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Live Sports Streaming and the Edison Tone Test

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The legend of Thomas Edison failing 2,774 times before landing on a successful design for a working light bulb has made him an inspiration to flummoxed would-be inventors and innovators the world over. Edison’s reputation as an equally determined and often unscrupulous self-marketer is less well-remembered today. In the 1890s, in a desperate attempt to sully the name of George Westinghouse, whose alternating current (AC) was quickly superseding Edison’s own direct current (DC), Edison financed development of an AC electric chair in an effort to make “Westinghoused” synonymous with “executed by electrocution.”

Considerably more effective were Edison’s Tone Tests, a series of recitals staged at Carnegie Hall and other premium venues from 1915 to 1925 to promote Edison’s Diamond Disc phonograph technology as the recording industry began to transition from cylinders to records. Designed to demonstrate the clarity and fidelity of recordings that Edison believed could perfectly replicate a live performance, the recitals featured opera singers from Edison’s own label performing alongside phonographs playing their recordings in sync with the live performance. At the evening’s dramatic climax, the lights would go out and the singer would quietly exit the stage. When the lights returned, the audience would discover, to their amazement, that only the Diamond Disc version was playing.

Ads in national magazines featured celebrities and experts from various fields declaring that they couldn’t tell the difference between live= performances and Diamond Disc recordings. The ubiquitous “Is it live or is it Memorex?” TV and print ads of the 1980s were direct descendants of the Edison Tone Tests.

As technology evolved and the ability to deliver recorded and live sound grew in sophistication to the point where sonic fidelity became comparatively commonplace, the idea that live performances and studio-recorded ones should perfectly mimic one another largely fell out of favor, as artists aimed to give audiences a show they couldn’t experience without buying a ticket. In 1969, when Rolling Stone described a Creed­ence Clearwater Revival concert as “more a demonstration than a performance”—a sort of Tone Test in reverse—the magazine didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Many pundits have acclaimed 2023 as a break­through year for sports streaming, largely evidenced by the eye-popping licensing fees media companies paid—and continue to pay—for the rights to deliver premium sporting events. Major players such as Amazon, Apple, Disney, Netflix, and NBC seem to regard acquiring multimillion-dollar exclusive sports rights to NFL playoff games, MLS, WWE, and the like as their best bet for quick-hit acquisition of millions of new subscribers. However, hiccups and reportedly unresponsive tech support in some cases (along with resentment over having to subscribe to a streaming service to watch games they’re used to seeing on local network affiliates) have left large swaths of viewers in whiplash churn mode as the game clock ticks down.

It would appear that some players in the premium sports streaming world still struggle to achieve performance or experience parity with\ traditional broadcast. Meanwhile, innovative tech companies promote heightened interaction and personalized streaming experiences as the future of in-home sports entertainment.

When I sat down with Amagi EVP of global sales Dan Marshall at IBC last fall, he predicted that gamification of the viewer experience through AR would provide the “personal connection to the event” that would distinguish the streamed sports experience from anything traditional broadcast could conceivably provide. Harmonic is leaning hard into hyper-personalization of the sports viewing experience to increase engagement and retention, tailor UIs to viewer preferences, and improve content discovery—essentially, bringing everything OTT does substantially better than broadcast to an area where streaming is still proving itself.

There can be little doubt that live sports streaming has a lucrative and dazzling future. But first, it needs to get past the Tone Test stage.

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