly Top 10’s on streaming platforms, wearing every win like a badge of honour in the race for streaming supremacy. These films and television shows are made with hundred-million-dollar budgets and go on to make billions alone. They continue to attract the most talented individuals in the business, and this can be seen in the uncanny visual effects (VFX) they employ. 

However, stunning special effects and immersive visuals do have their cost – and it is a big one. The data required to make an effects vision a reality can be enormous. In fact, superimposing visual effects over the top of certain shots, for example, battle sequences, can reach and surpass 1 terabyte (TB) of data! A terabyte is needed to store a single shot in order to apply the visual effect. To put this into perspective, the average two-hour film is comprised of 1250 individual shots. 

Big action films and blockbusters are looking at more than 3000 individual shots per film. Now not every shot in a film utilizes VFX, but mass data consumption will only continue to rise with further industry advancements and technological developments. With a potential of up to 3 petabyte (PB which is 3000TB) of data required for some of the most visually advanced films, the need for better-enhanced and faster storage options is an absolute must. As films and TV shows enter the post-production stage of the process, top performance and faster drives are crucial to retaining these copious amounts of data. 

The capacity, the performance and the future 

The challenge for streamers is all around capacity. With their projects continuing to exceed data rates, storage will need to handle more capacity to match the growing quality of content. 

In terms of visuals, the streaming landscape will see greater innovation as platforms update their own content production guidelines. This will affect how content is created and dictate the camera production houses currently in use. In the next two to three years, consumers will start to see the transition from 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) to 8K (7680 x 4320 pixels). Whilst it will create a more immersive televisual and cinematic experience; this move will pose challenges at a granular device level.

Televisions and mobile devices such as smartphones will need to cycle through the data at a much faster rate. To match the capacity and speed of the downloaded data, solid-state drives and flash memory will be imperative to maintaining the growing quality of content in the future, mainly in the shift from 4K to 8K, or even 10K or 12K further into the future, and the enhanced visual requirements to make a film successful. While the content streaming landscape continues to evolve, with consumers demanding more and more from our subscription services, data will continue to enable the changes happening across the market. 

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Grace Ensell, Project Manager at Western Digital.