April 15, 2013 – In a move that adds significant momentum to the emergence of broadband TV NBC Sports has decided to deliver its highest-profile events, including Sunday night NFL football and racing’s Triple Crown, to consumers on devices of every description.
Now that people are accustomed to watching long-form entertainment on connected devices a provider of major sports events can ill afford not to be reaching those viewers, says Rick Cordella, senior vice president and general manager for digital media at NBC Sports and Olympics. “Sports need to be seen live,” Cordella states. “Sports have the most to gain by streaming live content.”
That’s not to say other brands in the NBC broadcast portfolio “won’t flow in,” he adds. “But sports are at the forefront. We’re blazing the trail.”
And quite a trail it is, consisting of tie-ins with advertisers who are ready to exploit the dynamic advertising capabilities of the IP domain; a business model that has won over broadcast affiliates; new viewing features that can’t be offered on traditional TV, and affirmation that a cloud-based approach to overcoming distribution hassles, in this case provided by Microsoft’s Azure Media Services, is reliable enough to meet rigorous performance standards of a leading sports broadcaster.
The event portfolio will also include some 4,000 on-demand options, but it’s the live component that marks a big step forward for OTT. While NBC streamed the 2012 Summer Olympics events live, this step entails bringing a host of marquee events to the streaming window, including the 2014 Winter Olympics, Notre Dame Football, U.K. Premier League soccer, Major League Soccer, Formula One and IndyCar racing, PGA Tour and U.S. Open golf, French Open tennis and more, including the aforementioned Sunday Night Football and Triple Crown horse racing.
Not all of this fare is available over off-air broadcast, of course. Where access to programming such as the NBC Sports Network, regional sports networks and Golf Channel is tied to a pay TV subscription, the events will be limited to authenticated subscribers, Cordella notes.
“A lot of the content is cable content that’s part of TV Everywhere services,” he says. “But from my perspective, whether it’s cable or broadcast, we’re pursuing an ad-supported model.”
An essential component of being able to pursue that model with the broadcast TV network programming was winning local broadcast affiliates’ support for a strategy which could have been viewed as a force for diluting audiences for local advertising. “We’ve partnered with our affiliates,” Cordella says. “They get local inventory so that if you’re watching Sunday Night Football in Des Moines, our affiliate will be able to sell their local spots the same as they do on the broadcast. Our affiliates are great partners, so we’re able to work through any problems that arise.”
With its Olympics experience from last year as a guide, where the digital side took in $60 million in advertising over 17 days, NBC is confident the OTT sports strategy will open a significant new revenue stream. In terms of inventory made available so far for the streamed events, which begin this summer, “we’re sold out,” Cordella says.
“Typically we’re able to sell at better CPMs [than traditional TV],” he notes. “We have a limited supply and we’re able to offer ads to targeted demographics.”
Many TV sports advertisers are eager to exploit these capabilities on the digital side, he notes. “They don’t necessarily cast through in digital,” he says. “They are using different creative. It’s not that hard a [sales] discussion for us. People want to be around this opportunity.”
NBC intends to exploit the IP environment to create a compelling version of the live event coverage for viewing on connected devices. For example, there will be multiple camera angles available to viewers. “If you come in on the game during the third quarter, you’ll be able to go back and see the first quarter,” Cordella says. “There will be social applications to enrich the experience as well.”
Smartphones, tablets and PCs are on the targeted device list at this point. Bob Kelly, corporate vice president for STB business development and strategy at Windows Azure, hints at another device that could be included before long.
“I can imagine the next discussion is what to do around the Xbox,” Kelly says. “If you have had any experience with the new Xbox Live and its browsing capabilities, you know it’s very compelling.”
Smart TVs and other devices supporting TV connectivity are on the radar screen as well. “We want to expand to connected TVs,” Cordella says. But, when it comes to smart TVs, he adds, “There are a lot of things to figure out.”
One of the most important implications of the NBC Sports OTT gambit for the industry at large is the fact the network has put the fate of its operations in the hands of a cloud-based service that will handle all the complicated processes from transcoding and streaming to dynamic ad management and quality assurance. Interestingly, having turned to Google’s YouTube streaming service to support live distribution of some 3,500 Olympics events last summer, NBC Sports has chosen Microsoft for this next phase.
“Depending on big companies like Microsoft, tried and true leaders in this space, to deliver that content is what we need from our vendors,” Cordella says. “The Microsoft Azure team is the same team that we worked closely with during the  Beijing and the  Vancouver Olympics.
“You don’t necessarily want to go with some startup and put your biggest event in their hands,” he continues. “If something doesn’t work we have advertisers at stake, we have cable MVPDs at stake; there are a lot of stakeholders within our ecosystem that depend on this content being delivered at a high-quality rate to anywhere on any device.”
Functionality as well as performance reliability is a big part of it, he adds. “We’re now able to take one stream and multiply that. We can go from streaming from just one NFL game to now potentially up to 60 concurrent streams at a summer Olympics. If we want to do one stream with multiple camera angles, Microsoft can do that.”
“Microsoft and NBC have a long relationship,” Kelly comments. “This one is a seminal moment that represents a new way of building and distributing content. This relationship is going to test the model on a global scale with the ability to deliver content to users everywhere.”
As previously reported, Azure Media Services is built on a highly scalable, elastic computing platform that leverages Microsoft’s massive storage infrastructure, content delivery ecosystem and SQL database server to offer content suppliers a pre-integrated set of fundamental components, including ingest, transcoding, format conversion, content protection and streaming from sources within and outside Microsoft. In the case of NBC Sports Group, Microsoft is working with iStreamPlanet Co. and its live video workflow management product Aventus to provide a scalable, reliable workflow solution to help bring NBC Sports Group programming to the cloud.
While Azure Media Services has only been in generally available release since late January, it’s been in wide use over the past year, including last summer when several international broadcasters used the platform to stream events from the London Olympics. Programmers can stream video to HTML5, Flash, Silverlight, Windows 8, iPad, iPhone, Android, Xbox, Windows Phone and other clients using a wide variety of streaming formats, Kelly notes.
“We support every major codec, every major streaming technology,” he says. “We make it super easy to upload a content package on the fly and get it out to any end point over our global CDN. It’s a modular platform where we have building blocks that allow you to consume the pieces you need, such ad insertion. It’s a rich, pluggable model.”
The fact that a major player like NBC is confident a cloud-based turnkey solution can support its goals may prove to be a turning point for an industry hungry for cost-effective, reliable solutions to multiscreen TV. “I think consumers will end up seeing more content than they ever have before,” Cordella says. “And they’ll see it at a higher quality than they ever have before.”