by Alexander Ramberg, Espen Erikstad and Thomas Dennis
Jun 17, 2020
Blog

Your Guide to Smart TV Streaming Protocols, DRM & more!

Streaming content from your Samsung or LG Smart TV, or any other model for that matter, looks much the same to you as an end-user. There are of course differences in quality (SD, HD, 4K, 8K), screen size (should you go for the 55″, 65″ or 75″), and so on – but this is your decision to make when you are purchasing your TV model.

While TV manufacturers make it easy for consumers to select a Smart TV (with helpful guides regarding screen size, for example), do they make it simple for technology providers to create apps for consumers to enjoy from their new home entertainment system? What goes on behind the scenes – are there clear standards when it comes to streaming formats, encryption and features such as subtitles?

Well, we’re about to find out…

Battle of the Giants

As with the race for the throne between Sony’s Blu-Ray format and Toshiba’s HD-DVD a few years back, Apple, Google and Microsoft each began developing their own video streaming protocols as digital consumption began to grow.

While Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming (MSS) was commonplace, Apple – alongside the rise of the iPhone – introduced their own segmented video delivery format as its choice for delivering “video packages” over the internet with a new HTTP Live Streaming format, better known as HLS. Google then decided to back MPEG-DASH, the first HTTP based streaming solution, to become an international standard.

Today HLS and DASH take the lead with support offered on most devices, and are thus a logical choice for most streaming providers, as they move away from MSS. Recently, a fourth option, Common Media Application Format, or CMAF, was readied in an attempt to create a common global streaming format. The conversion rate or take up of the CMAF format is still under evaluation as tests and practical implementations are harder than the theoretical benefits it offers. Although CMAF is not a streaming format and is targeted to work both with DASH and HLS, it adds complexity as it still requires support from the different devices.

Clear Streams on Connected TVs

The matrix below gives you an overview on the native support for playback of video protocols. The table only considers a clear video stream which is the foundation for any premium streaming service.

Table #1: Compatibility matrix of the different streaming formats and Connected TV platforms

The Giants Battle Piracy

Most premium streaming services need to encrypt their content to battle piracy, which not only breaches the intellectual rights of the owner, but also affects the revenue streams of streaming providers and content producers.

There are several different types of encryption, but the most commonly approved method of securing premium content is Digital Rights Management (DRM). Just as with the streaming protocols, the tech giants have also each chosen their own preferred standards. While Microsoft has long used PlayReady and priced it high, Google adopted the Widevine DRM at a low entry cost, and Apple created their own encryption technology, essentially for their own devices, the FairPlay DRM.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to have multiple options available, as long as the combination of options (streaming formats and DRM) are clear and well documented. Of course, this is also based on the devices you choose to monetise – Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, which distinctively choose their own preferred technology and standards. Take your pick of the device and the standards follow!

Encrypted Streams on Connected TVs

Why do Smart TV manufacturers support only a particular combination of streaming protocols and DRM? Should they not support all top options when they have no particular interest beyond the marketability of the devices themselves? Their goal is to win the market by providing TVs with access to the most number of apps and services, but also choose particular streaming protocols and DRMs which each of these manufacturers control more.

Apple TV will hardly see a benefit of alliance if they were to choose Widevine from Google for many obvious reasons.

This, hence, becomes the responsibility of streaming service providers to carefully consider their choices of technology that will hold good for today and tomorrow. Supporting every streaming protocol and encryption technology is not free; and if all options for reaching the broadest number of devices are considered, this will have a large monetary and operational impact.

In the matrix below, you can see that the different Connected TV platforms reduce compatibility of previously supported streaming formats the moment that DRM is added. The differences between table #1 and table #2 are interesting to observe.

Table #2: Compatibility matrix of the different streaming formats/DRM and Connected TV platforms

Player Features on Connected TVs

Player related features such as support for subtitles, with multiple language or audio options are key elements to consider In addition to the streaming formats and DRM.

As one should expect, not all such necessary features are supported on all Smart TV devices. Basic player features like multiple audio and subtitles makes it complicated as you see in the below example from Samsung’s own matrix for streaming features**:

*** Note: These tables are based on official documentation from Samsung that is not necessarily reflecting the actual support on the devices. It is for instance possible to make subtitles work with DASH streaming if you are using the SMPTE-TT format. Reference here.

As you can see, chosen protocol(s) for an OTT streaming service can have a great impact on natively offered features on each device. In the matrix, we discover that HLS and Playready streams are not supported, but if you choose MPEG-DASH and Playready, you can easily add the option of multiple audio, but not multiple subtitles natively. And If you choose not to have DRM, but just HLS streams, support for multi-subtitles are further limited to VoD, and only for models from 2017 and onwards.

In addition to all of the above, you have to consider subtitle standards (here we go again, more standards!). As you can see below, the supported formats for Samsung’s TVs change quite a bit from the older Orsay TV models and even between the different Tizen TVs. As mentioned before, the choice of streaming format also affects the option of using subtitles. This change has occurred over the last 7 years, which should give a good indication on the rapid speed of progress in this field.

The above table gets more complicated when you consider other devices by different manufacturers. The complexity increases every time a streaming service develops for a new platform or adds a new feature.

There is no universal answer to this, as it depends on local market needs, device penetration and the calculated cost/benefit for the streaming provider of incrementally offering additional features, devices and services.

Each streaming service also has its own content management system, transcoding platform, content delivery network (CDN) – all of which contributes to a matrix which will reduce automatic playback support. Platform tweaks and testing are constantly needed to make sure streams work on connected TV devices which will get better in the long run.

So, what now?

How can a streaming service provider offer the device support and features they want in an efficient and cost effective way? Regional differences, variations in types of content, device penetration in specific markets and plenty of other factors play a part in making such decisions.

And changing your mind somewhere down the line is guaranteed to cost you time and money and in the worst case, provide a poorer user experience for your customers.

No matter how you decide to approach these challenges, it is strongly recommended that you spend some time making well-founded decisions, and remember it is important to test every stream on every device to make sure it all works! If needed, we advise that you seek assistance from competent advisors.

Why should your streaming service be on Smart TV anyway? Check out this blog post.

Ready for large screens, but not sure where to start? Find out more and get in touch here.

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