Spark's successful bid for Rugby World Cup rights, and the rise of Netflix, means more Kiwis are spending less time watching traditional television - or they're fretting about how they can stream content over the internet to keep watching their favourite sport.
There is a big stew of services out there - sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating with each other.
Here, we attempt to answer the most common questions about streaming, in as plain English as possible.
Q: What is streaming video?
A: Video that's delivered via an internet connection rather than a satellite dish or TV aerial. It can be live or on-demand (watchable when you want it).
Q: Can I watch streaming video on a regular TV?
A: Yes you can, but some ways are more easy than others. The easiest way is to have a "smart TV" or one that can connect via cable or Wi-Fi to the router that delivers internet to your home. Any TV sold in the last few years is a smart TV, and features support for apps - just as your smartphone or tablet can run various apps. In fact, some run a variant on the same Google Android software that runs most phones outside of Apple's lineup.
You can flick from regular broadcast TV to watching video delivered by an app with a couple of clicks of your remote.
Q: Which Smart TVs support Spark's Spark Sport app?
A: Panasonic Smart TVs made in 2017 or later (see how to install Spark Sport here).
Also Sony Android TVs 2017 or later (install guide here).
And Samsung Smart TVs 2017 or later (install guide here).
Spark earlier had plans for LG Smart TVs released in 2017 or later but had problems with 2017 and 2018 sets, so now Spark Sport is available for 2019 model LG Smart TVs only (install guide here).
Q: What if my TV isn't a smart TV, or its maker doesn't support Spark Sport's app?
A: There are a number of relatively low-cost gadgets that turn a dumb TV into a smart TV, giving it the ability to play apps directly (that is, icons for each app appear on the screen of your telly and you don't have to faff around beaming video from a tablet or laptop).
One is the $139 Freeview SmartVu, which connects to your TV via an HDMI jack and to your internet router via wi-fi. It's tiny - smaller that its power plug - and connects discretly to the back of your telly with a magnet.
SmartVu also gives you apps for other streaming services such as Netflix, Lightbox and YouTube, and also lets you stream most Freeview Channels (TVNZ 1, TVNZ 2, Three etc) over the internet rather than receive them via a satellite dish.
Freeview's $439 A2 recorder, a more traditional set-top box, will also let you add Spark Sport's app to your TV (see a step-by-step guide here).
Apple's Apple TV (from $249) can serve the same function as SmartVu, turning your dumb TV into a smart TV. Like SmartVu, it requires an HDMI jack on your TV, and connects to your home's internet via wi-fi.
What if I don't have a TV, or don't want to stream to my TV?
There are a couple of different options here. One is to watch it through a web browser on your PC via Spark Sport's website. The other is through an app on your smartphone or tablet. That can be good if you're lying in bed or sitting on a bus but is obviously less than ideal if a bunch of you want to watch together, or you simply want to watch a big movie or big game on a big screen, as the Good Lord intended.
Q: How do I get a video from my phone, tablet or PC onto my 'dumb' TV screen?
A: One option is to plug your laptop into your TV using an HDMI cable (most mid-to-expensive laptops have an HDMI socket, and all TVs sold in the past few years have several), then fire up Spark Sport (or Netflix or Lightbox or your streaming service of choice on your TV) then use the "input" button on your TV remote to find the video. But it is a bit messy, and a bit of a hassle.
A better option is to "cast" or wirelessly beam video from a smartphone, tablet or laptop using a $70 Google Chromecast or Apple TV (though if you've got an Apple TV, then you should really download Spark Sport or Netflix or other apps to the device to the device itself (see instructions for adding Spark Sport to your Apple TV here) so you can cut your phone, tablet or computer out of the equation.
Google's Chromecast works with Windows laptops, or phones or tablets that run on Google's Android software (that is, those made by Samsung, Sony, LG, Huawei and most other brands beyond the iPhone).
Chromecast works as a conduit to get pictures from your device to your telly. Once it's installed, you'll see a Chromecast icon appear top right of most apps that feature video, and you can tap it to cast video to your TV.
Unlike Apple TV or SmartVu, Chromecast doesn't come with a remote; you use your smartphone or tablet as the "remote" instead.
Apple TV's version of casting is called Airplay and it works with iPhones, iPads and MacBooks.
Q: What are streaming platforms?
A: Streaming platforms are gadgets that let you watch content from the likes of Netflix, Lightbox, Amazon Prime Video, TVNZ OnDemand, 3Now and Spark Sport on your TV without having to "cast" from a phone or iPad.
The aforementioned Apple TV is the most popular - but the caveat is that the streaming service you want to watch must have an Apple TV app. All of the services mentioned in this answer do, bar Spark Sport - though Spark says it'll have one by the time the Rugby World Cup kicks off.
Apple TV lets you buy movies from its iTunes store, but it also hosts apps from competitors like Netflix and Amazon.
Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox also support most streaming apps, though not Spark Sport.
Vodafone NZ's Vodafone TV offers you all of the channels that Sky TV delivers via satellite dish, but delivers them to your TV via your broadband connection - and it includes support for Netflix, YouTube, TVNZ and 3's streaming apps - but for technical and commercial reasons (Vodafone and other ISPs spat the dummy over Spark's wholesale terms) it does NOT support Spark Sport.
Q: What sort of internet connection is best for streaming?
A: Almost every streaming service, or app, uses what's called "adaptive streaming" or changing the quality of its streaming video to suit your internet connection. So almost any broadband connection in the country can play streaming video. It's just that if your connection is a bit slow, the picture might look a bit rubbish and get a bit of buffering (or when the picture freezes as the service downloads data to your device in an attempt to get ahead).
An Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre internet connection is the best for watching streaming video, especially if you want to watch it in high definition (HD) on a big screen.
An older copper line internet connection can be fine - but can also slow down at peak times, such as the evening when you and your neighbours all try to watch Netflix at once (what's called "contention" in telco speak). UFB fibre is far less susceptible to contention.
And a copper broadband line will also slow down markedly if other people in your household are using the internet at the same time - especially if they're doing something that's bandwidth-intensive like streaming video or online gaming.
Q: Does streaming video look better or worse than broadcast TV?
A: It depends on your internet connection. If you've got a good enough internet connection (which pretty much means UFB fibre on an unlimited data plan) then Netflix and Amazon Prime Video can deliver you content in 4K or Ultra High Definition - or four times the quality of the High Definition (HD) channels on Sky TV and free-to-air channels.
If you're not on fibre yet, streaming video can look worse than broadcast TV - especially at peak times when the network gets overloaded.
Incidentally, Netflix is now shooting shows in 8K as well, which is four times the picture quality of 4K again - although it's yet to say when it will start streaming content in 8K.
Don't choose the 4K option on Netflix unless you're on fibre with an unlimited data plan, and you own a TV that supports 4K (it's now standard even on sub-$1000 TVs, and has been for a couple of years).
Q: Can I take my time getting UFB fibre?
A: Nope. If you want to have Ultrafast Broadband before the Rugby World Cup, you have to pick up your phone and call your internet provider today. The good news: installation is free, and most fibre plans cost about the same as copper line plans.
The bad news: Chorus said this week that it had the capacity to connect about 50,000 households to UFB fibre before the RWC kicks off in September - which is not ideal given at the time there were about 650,000 homes still to be hooked up (Chorus is running on schedule for the 12-year UFB rollout - it's just that its schedule doesn't coincide with Spark's sporting plans).
Q: What sort of internet plan is best for streaming?
A: One with an unlimited data plan. Odds are you've got one already. Statistics NZ says more than 70 per cent of Kiwi households are on unlimited data.
Q: How much data does streaming video use?
A: An hour of high-def streaming video will chew through about two gigabytes (2GB) of data. So a test match would account for around 4GB, if you throw in some pre and after-match commentary. So if you're internet plan caps your data at, say, 40GB or 60GB, you can reach the limit of your data allowance pretty fast - at which point your ISP might throttle (slow) your connection or charge you a nosebleed amount for extra data. So an unlimited plan is your best bet.
Q: Why is streaming bad in some parts of my house and how can I fix it?
Most people have the modem/router that delivers broadband to their home, then beams it around the house via wi-fi, in their living room.
That's great for streaming TV in your lounge, but the strength of a wi-fi (wireless internet) fades with distance.
On paper, the modem/router in your living room might have a range of 30m to 50m, but in reality it will be a lot less with walls and other obstructions degrading or blocking the signal - which can lead to rubbish-quality streaming video.
The answer is a wi-fi extender kit. There are a number of these on the market. I've recently been testing Google Wifi. One Google Wifi unit plugs into your home's modem, then one or more can be placed around your home to relay the signal.
Each Google Wifi unit is wireless, in terms of how it handles the internet, but does need a power plug.
I live in three-story home with concrete walls, and have found having a Google WiFi unit on each floor has really improved wi-fi reception and internet speed on the second and third floors.
Google Wifi isn't cheap (it costs $299 for one unit or $599 for three) but if you're having trouble with wi-fi in the far reaches of your home, it makes a big difference.
Unlike some extender or "mesh" kits, Google Wifi is also easy to setup yourself. You can control it from a smartphone, and get frills like the ability to turn off wi-fi at certain times for certain devices (eg. your kids' phones and tablets after 9pm).
Q: I live in a rural area? Is that bad news for streaming?
A: I'm afraid so, for some people. Crown Infrastructure Partners - the government agency that's overseeing the public-private Rural Broadband Initiative - recently told MPs that around 40,000 households in rural areas don't have good enough broadband to stream the Rugby World Cup. And Spark has conceded that not all rural broadband is up to snuff for streaming.
But people in rural areas don't just have to worry about whether their internet connection has enough speed - or, more properly, bandwidth - to deliver smooth, good quality streaming video.
There's also the issue that many people in the country are on fixed wireless broadband, satellite broadband or another service that has limited data - and often quite a stingy limit that they'll hit if they watch more than a handful of hours of streamed video per month.
For rural rugby fans, there's just not much good news here. Spark does say that it's made Spark Sport available to pubs and clubs at the same rate as a household, so that could be an option if your local has good broadband.
Q: Do I have to be a Spark customer to get Spark Sport?
A: No, it's open to anybody.
Q: Is the Rugby World Cup covered by the regular, $20/month Spark Sport?
A: No. A Rugby World Cup tournament pass is sold separately and costs $80 today or $90 if you wait until September.
Q: Enough about Spark Sport already. What other streaming services are available?
With just under 150 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the largest streaming service on the planet - and its 2015 launch into New Zealand was the catalyst to push streaming into the mainstream here. Netflix began by emphasising its "long tail" of content - mostly licensed from movie studios and TV channels - but it now focuses on making its own shows and films or what's called original content. After a recent price increase, Netflix costs $11.99/month for a Basic plan (which lets you watch on one screen at once), $16.99/month for a Standard Plan (two screens) or $21.99 for four screens plus 4K or ultra high definition).
Like all of the streaming services, there are no contracts - you pay by the month and or put your plan on hold when you like. Historically, Netflix has been streaming only - but now it's letting you download and store an increasing number of shows, which is useful if, say, you're about to take a long plane trip and want to take your tablet for some DIY inflight entertainment. If you're hearing-impaired - or struggling against noise from an open-plan kitchen/living room - you'll appreciate that all Netflix content has the option for captions (as does Amazon's Prime Video and Hulu).
The Spark-owned Lightbox is like Netflix but without original programming and pay-per-view movies. You can stream all the TV shows you like on a $12.99/month (two screens) or $15.99/month (four screens) plan. Movies cost between $4.99 and $6.99. Spark recently said it was seeking a partner for Lightbox. The basic plan is free for Spark broadband customers.
Neon is owned by Sky TV, but operates separately as a Netflix-style service that costs $13.95 a month. There's no original programming, but there is a lot from the award-winning US network HBO (which Sky also leans on heavily for its Soho channel). It's a good option to binge on hit HBO fare like Game of Thrones, Chernobyl or Big Little Lies without having to take a Sky contract. Neon began its life with relatively thin content as Sky fretted about cannibalising its traditional business, but these days it's a lot bolder and more fleshed out - so it's worth taking a second look.
Sky Sport Now (nee Fanpass)
Also owned by Sky TV. Offers streaming versions of Sky Sport channels 1 - 12, plus highlights and selected events (often big-name boxing bouts or UFC brawls) offered on pay-per-view. Sky Sport Now costs $19.99 for a no-contract week pass, $49.99 for a no-contract month pass, or $39.99 a month on a 12-month contract.
Sky Go lets subscribers to Sky TV's traditional service watch selected channels - including most of its sports content and boxed sets, on a PC, tablet or phone. In its early days, Sky Go was famous for falling over and blank-screening during big events, and it got a well-deserved shellacking on social media. But Sky has continued to incrementally upgrade and tweak it, and it's now pretty solid service. The cost is included with your Sky TV subscription.
Sky TV On Demand
A lot of the content that Sky TV broadcasts can now also be streamed free by subscribers. It can be a good alternative to recording a show to your decoder's hard drive. The selection of content you can access on Sky TV On Demand depends on the channels you're subscribed to with the pay-TV broadcaster's traditional service. If you Soho is part of your channel mix, you'll be able to stream Soho content from Sky TV On Demand, for example. To use Sky TV On Demand, you have to connect your Sky decoder to your modem via a Wi-Fi dongle called a Sky Link (contact Sky and they'll send you one free) or ethernet cable, which you can pick up at any computer or consumer electronics store. A DIY guide is online here.
Amazon Prime Video
Netflix's biggest global competitor, owned by Amazon as in Amazon the giant online retailer. And like Netflix, it's made a big push into original programming including its showpiece The Grand Tour, fronted by Top Gear alumni Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond (who it turns out are a bit dull when they are given complete artistic freedom. They were more fun when they had BBC rules to subvert) plus a lot of other big-budget series. Prime Video has also made a number of sports documentaries, including a series covering English Premier League side Manchester City and a reverential-to-the-point-of-dullness effort on our own All Blacks. Prime Video charges Kiwis in US dollars and costs US$2.99 ($4.30) a month for your first six months then US$5.99 ($7.20).
TVNZ OnDemand and 3Now
Our big two free-to-air broadcasters offer an increasing amount of content via their streaming services. And TVNZ, especially, is offering some series via is online service only, such as the recently added Catch 22. The streaming services can be a good alternative to recording a show. But as with all online services, their subject to "windowing" - or only being able to get rights for content for a certain period of time - so a lot of content disappears after a while. Freeview's streaming service is also a good way to tap into TVNZ and 3's online content, plus that from other free-to-air broadcasters.
The New Zealand version of Apple's iTunes offers a selection of pay-per-view movies on-demand (unlike Netflix, it's not all-you-can eat for a fixed monthly sub, though Apple is teeing up a new service that will offer that option). Some people like to sneak on to the US version of iTunes, too, which offers a broader selection of movies and adds a lot TV series, too. Apple is in the process of splitting up iTunes, which began life as a music-only service, into music, podcast and TV apps. [UPDATE: in November, Apple will launch its Netlfix-like Apple TV+ service in NZ for $8.99 per month. More details here.]
Google Play, YouTube Premium
Google's online store (which also features apps, music and e-books) offers a selection of pay-per-view movies for streaming at $6.99 to $7.99 a pop, with catalogue titles cheaper. As with Apple's service and others, rights issues mean Kiwis get a smaller selection of content. Elsewhere in its empire, Google offers YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) for $15.99 a month - a paid version of its popular video-sharing service that lets you avoid ads and access additional content created by various YouTube stars.
Hulu began life as a cooperative venture involving most of the US free-to-air network and movie studios, though recently Disney has bought out others to build a majority stake. Hulu makes some original programming, including The Handmaid's Tale (which streams on Lightbox here) but the bulk of its content is drawn from shows currently screening on US TV (in contrast to Netflix, which mostly shows library content outside its original programming).
If you want to watch Saturday Night Live just hours after its screened in the US, Hulu is your place. Hulu is geo-blocked to Kiwis but relatively easy to access and subscribe to using a VPN and gift cards (see "What about piracy?" below). It costs US$5.99 ($8.60) a month with ads or US$11.99 ($15.80) per month ad-free.
Disney Plus will hit New Zealand on November 19 for $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year (and is already taking registrations here). Its launch will break Sky's longtime near-monopoly on Disney content, though it's still not clear how content will be split between Disney Plus and Sky. Disney says that, longtime, Plus will be the exclusive home of Disney content.
The Beeb's iPlayer service features its radio and TV content. It's free for Brits (or, at least, included in their TV license fee) and geo-blocked to others, but it's another service that Kiwis can sneak a peek at relatively easily.
Stuff Pix - which rose from the ashes of the failed Australasian streaming contender Quickflix - offers a modest selection of movies, priced between $1 and $7. There's no unique or original content, so some seeking a generic movies-for-hire service might be more drawn to Apple's iTunes or Google Play.
The US$14.99/month HBO Now is a service that delivers content straight from the US network to its audience via the HBO Now website or app - cutting out the middle man from old-school aggregators like Sky TV to new-school players like Netflix and Amazon Prime. HBO Now is not available here yet, because Sky TV owns local HBO rights, but the trend of content creators using the internet to reach their audiences directly is one to watch - particularly as sports organisations get in on it too.
Q: Is it piracy to access the US version of Netflix?
A: It's still not hard to find out-and-out pirated content on the internet; sites and services that will let you download new release Hollywood movies and other content without paying a bean. That's illegal, and with so much low-cost content now available to Kiwis through street-legal channels, you no longer have the excuse that NZ is being ignored and you have no other choice.
But then there's virtual private network (VPN) software that's easy to find, which lets you access, say, the US version of Netflix or iTunes, which both boast more content than their NZ incarnations, plus the likes of the UK-only BBC iPlayer or the US-only Hulu. And gift cards can be used to pay for a monthly sub, eliminating the need for a local credit card. Is that legal? It's a gray area. Sky TV would argue "no", but a number of lawyers and legal commentators - including Lowndes Jordan partner Rick Shera - who argue it's just the online equivalent of parallel importing and perfectly legal. There has never been a test case to resolve the issue. The Copyright Act (1993), which was authored before the internet went mainstream, let alone anyone conceive of streaming, is about to get an overhaul, which should help clarify things.
• If you're still scratching your head, feel free to send me an email on email@example.com.