Latency and Quality Impact UX of Live-Streaming News
Echoing trends in other markets, more consumers are cutting the cord to traditional TV news and seeking live-streaming news apps. In turn, growing numbers of viewers are using these apps on mobile devices and over-the-top (OTT) TV and video systems, which deliver content entirely online. To capture this growing market, pure OTT broadcasters, such as Reuters TV, are emerging, and broadcast networks are offering apps with live-streaming news content.
However, the networks face stiff competition in this growing market. For example, during the 2016 presidential debates, the lowest-latency live stream came not from cable or satellite, but from Facebook—which offered a stream even closer to real time, on average, than cable TV’s. That’s because Facebook’s team developed a proprietary architecture for delivering live-streaming video, with the expressed purpose of reducing latency to increase engagement. Most cable networks, on the other hand, use third-party content delivery networks (CDNs), which deliver streams at comparatively higher latency rates—which are even higher when the apps are accessed on mobile devices rather than desktop computers.
Your News, Made to Order
Users of live-streaming news apps care about getting the news they need, when and how they need it. Timing matters, because news is only actionable when it’s current. What’s more, the faster news gets to viewers, the more trustworthy they perceive the outlet it’s coming from. In a study by the American Press Institute (API), 76 percent of U.S. adults say “having the latest details” is a critical factor in their trust of a news source. Sixty-three percent say “fast loading time” equates to trust in news sites and apps, while 60 percent trust sources whose content performs well on mobile. Users want coverage on demand, on any device, streaming in the same quality as a traditional TV broadcast.
Not only do networks have to reckon with these demands, they also face increasingly stiff competition from UGC platforms. Today, these platforms are many people’s primary news source. However, traditional news outlets may yet have an advantage: The API study also shows that expert sources and data boost trustworthiness for news channels reporting on domestic issues. While UGC platforms may offer low-latency streams and interactive features, they don’t have a verifiable, ethics-based reporting process.
Besides, in this market, low latency is not the only important factor in a positive user experience (UX). Many consumers still get their news from cable and satellite TV, so competing with these broadcasts—which average five to 15 seconds of latency—is more important for news apps than real-time streaming. Perceived quality, a metric that encompasses resolution, stability and performance, is also important; users expect the perceived quality of news apps to compare with network TV, and high-quality streams often come at the expense of low latency, especially when delivered at scale. What’s more, higher latency is less impactful to the UX in platforms with a low degree of interactivity, as is the case with most news apps.
Of course, all other factors being equal, when consumers are looking for the most current information, they will always choose the platform that gets it to them first. So, to see how major news apps perform on this metric, we put them to the test. Here are the results:
Desktop News Application Experience Results
Mobile News Application Experience Results
Reuters TV and Fox News: Low Latency for Busy Consumers
When factoring in both desktop and mobile, Reuters TV and Fox News offer the lowest latency of the apps we tested. Both focus on delivering the day’s top news to busy consumers, with few extra frills. They offer live streams, VOD, exclusive in-app programming, customizable alerts and multitasking features.
On desktop, Reuters TV scores as low as 12 and as high as 20 seconds in end-to-end latency, with 1.5 to three seconds in TTFF. Remarkably, it scores 1.5 seconds in mobile end-to-end latency across all our tests—meaning mobile latency is almost 15 seconds faster than the average desktop experience. Mobile TTFF is also low, ranging from 1.25 to 2.25 seconds.
The self-proclaimed goal of Reuters TV is delivering up-to-the-minute news to consumers on the go. With mobile end-to-end latency even lower than that of cable or satellite TV, Reuters TV users get coverage in real time, as it unfolds. This keeps them up-to-date with friends, family and colleagues around the world, and helps deliver streams that load quickly and play without interruptions on any device.
Reuters TV’s low TTFF scores provide a positive VOD experience, as well. Users receive regular, on-demand news briefings, which they can customize in length from five to 30 minutes. Another helpful feature is offline viewing, which downloads updates to users’ devices throughout the day. This allows for all-conditions playback—even from places without service, such as a tunnel or subway car.
The Fox News app has desktop end-to-end latency of 14 to 25 seconds, with TTFF scores of six to eight seconds. On mobile, end-to-end latency is somewhat higher—from 15 to 20 seconds—while TTFF clocks in at four seconds. Fox’s desktop TTFF scores are on the higher end of the apps in our test, which may cause frustration for users browsing VOD clips; however, its mobile scores for this metric are competitive.
Fox News offers 24/7 live streams from the Fox News and Fox Business Network channels, though a cable or satellite subscription is required. Its lower latency enables smooth playback of live and on-demand streams as well as multitasking capabilities, so users can stream audio or video while using other apps and features.
CNNgo: Competitive Latency, Limited Engagement
Network news titan CNN, through its CNNgo app, offers live streams with competitive latency scores. On desktop, end-to-end latency ranges from 10 to 13 seconds; on mobile, it’s 28 to 36 seconds. TTFF scores are four to six seconds on desktop, and three to five seconds on mobile. A cable or satellite TV subscription is required for unlimited live streaming, though a 10-minute news preview is offered each day for free.
One upside of CNNgo’s slightly higher mobile latency is that on-the-go viewers who tune in late can rewind live streams to the beginning during the broadcast. The platform offers complete shows and live streams for 24 hours; after that point, only clips are available.
CNNgo also attempts to tap into users’ FoMO by live-streaming big events for participating users, such as the 2016 presidential election. However, many consumers are turning to UGC channels such as Twitter and Facebook Live for these types of events—these platforms are free to use, and often stream in closer to real time than other channels. For time-bound events, such as election results, every minute of latency counts in order to prevent spoilers.
CNNgo’s end-to-end latency is comparative with the average cable broadcast’s when accessed via desktop, but is higher than traditional TV when used on mobile. This may frustrate on-the-go users, especially during breaking news coverage. However, the biggest source of frustration for users is likely to be mobile app performance. Users expect to receive high-quality news broadcasts from anywhere, but since a recent update, performance has suffered, and user ratings for CNNgo have plummeted. Users report concerns such as navigation difficulties and trouble accessing live streams.
CNBC: Around-the-Clock Financial Coverage
Despite ranking fourth in our latency testing, CNBC’s app scores high marks among users—even winning Best Smartphone App in the 2016 SIPAwards. On desktop, CNBC scores 25 to 28 seconds in end-to-end latency and nine to 11 seconds in TTFF. On mobile, end-to-end latency is 40 to 58 seconds, with TTFF ranging from five to six seconds.
CNBC users applaud the app for its perceived quality: it offers reliable performance, a wealth of regularly updated information and the ability to personalize content delivery. Stock market quotes and global financial market data are updated regularly, and breaking news notifications can be configured. Users can also set customizable “Watchlists” of stocks they want to track, which sync across devices. One of users’ favorite features is the ability to access pre-market and after-hours stock information through the app. This includes quotes; company information and metrics; related VOD coverage; and interactive charts with customizable time frames.
Access to relevant, real-time stock market and financial information from anywhere is especially crucial for users in the financial industry, which CNBC primarily caters to. However, high latency can negatively impact users’ access to real-time information. Financial professionals need up-to-the-minute data on stocks and trades—and this app’s end-to-end latency is nearly one minute. TTFF rates are more competitive, but higher than those of Reuters TV or CNNgo. Though users are largely satisfied, CNBC could improve its UX even further by reducing latency.
CBS News: All-Access, Network-Backed Live Streams
At the higher end of our latency testing is the CBS News app. It clocks in with end-to-end latency of 71 to 80 seconds of desktop, and 80 to 98 seconds on mobile. TTFF rates are four to seven seconds on desktop, and three to four seconds on mobile.
This app also overcomes higher latency and remains popular with users thanks to its high perceived quality. This is partially because CBS News is the only network-backed app in our test that doesn’t require a cable subscription to view live-streaming news—and, unlike many platforms, it’s available in all markets. This allows CBS to compete with UGC and OTT platforms, at least in terms of access.
The CBS News app provides 24/7 live-streaming coverage through its digital channel, CBSN. Offering this kind of always-on access, without a subscription, is a clear appeal to cord-cutters from a network that has historically catered to older audiences. Programming includes a mix of live-streaming and VOD coverage from the televised CBS News network, its affiliate broadcasters and sports content.
Users praise the app for its perceived quality, including its performance and ease of use; the only major drawback cited is the number of in-app ads, which some users say interferes with the experience. Overall, many CBS News users are happy to trade higher end-to-end latency for unlimited access to high-quality streams that perform well on mobile devices.
Bloomberg Aims High, But Falls Short, on Interactivity
The Bloomberg app offers news with a business and financial bent, and aims to engage mobile users through interactive features. However, it also has the highest latency of the news apps we tested: End-to-end latency is 80 to 109 seconds on desktop, and 86 to 108 seconds on mobile. TTFF ranges from two to three seconds on desktop, and 13 to 16 seconds on mobile.
Bloomberg’s interactive capabilities include customizable “Watchlists” of stock and financial information, through which users can track their portfolios, and interactive charts for analyzing portfolios, market trends and industry leaders. Bloomberg also offers 24-hour live streams and VOD without a cable or satellite subscription.
Engaging users through the mobile app is one of Bloomberg’s stated goals, and users do spend a lot of time there. However, since a December 2016 update, much of that time is plagued by both latency and perceived quality issues, as reported in plummeting user reviews over the first few months of 2017. Issues include Watchlists not syncing across devices; a poorly designed user interface; and frequent crashing and freezing. Higher degrees of interactivity require lower latencies in order to provide uninterrupted playback at scale, which may be the source of Bloomberg’s problems. Latency, performance and stability will all need to be improved for this platform to deliver a UX that lives up to its ambitions.
Overall, the live-streaming news apps we tested have higher latency than some other markets. However, low latency is not the only contributor to a positive UX in this segment. Reuters TV and Fox News offer the lowest latencies, delivering up-to-the-minute content to busy, mobile consumers. Meanwhile, users praise CNBC and CBS News for quality, reliability and performance.
In the live-streaming news market, apps must perform well on either latency or quality metrics to enjoy a competitive advantage. Apps that don’t deliver on either metric will provide a sub-par experience for users—and be left behind.
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