Live Streaming vs. Traditional Live Broadcasting: What’s the Difference

December 13, 2019 by
Live Streaming vs. Cable and Satellite Broadcasting

For Colorado-based fans of the Denver Avalanche or Denver Nuggets, live broadcasts of their games have been hard to come by via both streaming and traditional television programs. A feud between a regional sports channel and the local satellite and cable distributors has blacked out coverage for the majority of spectators. Many have asked why streaming isn’t an easy alternative, but representatives at the sports holding company replied that this wouldn’t be a sustainable model.

So, what exactly is the difference between traditional live TV broadcasts and live streaming? Let’s take a look at the technology behind each and how they compare in terms of quality, delivery speed, consumer behavior, and more. 


The Early Days of Analog TV

Television broadcasts first hit the airwaves in the late 1920s as analog signals transmitted from one terrestrial location to another. Radio waves carried video from the transmitter to viewers’ television sets, where an antenna would pick up the signal.

The same analog signal would go to all receivers as a smooth and continuous transmission. By tuning your television to a specific channel, viewers were able to receive transmissions on that frequency. For anyone young enough to have used a walkie-talkie, this technology functioned similarly.

And, much like with AM/FM radio, the farther away you got from the television tower, the worse the picture would be. Additionally, because stations would only broadcast a single signal to all viewers, everyone got the same resolution. These transmissions were also subject to snow and ghosting, which describe the static black-and-white effect followed by the blurry outlines best captured in The Ring seconds before Samara crawled out of the screen. 


The Switch to Digital TV

By mid-2009, most analog broadcasts ended in the United States as we settled into the digital age. Television stations switched to digital TV broadcasts, which meant that terrestrial stations, satellite providers, and cable providers traded in their analog signals for digital. 

This new technology leveraged digital video compression for distribution, rendering analog television sets obsolete. It was around this time that HGTV (high-definition television) went mainstream, and pay-per-view programming found its way to living rooms.

A similar switch from analog to digital can be embodied by the transition from records to CDs. Just as this move enabled us to fit more data onto smaller disks, the compression of digital video channels meant that several channels could take up the same frequency space as a single analog channel. This efficient use of space allowed for improved quality and broader channel offerings. 

Whether it takes the form of over-the-air, satellite, or cable broadcasting, digital signals have largely supplanted analog today. A handful of countries are still in the early stages of the digital television transition, but many have terminated analog signals completely. For those countries still moving to digital, simulcasting allows broadcasters to make the signal available as both analog and digital to reach viewers on devices built for either. 


Video Streaming Leads to Cord-Cutting

Today, several live streaming services like Sling TV and AT&T TV Now threaten to replace traditional live broadcasting. What’s more, most cable and satellite services have supplemented their conventional broadcasting services with free streaming apps to compete (examples include Xfinity Stream or the Spectrum TV App).

Streaming requires two easy-to-come-by things: a smart device such as a phone or connected television and an internet connection. No cables or dishes are necessary, and users can watch a stream both on-the-go and in the comfort of their homes. 

The live content is captured, compressed, often transcoded, and delivered across the internet to viewers globally using a content delivery network (CDN). This video dives into all that’s involved:


For more information on the technology behind live video streaming, check out The Complete Guide to Live Streaming: What It Is, How It Works, and Why You Need It.


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Ease-of-Use

Anyone with access to an internet-connected device can view streaming media. And while the requirements for broadcasting streams change with the complexity and scale of the content being distributed, there’s a low barrier to entry for anyone getting started.

Viewing traditional broadcasts might require a converter box, a cable or satellite set-top box, a satellite dish, or cable wiring. These broadcasts cannot be viewed on mobile devices, unless the provider is using a streaming app to reach additional viewers.


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Interactivity and Use Cases

Streaming has pushed video content consumption from a passive pastime into an engaging activity. Interactive use cases include esports, social media, trivia apps, live commerce, you name it! Innovators have only begun to explore the number of ways this technology can be used to transform the digital user experience. 

Streaming also opens up new monetization opportunities. In addition to ads, subscriptions, and pay-per-view services, some content distributors generate revenue from different means altogether. Examples of this include Peloton, the exercise equipment distributor that sells both 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. The genius of this strategy is that Peloton manages to secure big, one-time purchases and small, subscription-based revenue in one fell swoop.

Traditional broadcasting, on the other hand, remains stuck in the paradigm of one-way communication (save a few tactics like inviting viewers to vote online or enter to win a prize).


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Adaptive Bitrate Streaming

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.

Streaming, on the other hand, uses adaptive bitrate technology to automatically select the bitrate and resolution based on the device and available internet resources of each viewer. Not only does this ensure that everyone gets the best broadcast possible for their circumstances, it allows the stream to dynamically switch up and down in quality as their connectivity changes. This is what makes streaming possible on both mobile devices running on 4G LTE and home theaters plugged into high-speed internet.


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Global Scalability

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 CDN infrastructure, broadcasters going live in London can anticipate playback in Sydney.


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Copyright Infringement and Censorship 

As a burgeoning technology, broadcasters don’t encounter as much red tape when streaming content over the internet. While streaming set-top boxes must comply with FCC rules, a number of illegal broadcasts have gone viral before any regulating bodies managed to stop them.

Whether for preventing copyright infringement or flagging illicit content, the industry is looking to artificial intelligence (AI) to regulate illegal content.


Streaming vs. Broadcasting: Latency

Latency, or the lag that occurs between capture and playback of a live broadcast, has long been the saving grace for cable and satellite TV. HTTP-based streaming technology often lagged behind with up to 45-second delays, while traditional broadcasts today sit at about five-seconds in latency. 

Streaming Latency and Interactivity Continuum

Luckily, two new streaming protocols promise to drop end-to-end delivery time to sub-three-seconds this year: Apple Low-Latency HLS and low-latency CMAF for DASH. For this reason, we expect live streaming to compete directly with cable and satellite. And because these scalable formats offer cost savings, they should open up the possibility for additional live broadcasting opportunities.



Streaming might seem like just another way to broadcast. But when examined with a magnifying glass, it’s much more than that. Organizations reluctant to make the shift will miss out on the myriad benefits described above. 


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About Traci Ruether

As a Colorado-based B2B tech writer, Traci Ruether serves as Wowza's content marketing manager. Her background is in streaming and network infrastructure. Aside from writing, Traci enjoys cooking, gardening, and spending quality time with her kith and kin. Follow her… View more