How Streaming Video and Audio Work

Step-by-step Streaming

Using streaming media files is as easy as browsing the Web, but there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make the process possible:

  1. Using your Web browser, you find a site that features streaming video or audio.
  2. You find the file you want to access, and you click the image, link or embedded player with your mouse.
  3. The Web server hosting the Web page requests the file from the streaming server.
  4. The software on the streaming server breaks the file into pieces and sends them to your computer using real-time protocols.
  5. The browser plugin, standalone player or Flash application on your computer decodes and displays the data as it arrives.
  6. Your computer discards the data.

All of this requires three basic components -- a player, a server and a stream of data that are all compatible with each other.

Creating and distributing a streaming video or audio file requires its own process:

  1. You record a high-quality video or audio file using film or a digital recorder.
  2. You digitize this data by importing it to your computer and, if necessary, converting it with editing software.
  3. If you're creating a streaming video, you make the image size smaller and reduce the frame rate.
  4. A codec on your computer compresses the file and encodes it to the right format.
  5. You upload the file to a server
  6. The server streams the file to users' computers.

Because of advances in home computers and software, it's become easier for people to create their own streaming videos at home. Most people can't afford to purchase and maintain their own streaming servers and instead pay a service provider to host the videos. But the increased availability of streaming video has also created some challenges. One is copyright. It's easier than ever to illegally copy TV shows or other videos and post them on the Web, and legal action from copyright owners has become more common.

Another challenge has to do with royalties. Streaming video has changed the way people watch TV shows and movies, and some actors, writers and other entertainment industry workers claim they aren't being paid as they would for TV broadcasts or theater screenings. In addition, in March 2007, the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board changed its royalty structure, making Internet radio far more expensive to produce than it had been.

In spite of these complications, the world of streaming video and audio continues to grow. In the next few years, Internet TV, Internet radio and other streaming applications may become real competitors against traditional media.

If you'd like to learn more about streaming video, streaming audio and related topics, you'll find lots of resources below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Adobe. "A Streaming Media Primer." (10/5/2007)
  • Klass, Brian. "Streaming Media in Higher Education: Possibilities and Pitfalls." 5/30/2003 (10/5/2007)
  • Larson, Lisa. "A Crash Course in Flash Video." 9/24/2007 (10/5/2007)
  • Media College. "Introduction to How to Create Streaming Video." (10/5/2007)
  • Reuters. "YouTube Serves Up to 100 Million Videos a Day." USA Today. 7/16/2006 (10/5/2007).
  • Steinmetz, Mike. "Streaming Media." (10/5/2007)
  • "Understanding Streaming Media Protocols." 2/2/2003 (10/5/2007)
  • University of Wisconsin. "Understanding Streaming Media." (10/5/2007)