By Fred Dawson
June 3, 2013 – The second half of 2013 is shaping up to be the breakpoint in the transition to next-generation broadband TV where virtually all suppliers of broadcast and pay TV content are set to move to live streaming of their programs directly to consumers.
Two major technology developments have opened the floodgates to live broadband TV: the maturation of streaming technology platforms that support on-the-fly targeted advertising and cloud-based turnkey support for end-to-end distribution that takes the heavy lifting out of individual programmers’ strategies.
Alluding to the previously reported NBC Sports launch of live program streaming via Microsoft’s Azure Media Services platform, Taras Bugir, worldwide managing director for media and cable at Microsoft, says, “NBC is not the only one. We have a whole stack of customers lined up to use our platform for live as well as on-demand services. The brands you’re going to see are well-known brands.”
Trumping NBC Sports in terms of the range of broadcast programming to be offered is Disney/ABC Television Group, which has just launched the mobile WATCH ABC streaming app for Apple iOS devices and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, allowing cable and satellite subscribers in the Philadelphia and New York areas to view all the national and local programming offered through the local ABC-owned broadcast stations. The company says it will expand the service availability to Samsung Galaxy devices and to all authenticated viewers in reach of its other O&O affiliates this summer. Hearst Television’s 13 stations are also on board with other affiliates likely to follow, the company says.
Disney/ABC’s move “represents a defining moment in technology and distribution, as well as for our advertising and affiliate partners, as we ensure that our high-quality content is available to viewers on a variety of devices,” says Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. “Our mission with this special preview is to gather key learnings about the service and the consumers who utilize it in order for our WATCH products to be the gold standard experience of authenticated multiplatform viewing.”
But NBC Sports has gone further than ABC in one regard, which is to make all the events it offers over its NBC broadcast network, including NFL Sunday Night Football, available to everyone on a wide range of devices, whether or not they’re authenticated pay TV subscribers.
NBC Sports events streamed live from its cable channels are only available to paying subscribers, but its break with authentication requirements for NBC broadcast network programming raises the question of which way other major broadcast networks will go as they unveil their strategies. For its part, sources say, NBC is likely to expand its offerings beyond sports, and when it does, it’s unlikely the network would break with the strategy pursued by its sports group.
Advertising will likely be a decisive factor as networks seek to aggregate as many eyeballs as possible for personalized ad placements. While Disney/ABC officials characterized their move to dynamic ad placements as being driven by the absence of Nielsen measurements for viewing of regularly scheduled ads on connected devices, the emergence of targeted advertising as a new revenue driver with potentially higher CPMs in the digital domain could prove to be the more attractive option, especially if targeted ads from advertisers on the broadcast channels could be factored into higher-priced converged campaign deals.
Dynamic advertising and higher CPMs that come with it are a big part of the NBC Sports strategy, according to Rick Cordella, senior vice president and general manager for digital media at NBC Sports and Olympics. “People want to be around this opportunity,” he says.
The picture as to how the live streaming advertising opportunities will play out will get clearer as ever more networks expand the online viewing base for live TV. A pilot test of Nielsen Digital Program Ratings now underway with participation from a number of networks, including Disney/ABC, NBC, Fox, Univision, Discovery ad A+E, should help clarify things as well.
Meanwhile, programmers across the world are wrestling with which way to go in terms of limiting access to authenticated pay TV subscribers versus maximizing revenue opportunities by reaching the greatest number of connected device viewers. “Content owners and rights owners of content for entertainment see the opportunity to sell directly to consumers,” reports Chris Wagner, co-founder and executive vice president of NeuLion, another provider of cloud-based turnkey support for live as well as on-demand streaming globally.
NeuLion provides international streaming support for major sports leagues, including the NFL, NBA, NHL and UFC as well as support for combinations of domestic and international streaming strategies for several entities, including Univision and The Big Ten college network. Now everyone wants in on the action, Wagner says. The question is, “Do we offer through our affiliates TV on any device like an HBO Go or go direct to consumer? Or, in different parts of the world, the model could be different.”
Noting NeuLion supports all models, Wagner adds, “In the U.S., I see more of an inclination to work through affiliates and operators. Internationally you could also go B-to-C. You have the same content. You just apply different business rules depending on where you’re delivering.”
Remarkably, the general level of broadband connectivity combined with advances in adaptive bitrate streaming have made it possible to deliver NeuLion’s customers’ programming all over the world at an average bitrate of 3 megabit-per-second, good enough to support a 720p level of resolution. “The quality levels are pretty high when you look at it in terms of megabits of video delivered,” Wagner says. “For example, on Xbox we just rolled out for the NBA and NHL 60 frames-per-second live video product on those devices.”
Another key player responding to the shift to live program streaming is thePlatform, which is part of the ecosystem of partners enabling the NBC Sports streaming service. thePlatform has expanded its cloud-based support for video publishing on the mpx video publishing system to allow programmers to schedule and manage live signal acquisition and encoding, handle dynamic advertising insertion and metadata creation, and automatically archive live video broadcasts to create rapid VOD clips or replays.
This affords a comprehensive single-console approach to enabling multiple business models on content for playback across computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices, says Marty Roberts, senior vice president of sales and marketing at thePlatform. “It turns out live events are a real hot topic for our customers this year,” Roberts says.
It’s a complicated picture. “Many of our sports customers are figuring out what their online distribution rights are,” Roberts says. “Sometimes, with regional sports networks, they can only offer access tied to very specific geographic locations. In some cases, rights might be locked up for U.S. distribution, but the customer has the rights for international distribution. We can support all these requirements.”
News broadcasters are also eager to exploit the online streaming opportunity in ways that are different from the traditional mode of online news site operations. “We’re starting to work with news providers who are looking to enhance their online outlets so that the online experience is as entertaining as the TV experience,” Roberts says. “We’re also getting requests from people who produce award shows and other live events.”
Operating live programming with all the capabilities intrinsic to new business models poses new challenges compared to the traditional on-demand streaming business, he adds. “The issue we’re looking at is live event programming is managed independently of existing video management systems in many respects,” he says.
For example, lacking predictable triggers or breakpoints, live events require manual, operator-directed insertion of ads, graphics or alternative programming within a video broadcast. mpx takes advantage of the brief time delay inherent in online broadcasts to enable customers to insert ads, statistics or other graphics at given cue points in the video, Roberts notes.
“We’re actually ingesting an SCTE 35 cue tone or a Web cue tone, depending on what’s appropriate to that video,” he explains. “Our [client-based] player is looking for that in the [adaptive bitrate streaming] manifest file.” The system calls over to an ad network partner such as Freewheel for an ad or ads to fill the space.
“This allows us to overlay advertising right onto that live stream,” he says. During the live event, customers can also easily insert metadata and accompanying graphics in real time, such as stats for the player who just scored a goal or biographical information for the celebrity who just received an award, he adds.
The encoding system used with the cloud-based platform, in this case supplied by Elemental, is crucial to the ability to manage programming on the fly, Roberts notes. “We found the encoder is the source of truth about upcoming events,” he says, adding that thePlatform is negotiating deals with other encoding suppliers as well. “The Elemental console is integrated right into mpx, so the customer can directly access information about the program. It’s been a pleasure working with these guys.”
Roberts stresses the need to operate from the cloud in a hybrid mode that allows customers to utilize facilities-based resources to maximum advantage. “Our live event Web service agent can be installed in the customer’s facilities with plug-ins for talking to different encoders,” he says. “In the hybrid approach all the instructions and coordinations are happening in the cloud but we’re interacting with facilities behind the firewall to insert cue points and perform other functions on their facilities-based platforms.”
Streamlined workflows are essential to making all this possible. As Microsoft’s Taras Bugir observes, “We’re now moving into the phase of how to start monetizing content more effectively. Efficiency is important, but it’s more than that. It’s the ability to try something new quickly and get to market quickly.”
Given the opportunity the Internet affords to develop new niche channels that would never find space on cable channels, such capabilities are core to many big programming network strategies, Bugir adds. “When it comes to launching a new content service or channel you have to be able to spin it up, market, test and see how the market reacts, and if doesn’t, shut it down and try something else,” he says.