Broadcasting vs. Streaming: What’s the Difference?
Earlier this year, streaming services made history by capturing more viewers in a single month (July) than traditional broadcast television. NPR notes that this is likely due to the on-demand nature of streaming shows, which are not beholden to the schedules of traditional broadcast TV. However, as more streaming services adopt television functions and dabble in live programming, the lines between streaming service and broadcast TV are blurring.
While broadcasting and streaming are often used interchangeably, they are distinct concepts when it comes to both live and pre-recorded content. In this article, we’ll break down what these terms really mean, as well as how the technologies compare in terms of quality, delivery speed, consumer behavior, and more.
Important Note: We can’t stress enough how often these terms are used interchangeably. It’s worth understanding the distinction as it lets you know the technological options available to you. But don’t get too hung up in the semantics. These terms are so often conflated that they effectively mean the same thing in certain contexts. If you’re looking to try your hand at live streaming or live broadcasting, then be sure to ask the right questions to better understand what you’re dealing with.
Table of contents
What Is Broadcasting?
When you think of broadcasting, you might imagine a family viewing the evening news on a single television screen. That or they’re fighting over the remote because some of them want to watch the basketball game and others a favorite television show. Whether live or pre-recorded, the content is scheduled and therefore access to it is limited.
While there’s no saying a stream couldn’t also be scheduled or short-lived, this concept does strike at the heart of what broadcast technology is all about.
In the early days of analog TV, a broadcast signal left a single terrestrial location and bounced to several receivers (like your TV’s antenna). The same analog signal would go to all receivers as a smooth and continuous transmission. By tuning your television to a specific channel, you could receive transmissions on that frequency. And much like with AM/FM radio, the further away you were from the signal’s source (broadcast tower), the worse the reception would be.
As analog broadcasting signals have been replaced with digital broadcasting signals, the overall quality of broadcast video has improved. This technology also paved the way for broader channel offerings, high-definition channels, and even the now-antiquated pay-per-view system. However, the one-to-many nature of these signals remains the same for broadcast television, which still demands that viewers tune in at the right time to view content, live or otherwise.
What Is Streaming?
In contrast to live broadcasting, live stream signals operate on a one-to-one basis. This doesn’t mean that only one person can view a given stream. Obviously, your attempts to watch Ozark on Netflix won’t prevent someone else from doing the same. However, the signal being sent to your device is not the same as the one being sent to your neighbor’s device, even if you were to start your show at the exact same time. That’s what makes video-on-demand (VOD) possible.
The same is true for a live stream. True, you are tuning into the same content at the same time as others. However, your signal is your own and likely specifically adapted for playback on your device and at your available bandwidth. It sounds complicated, but that more complex workflow comes hand in hand with convenience and quality as you’ll soon see.
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Live Broadcasting vs. Live Streaming: Key Differences
The difference between live broadcasting and live streaming is the same as between pre-recorded broadcasting and pre-recorded streaming. It all comes down to the nature of the signal being sent. A single signal being picked up by separate devices is a broadcast. Multiple signals being sent to multiple receivers refers to streaming.
It helps to think of streaming as something the viewer does as well. People will talk about “streaming” something on their device but not “broadcasting” it.
Streaming is an act of building a connection with a source over which data can be sent (and received). Broadcasting is the act of just sending media out into the ether for people with the right equipment to pick up on a whim.
But how meaningful is this distinction practically speaking? It turns out that whether a video is being broadcast on a single signal or streamed via several individual signals has a profound impact on its quality, reach, and potential.
Anyone with access to an internet-connected device can view streaming media. And while the requirements for streaming change with the complexity and scale of the content being distributed, there’s a low barrier to entry for anyone getting started. On the other hand, viewing traditional broadcasts might require a converter box, a cable or satellite set-top box, a satellite dish, or cable wiring. Additionally, these broadcasts cannot be viewed on mobile devices, unless the provider is using a streaming app to reach additional viewers.
Remember how we said a stream, unlike a broadcast, could be a two-way street? Many live streaming platforms have built in tools for engaging audiences. The closest a broadcast can come to interactivity is by utilizing third-party devices. In other words, it’s the difference between inviting people to comment on your Twitch feed mid-stream and asking viewers at home to pick up their phones and dial a number to make a donation, cast a vote, or order that Snuggie at a low price.
Streaming has pushed video content consumption from a passive pastime to an engaging activity. Innovators are continuing to explore the number of ways this technology can be used to transform the digital user experience. With interactivity comes additional monetization opportunities. Traditional broadcasting, on the other hand, remains stuck in the paradigm of one-way communication (save tactics like those described above that require supplementary technology).
Many traditional television stations offer both HD (high definition) and SD (standard definition) channels for the same content. Viewers can manually select which one they’d like to view, or the service might automatically redirect viewers to an HD broadcast. In this way, viewers can opt into higher quality content (provided they have an advanced enough device to support it).
On the other hand, streaming can tap into various workflows that allow for a more dynamic approach to video bitrate. These could include anything from WebRTC simulcasting, scalable video coding, and variable bitrate (VBR) streaming. However, most notably, streaming can take advantage of adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming.
This technology delivers content at various bitrates according to the available resources of each viewer. In this way, it adapts to changes in end-user bandwidth, always providing the best possible video at a given moment. This is what makes it possible to stream both on mobile devices running on 4G LTE and home theaters plugged into high-speed internet.
Traditional broadcasts are often limited to regional viewership based on the providers and infrastructure in place. Many live streaming services like YouTube Live and Sling TV are also geographically limited due to government restrictions. That said, practically speaking, streaming media is a perfect solution for global delivery at scale. As long as the viewing location has internet connectivity and video content delivery network (CDN) infrastructure, streamers going live in London can anticipate playback in Sydney.
Copyright Infringement and Censorship
Broadcasting comes with a host of red tape depending on the network and region. The FCC applies various rules for what content can be broadcast and at what times. Streaming over the internet does not typically come with the same restrictions — at least not yet. Streams may be subject to censorship and copyright rules based on their chosen platform. So as long as you’re not streaming on a censored platform like YouTube, you’re free to show nudity. This offers streamers a bit more freedom.
Latency, or the lag that occurs between capture and playback of a live broadcast, had long been the saving grace for cable and satellite TV. HTTP-based streaming technology often lags behind with up to 45-second delays compared to the five-second delays of traditional broadcasts.
Nowadays, however, newer streaming protocols like Apple’s low-latency HLS and the low-latency CMAF for DASH clock in at just a few seconds of latency or less. Then there’s lightning-fast WebRTC that can stream at sub-second latency in the right circumstances. Traditional broadcasting can no longer rest on its laurels. Streaming offers speed, savings, and scalability — encouraging people to invest more in its development.
Live Broadcasting vs. Live Streaming: Use Cases
Let’s take a moment to better illustrate the differences between streaming and broadcasting by looking at how each of these technologies handle the following use cases. You can see how quality, interactivity, and more play an important role in the application and potential of the technology in question.
Have you ever visited the home shopping network or watched an informercial at 2 a.m.? Certainly, traditional broadcasting has sought out ways to capitalize on consumer culture. Live and otherwise, these events invite viewers to pick up their phones and place an order or make a bid for various choice items.
Selling on TV was innovative at the outset, but streaming has left it in the dust with live and recorded shoppable videos, interactive live auctions, and more. Why tune in to a specific program with a receiver in hand when you could click a button and ask questions about the high tops a streamer is wearing, select a style, and order them in an instant?
Traditional pre-recorded and live broadcasts have certainly jumped on the fitness train with scheduled content, fitness dedicated channels, and even pay-per-view fitness programs. You might wonder how streaming fitness is any different. Let’s look at Peloton.
This exercise equipment distributor sells a product and a service tied into one. The product, a stationary bike with a 22-inch touchscreen, allows users to stream live and on-demand exercise classes via a monthly subscription service. These classes stream straight from the Peloton studio in New York City and come hand in hand with opportunities to interact with instructors and fellow cyclists.
Of course, that’s only the beginning. Live streaming for fitness has also dabbled in augmented and virtual reality to further enhance user engagement.
Live streaming for education has come to the forefront in recent years in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the first thing that likely comes to mind when you hear educational streaming or educational video are virtual classrooms where students and instructors interact. These are definitively streams as no such dynamic is possible in a one-to-many traditional broadcast. The closest satellite broadcasting comes to this are educational programming like Sesame Street or the Discovery Channel, which hardly compares to the value of having a teacher and students interacting live in a dynamic learning environment.
This might be the one place where traditional live broadcasting has a leg up on live streaming. After all, ask anyone who has mostly cut the cable cord what they might tune into traditional television for, and they’re likely to say something along the lines of the Oscars, Super Bowl, or similar. That’s not to say these events couldn’t be live streamed. However, there are often licensing restrictions that limit whether and where they can be streamed.
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Live Broadcasting vs. Live Streaming: Benefits
Now that you have a detailed understanding of the technical and practical differences between streaming and broadcasting, the next obvious question is which is right for you? Let’s be honest, nine times out of ten, streaming will more than suit your needs. But there are still businesses out there reluctant to make the shift from traditional live broadcasts to live streaming. Consider the summary of benefits below:
|Benefit||Live Streaming||Live Broadcasting|
|Low latency||Varies (as low as sub-second)||3-5 seconds|
|High-quality video||Highly adaptive to end-user capabilities||HD or SD (not adaptive)|
|Censorship||Low in general (may be subject to individual platform TOS)||Variable (heavily regulated by the FCC)|
|Accessibility for User||High||Varies (have to be in the right place at the right time)|
Conclusion: Why Choose Streaming?
It can be tough to trust emerging tech. After all, nothing comes out of the box without any kinks. That said, streaming hardly qualifies as emerging tech at this point. If you continue to hear about new workflows, protocols, and providers, that’s a sign not that the technology is new but that it’s being invested in and continuing to grow. You can’t really say the same for traditional broadcasting. So, the real question isn’t ‘why choose live streaming over live broadcasting,’ but rather ‘why haven’t you?’
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About Sydney Roy (Whalen)
Sydney works for Wowza as a content writer and Marketing Communications Specialist, leveraging roughly a decade of experience in copywriting, technical writing, and content development. When observed in the wild, she can be found gaming, reading, hiking, parenting, overspending at the Renaissance Festival, and leaving coffee cups around the house.