How did streaming start? The history of streaming TV

March 30th, 2017 Back

The beginning of streaming content

It’s all but official: we now live in an on-demand, streaming society. It feels like it’s taken no time at all for predictions that traditional broadcast television (and radio, and print!) would soon begin to fall away, in favor of moving online, to come true.

 

We now live in an age where we watch television on demand using our internet-connected laptops rather than the box in the corner of the living room, where we put a Spotify playlist on shuffle instead of hoping our favorite pop song gets played on the radio, and of sitting down to breakfast with a tablet in hand to scan through the headlines you just downloaded instead of flicking through the newspaper scooped up from the front porch.

 

It certainly feels like it happened quickly, at least. In fact, now that everything is “On Demand,” we’re used to things being immediate. Was it really all that fast, though? You might be surprised to learn that the history of streaming media reaches back a lot further than you might think.

 

In fact, the origins of VIDGO, the early days of Spotify, the foundation of YouTube — all of those milestones come relatively late in the development of streaming television, online radio and internet videos.

 

It’s a process that began, believe it or not, in the early part of the 20th century!

 

That’s right, there have been people who have been waiting for the better part of a hundred years for us to get to this point. Talk about patience. Sure puts buffering in perspective, huh? In the first of a four-part series, the VIDGO blog is going to be looking into the history of streaming video: the past, present, and some predictions about what might lay ahead in its future.

 

First up, we’re going to answer the question of how did streaming start in the first place, anyway? Who invented streaming? When did streaming start? And why have the geniuses behind it not crowned the Kings and/or Queens of Earth, the only suitable reward for bringing us all this wonderful stuff into our homes at the press of a button?

 

Okay, so we might not have a definitive explanation for that last one, but for the rest of them…read on!

 

What is the definition of streaming?

 

First of all, we should make sure everybody’s square with the definition of “streaming.” Is that cool? Here’s the most basic explanation of how streaming works, and what streaming means.

 

In computing terms, a “data stream” consists of data which is released in order, over time, rather than all at once in random pieces which are fitted together by the time they get to you. It’s the difference between downloading something, requiring a wait, and having it delivered to you “live.”

 

Which means that, put simply,

 

“streaming media” is any kind of media which is delivered to a single, specific user from a provider. That means that traditional television and radio are out, since they rely on signals being broadcast indiscriminately by a provider, with the user having to own the apparatus to pick up those signals. See? Now you have a basic definition of old broadcast media and new streaming media!

 

In the modern day, streaming is the much-preferred alternative to downloading files, which can often take a long time, especially if you’re wanting HD or even 4K (or, whisper it, 8K) quality video. In those cases, it’s far better to “stream” media, having it delivered to you as each part is downloaded in sequence. Which is why you sometimes have to deal with that infernal buffering symbol interrupting your shows, thanks to a dodgy connection. Unless you’ve already streamlined that with our handy guide! You’ve read our guide to beating buffering, right?

 

Nowadays, we understand streaming media as the stuff we get from the web. Whether it’s video from VIDGO, YouTube or Netflix, music from Spotify or Pandora, the idea is that they begin playing a data file before it’s finished downloading, making it faster for everybody. It’s pretty much the backbone of popular culture in the 21st century (so far, anyway!) The year streaming started, though, may surprise you. Technically, streaming started much earlier than most people know.

 

When did streaming begin?

 

The earliest example of streaming media dates back to 1930. How is that possible when, in the first half of the 20th century, computers looked more like threshing machines and took up several rooms, and telephones were connected to wires which were often shared by several households at once?

 

Because the earliest streaming media was not radio or television. It was elevator music. Known derisively as “muzak,” the painfully inoffensive jingles fill the awkward space shared by strangers too lazy to take the stairs, opting instead to cram themselves into a metal box. Yes, this unlikely scene is the earliest example of streaming media in history.

 

How so? Because the easy-listening music being piped into elevators — similar to the sort used in supermarkets, and when you’re put on hold during a phone call — was being continuously delivered to single users; in this case, the elevators themselves. As with streaming content of today, muzak has its detractors. As there are critics now deriding binge-watching, and the creation of content designed to be consumed in such a way, there were entire groups dedicated to eradicating this “background music,” or trying to make it more interesting as a compromise.

 

They even still exist, with the particularly vocal (and punnily titled) group “Pipedown” enjoying some recent success in getting department stores to switch off the background soundtrack. Despite its legacy being that of an annoyance, musical furniture which takes unconsented residence in your head, muzak was actually incredibly groundbreaking. It paved the way for all streaming media as we know it today. So next time you find yourself irritated by the smooth jazz tune whistling about in your head, remember that were it not for that, you wouldn’t have VIDGO.

 

What happened next?

 

George O. Squier was granted patents for this system, which distributed signals over electrical lines directly rather than using radio waves, transmitters or receivers all the way back in the 1920s. From there we got muzak piped into elevators, but it took decades before that same technology would be used for anything other than playing bad music in otherwise silent public spaces.

 

As computer technology began to develop, with the help of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers during the Second World War and the innovations of IBM shortly thereafter, there were some early innovators who tried to get moving pictures to display on their primitive monitors. Even as late as the seventies and eighties, this proved to still be way too expensive and simply beyond the capabilities our relatively primitive understanding of this new invention and the technological advances which were then within our reach.

 

It wasn’t until a seismic shift in computer tech that the first real stirrings of streaming media, as we know it today, began. The early proliferation of internet access in the nineties, expanding from a curio used on college campuses with a tech focus to the homes of people across the globe, is where we begin to see “streaming video” as it came to be known. Initially named “store and forward video,” for the fact that such videos stored a little and played a little rather than downloading everything before playing. By this point in history, the main issue stopping streaming from becoming widespread was not about having screens capable of displaying images.

 

Instead, it was about the amount of people who owned computers (still not everybody) which were connected to the internet (even less, before America Online started sending out those CD-ROMs to every home in America). There was also the issue of whether there was enough bandwidth available to make streaming video worth bothering with for the average user.

 

Even today, in the age of fiber optic cables and your average coffee shop boasting plentiful WiFi, buffering remains a key issue for streaming video. Just imagine what it was like in those early days, those squealing dial-up tones from the cable plugged into your phone line trying to deliver True Lies to the huge, old-school monitor of a desktop computer running Windows 95. It wasn’t really a viable option. It’s why Netflix was still primarily a DVD rental company up through the early years of the 21st century.

 

It would be table-flippingly frustrating. Which is probably why, at the beginning, streaming video didn’t actually use the megabits of digital data which make up your binges of your fave Real Housewives series today. This groundbreaking technology actually depended on a physical format which has long since gone the way of the dodo. And which has less chance of being brought back to life in a lab.

 

How did streaming video start?

 

The very first Video on Demand streaming services actually used tapes, rather than digital copies, of movies as the source of the data being delivered. GTE and AT&T teamed up to trial the process in 1990, moving onto previously encoded digital video from disks in 1992.

 

Thanks to some antitrust laws passed in the eighties (not dissimilar from the modern-day bickering over net neutrality), big telecommunication companies which broken up into smaller, adorably-named “Baby Bells,” all of which hopped onto the proposed VOD gravy train. Having a bunch of companies working on this nascent streaming tech at once helped speed up its evolution.

 

Video On Demand (VOD) was different to paid cable services like HBO and Cinemax, since whilst you paid extra to get access and needed a special set-top box plugged into your television, you were not beholden to schedules. Long before there was even the beginning of the idea of cord cutters, there were the brave TV Guide unsubscribers. As with muzak, these were technically streaming services, even if it was telephone lines being used in a more traditional fashion to deliver the data, not the web as we know it today.

 

Before long, there were early experiments in streaming being offered to test markets across the nation, by companies such as IBM, Bell Atlantic and Ameritech. Rather than the more elegant set-top boxes of today, or software built into smart televisions, the nascent VOD platforms were a little more haphazard. Viewers who agreed to try out this brave new world of content delivery had to contend with messes of wires connecting serves, computer towers and the like to their TVs.

 

These telephone companies eventually teamed up computer companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, who offered their networks to get the stuff streaming through the internet, rather than tape. Pre-scandal, Enron helped pave the way for the streaming of today by buying, building and installing thousands of miles of fiber optic cables throughout the United States.

 

The very first, properly live streamed content using online technology? That milestone was a radio broadcast, not video. Audio on demand, as opposed to video on demand, if you will. ESPN SportsZone brought its play-by-play report of the Seattle Mariners versus the New York Yankees to thousands of listeners using their internet connections, on 5th September 1995.

 

It wasn’t the most thrilling game in the career of either team — the famous double hit of Seattle’s Edgar Martínez came a couple of weeks later, in Game 5 of that year’s MLB American League Division Series — but it was a groundbreaking moment in streaming history, being the first streaming audio broadcast. Or possibly the second, after a 1994 Rolling Stones gig which was shared online, but nobody can quite agree on whether or not that counts.

 

Next time, we will continue to cover that early part of the history of streaming, when burgeoning companies like RealMedia and Macromedia continued to innovate to bring online content live to your computer monitor. Stay tuned for that, same VIDGO time, same VIDGO channel!

 

Sources:

1995: The Beginning of Internet Baseball Broadcasts

The Guardian

 


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