Olympics Set to Kick Off New Era in Broadband TV

Phil Fearnley, GM, news & knowledge, BBC Future Media

Phil Fearnley, GM, news & knowledge, BBC Future Media

By Fred Dawson

April 27, 2012 – Once again the Summer Olympics is shaping up to be a staging ground for the latest advances in the use of the Internet to provide compelling content in tandem with TV broadcasts, but this time with a historic signal that the broadband TV era has arrived as successor to traditional TV.

In essence the online strategies of leading Olympics broadcasters represent a sea change in the evolution of TV where the picture quality of streamed content, IP functionalities and the sheer volume of event coverage available via the Internet make a strong case for consumers’ choosing online as the preferred outlet, especially if they have connected TVs or set-tops. Or, as the BBC’s director of future media Ralph Rivera put it in a recent interview with the Financial Times, “Our aspiration is that 2012 will do for digital and connected televisions what the [1952 Queen Elizabeth] coronation did for TV.”

Of course, BBC, with its UK-targeted broadcast coverage, and NBC Universal, with its broadcast plans in the U.S., will be using their traditional TV channels to provide the usual coverage of main events and commentary with expectations that these will be the primary ratings drivers. But, as ABI Research senior analyst Sam Rosen notes, there’s something different about the scope of what’s happening on the Internet this time around.

“Broadcasters are preparing IP video for laptops, tablets and smartphones to support viewing of live events while at work, as well as augmenting their video-on-demand capabilities to provide audiences with control of which sports to watch at home,” Rosen says. “Many will experiment with new video distribution to customers including through Facebook, HTML5 Websites optimized for multiple screens, dedicated iPad or Android apps and apps for connected TV products like Roku.”

As the 2012 Olympics host country broadcaster, the BBC is going all out with distribution of 2,500 hours of live event coverage via 24 HD streams online, which the network recently announced will be made available for delivery over cable and satellite TV channels as well, along with the traditional over-the-air programming feeds from BBC One and BBC Three. With streaming formatted for reception on all types of devices, “we are getting to the point where it is ubiquitous,” Rivera told FT.

Not to be outdone, NBC Universal is planning to stream every event on the Olympics agenda live, amounting to some 3,600 hours of coverage, over its NBCOlympics.com outlet. This along with archived access to all events, replays of all TV broadcasts, interviews with athletes and other special Web content will be available on connected devices, although NBC is also placing strong emphasis on its newfound ability to expand TV coverage of the Olympics through NBC Sports Network, the former Versus that was folded into NBC Sports following the Comcast acquisition of NBC-Universal.

Rising consumer usage of connected devices for accessing TV entertainment driven by big advances in technology as well as increases in broadband and mobile bandwidth since the 2008 Summer and even the 2010 Winter Olympics account for the greater prominence BBC is according the Internet this time around. “In the same way as the BBC has a role in making sure there is a healthy TV ecosystem, the BBC should be playing the same sort of role in the digital sector,” Rivera said. “It’s part of why we have a license fee.”

The Transcoding Challenge

From a technology standpoint, one of the key players in the worldwide effort to enable multiscreen access to high volumes of live event as well as time-shifted content is Elemental Technologies. Under strict restrictions when it comes to naming specific customers for its streaming products, the company in a press release makes clear that “leading international broadcasters with multiscreen delivery rights for the 2012 Olympic Games” in the UK, Canada, Japan and “more than a dozen” Latin American countries “will use Elemental products to power their IP video delivery initiatives.”

At the same time, again without naming names, Elemental has made known it is providing technological support for plans to stream events internationally so that people in countries not served by broadcasters who can stream content online can have multiscreen access to the games. These plans are being orchestrated by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) as the ultimate dispenser of distribution rights under its charter mandate to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world.”

Where, in the past, most of the Olympics content available online has been delivered on-demand rather than live with statistics and information about the events and athletes compiled on a time-delayed basis, this time things will be very different with live event streaming and real-time stats generation providing a completely different online experience for viewers, notes Keith Wymbs, vice president of marketing at Elemental. The volume of streams and the execution of those streams with adaptive rate technology represent an unprecedented technological challenge for delivering quality experiences to a global audience.

“The [transcoding] profiles range from lower bit rate mobile all way to HD level 1080p types of profiles,” Wymbs says. “I’d guess that across the four regional deployments there are probably 30 or 40 different profiles to cover all the different possibilities.”

These profiles will be using the three dominant modes of AR streaming, depending on end user devices, including Apple’s HLS, Adobe’s HDS and Microsoft’s Smooth, he adds. And there’s a chance providers will attempt to employ the new converged streaming standard MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) as well.

“There’s discussion around trying to do a DASH implementation,” Wymbs says, adding that Elemental demonstrated DASH at its booth during the recent National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas. “It’s not definite at this point because of the immaturity of the technology, but there’s a lot of interest in attempting to do it.”

Contributing to the significant shift in online experience with these Games is the role stats and other ancillary information will play with live event streaming. “I think there’s going to be an increased emphasis on integration of real-time information and stats behind events based on what we’re hearing from our integration partners who specialize in this area,” Wymbs says. “It’s going to jump out in comparison to what we saw with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“This is tracking with recent trends we’ve seen with live online sports coverage like MLB.com provides,” he adds. “There’s a lot more intelligence to enable fast turnaround of stats and things like highlights packages to be generated from multiple simultaneous venues. And there’s more intelligence embedded with apps capabilities in device players.”

The Blended Viewing Experience

While viewers’ experience of NBC’s coverage in the U.S. will largely be segmented between what’s seen on the TV set and what’s viewed online, the European experience will provide a more forward-looking version of things to come in the way programming is consumed. “Over time the lines are starting to blur between IP and broadcast channels, and between platform boundaries,” notes Phil Fearnley, the BBC’s general manager of news and knowledge future media, in a recent blog.

One reflection of that fact is BSkyB’s plans to provide both HD and SD versions of the 24 online-originated channels by converting them for TV viewing. Sky will be able to augment its EPG to expose these viewing options to its ten million customers for the duration of the Olympics.

Without the benefit of a multichannel satellite feed to work with the BBC will leverage the “red button” interactive capabilities of free-to-air TV in conjunction with hybrid set-tops to allow broadcast viewers to gain access to the online channels, Fearnley says. “Using these brand new red button services and via the standard EPG platform listings, viewers will be able to switch seamlessly between 24 SD or HD channels,” he says.

“Pressing red on any BBC TV channel will enable audiences to find and watch the events they like, when they like, through simple five button navigation (up, down, left, right, OK),” he adds. “The channels on each red button service will only show the Olympics sports as they are taking place, as well as highlighting what is coming up later.”

Another U.K. service provider taking advantage of the red button capability is cable operator Virgin Media, which has made known its plans to offer all the BBC online channels as a red button option to customers equipped with the hybrid TiVo set-top. About 500,000 of its 3.8 million subscribers have those boxes.

Another major factor in the blending of TV and online content elsewhere in Europe is the growing adoption of the HbbTV (Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV) platform by major broadcasters. The specification draws on elements of existing standards and Web technologies to create a means of marrying broadband and broadcast delivery of content, making it easier for consumer electronics manufacturers to market new connected HDTV sets and for free-to-air and other digital service providers to enhance their offerings.

For example, France Télévisions’ public broadcasting network France 5, which first introduced HbbTV-based programming a year ago, along with other FT outlets, will be offering viewers seamless access to thousands of hours of online Olympics content with stats and social media applications in conjunction with technology support from deltratre and Microsoft’s new Azure Media Services cloud platform. Both deltratre and Microsoft are key players on multiple fronts in the emerging Olympics technology arena.

deltatre, a key contractor in the international streaming service provided under direct auspices of the IOC and supplier of the player being developed for the BBC’s online plans, is also providing its DIVA (Data Integrated Video Application) broadband video player technology for the French broadcaster’s plans. deltratre also will supply support for powering graphics and results data aggregation from the events along with other key Website capabilities for the official London 2012 site, NBC, Canada’s CTV and Terra Networks, which is supplying feeds to broadcasters in several Latin American countries.

As for Microsoft, it is working with detltatre and CDN operator Akamai to leverage the new Media Azure Media Services platform to create an efficient means of aggregating and streaming the live event content feeds for distribution over the IOC’s worldwide online feed. “We’re providing integration of all the HD feeds with the exception of NBC’s on the cloud platform,” says Taras Bugir, worldwide managing director for Microsoft’s media and cable group. “Broadcasters are going to connect their cameras to feed into the cloud at one end and then pick up streams ready for retransmission online.”

NBC’s Tech Platform

In the U.S. NBC plans to stream all live events from the 32 Olympics sports using YouTube’s video player and live streaming. For other function the network is tapping a broad lineup of online technology suppliers, not the least of which is advertising platform vendor FreeWheel. FreeWheel will handle ad management across the digital domain, allowing NBC to dynamically deliver and insert ads in TV-like fashion on live and on-demand programming.

With an ad inventory going far beyond anything it has attempted to date, it remains to be seen how the network will allocate space to its advertisers, but the effort appears to be on track to surpass its 2008 Summer Olympics by a good margin. According to Ad Age Media News, NBC, with three months to go, has sold over $900 million in Olympics inventory, compared to about $800 million for the 2008 Games. This bodes well for ROI on Comcast’s $4.3-billion contract to keep the Olympics at NBC through 2020.

NBC has also made preparations for a massive undertaking when it comes to archiving event videos for access after they are run live. The network says it will make all live events available for online on-demand access, but will delay availability of high-profile events to be featured in its broadcast TV coverage until after those programs have aired.

To handle the on-demand side of Olympics content the network has again tapped Harmonic’s Omneaon storage technology, formerly supplied by Omneon independently prior to Harmonic’s acquisition of the firm. Harmonic is also supplying its ProMedia Carbon transcoding system to support an extensive array of acquisition, editing, broadcast, Web and mobile video formats in conjunction with streaming stored video to TVs, PCs, and mobile devices.

The Harmonic MediaGrid media storage and transcoding systems will enable NBC Olympics to process and deliver high-quality content quickly. The platform relies on digital media in a file-based environment within the NBC Olympics Highlights Factory to support content creation for NBCOlympics.com, mobile platform distribution, IPTV and VOD services, says Craig Lau, vice president of information technology for NBC Olympics.

“When we’re able to give our production team unrestricted access to all media, with search tools that help them to find the best shots, we enable them to create segments with high-emotional impact,” Lau says. “We’re storytellers at heart, and by facilitating fast, flexible media access, the MediaGrid storage systems with ProMedia Carbon get right at the core of what we’re trying to accomplish: telling the stories of the athletes in these Olympic competitions.”

Cisco Systems, too, has been signed up as a repeat supplier for NBC Olympics, in this case for distribution infrastructure with the intelligence required to manage all the traffic from various aggregation and production points as well as distribution to the Internet. Overall, the combined vendor solution will enable real-time shot selection and editing of the London Games content by NBC’s Olympics division staff in multiple locations, Lau says.

On the TV broadcast side, another first for NBC will be 3DTV distribution of Games coverage to pay TV affiliates. NBC, which hasn’t announced which affiliates will undertake 3D distribution, is leveraging the 3D strategy implemented by the Olympics Broadcasting Services with technical support from Panasonic. The more than 200 hours of 3D telecasts, to be produced by OBS and shown on next-day delay in the U.S., will span multiple competitions throughout the games, including the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, gymnastics, diving and swimming.

Challenges and Concerns

Given the unprecedented volume of live online content to be streamed from the Olympics worldwide there are a lot of things that could go wrong, starting with the possibility that some broadband distribution networks could be overwhelmed with the traffic. Such concerns have prompted customers of D-VDN (Digital Video Distribution Network) supplier Edgeware to ask the firm to come up with a pricing mechanism that will allow them to momentarily expand the amount of capacity they’re using on their VDNs, says Edgeware CMO Duncan Potter.

“Fortunately, our platform has capacity to support simultaneous streaming from cache at up to 20 gigabits per second,” Potter says. “Our customers pay for the amount they use under our licensing contracts, so they have the option to expand. They’re saying they’re nervous about what the Olympics will produce so they’re asking us if they can pay for an increase in capacity on a monthly basis. We’re adjusting our business model to make that possible.”

Concerns over traffic volume in the U.K. have prompted Olympics organizers to warn of possible Internet breakdowns, data caps and “unavoidable” mobile problems in a posting on the official Website. In a document entitled “Preparing your business for the Games” the organizers say, “It is possible that Internet services may be slower during the Games or, in very severe cases, there may be dropouts due to an increased number of people accessing the internet….In addition, Internet service providers may introduce data caps during peak times to try and spread the loading and give a more equal service to their entire customer base.”
Preparations for additional capacity on mobile phone networks near Games venues are also underway, the document says. “This will overlay the existing coverage provision and existing customers can expect a ‘normal’ service during Games-time,” it says. “However, at times of peak demand it is unavoidable that mobile networks may be slowed down by higher volumes of traffic. Voice, email and low-data traffic are unlikely to be affected but it may be difficult to download larger content such as files or images.”
Security against hacking or cyber terrorist efforts to disrupt coverage is also a big concern. Atos Origin, the company chosen to provide online security, will supply a dedicated team to protect some 90 venues and data flowing through thousands of computers.

Clearly, the Olympics will be a testing ground for demonstrating whether the technology world is ready to support the emerging multiscreen service paradigm now taking shape across the content owner and distributor ecosystems. Success should provide players worldwide confidence that execution on their ambitious new strategies is doable.