Content Ecosystem Archive

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Tech Improvements Fuel TV Nets’ OTT Prospects

Sudheer Sirivara, head of engineering, Microsoft Azure Media Services.

Sudheer Sirivara, head of engineering, Microsoft Azure Media Services.

Direct-to-Consumer Option Gains Credibility

By Fred Dawson

September 8, 2015 – For the legion of TV networks exploring direct-to-consumer OTT strategies that risk upending the traditional pay TV distribution model it’s beginning to look like long-standing impediments to delivering a TV-caliber viewing and advertising experience will not stand in the way.

Of course, there are many other dicey issues to be weighed in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) gambit, where live and on-demand content is delivered without requiring viewers to be pay TV subscribers. But, by virtue of the rapid increase in broadband throughput and vendor rollouts of platforms that bode well to enable a managed service-like approach to end-to-end content delivery, the subpar performance common to TV program viewing and advertising online may soon be a thing of the past.

The possibilities are evident, for example, in the TV Everywhere offerings mounted by Scripps Networks, which are only available to pay TV subscribers at this point but which demonstrate the capabilities now at hand for mounting compelling ad revenue-generating alternatives to traditional TV services. Five Scripps networks including, HGTV, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel and DIY, are streaming live with interstitially placed dynamic advertising tied to location and demographic characteristics utilizing the TV Everywhere cloud-based platform supplied by Anvato.

“Anvato has greatly simplified the process of deploying our TV brands to screens anywhere and everywhere, and helped us optimize advertisements with dynamic insertion of relevant ads for each authenticated user,” says Alix Baudin, senior vice president and general manager for digital product and operations at Scripps Networks Interactive. “Anvato’s platform and comprehensive toolset provides a compelling, rich TV Everywhere experience for our viewers.”

Of late, Scripps and many other broadcasters have moved away from reliance on client-side apps to facilitate ad placements in favor of server-side solution that overcome hit-or-miss performance by directly inserting ads into adaptive bitrate (ABR) streams. “Our server-side ad insertion eliminates spinning wheels, ad-blockers and delivers truly seamless viewing experiences on all platforms while maximizing monetization,” notes Anvato CEO Alper Turgut.

Indeed, DAI (dynamic ad insertion) on live programming streams has become vital to shaping the upside potential in DTC strategies now under serious consideration across the TV programming ecosystem. As a result, bringing together the operational complexities, performance assurance and data analytics essential to making DAI work as a viable alternative to traditional spot placement has become a top priority, prompting many vendors accustomed to working with network operators in the DAI space to switch their focus to TV programmers who are hoping to leverage unmanaged network environments to drive new revenues.

“I don’t know of any TV network that’s not serious about going direct to consumer,” says Jay Samit, CEO of SeaChange International, which from its founding has been focused on providing VOD, middleware, workflow management, DAI and other solutions to network operators. “Providing compelling solutions for this [TV programming] market has become a priority for us.”

Beyond advertising, traditional MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) suppliers’ efforts to capitalize on TV programmers’ need for end-to-end support in the direct-to-consumer arena extend across all relevant service support categories, attesting to the size of the opportunity they see for selling into this segment. This will be strikingly evident at IBC in Amsterdam, where service provider-oriented vendors like Edgeware, a long-time supplier of advanced CDN and cloud DVR technology to telephone and cable companies, are pitching their messages to broadcasters.

In Edgeware’s case, along with calling broadcasters’ attention to the ability of its software-defined, hardware-accelerated approach to massively scaling service reach from the core, the vendor is promoting a CDN strategy where broadcasters could team with network owners to create a much more compelling OTT user experience than is possible with the use of public CDNs. As reported elsewhere, Broadpeak is another traditional service provider vendor who sees a way to foster managed-network quality performance for broadcasters through CDN affiliations with operators.

Edgeware’s CDN strategy also provides broadcasters opportunities to leverage an expanded portfolio of network-based real-time analytics to enable a holistic view into the quality of each user’s experience, which could contribute greatly to satisfying advertisers’ demand for verification of performance. From a public CDN perspective, analytics has long been a component of services from providers like Akamai, but it remains to be seen whether broadcasters will find a way to reach the level of per-session precision that can be attained by traditional network operators.

Meanwhile, turnkey hosted-platform support for DTC operations has grown more robust. For example, Amazon Web Services’ acquisition of Elemental will result in tighter integration of advanced transcoding and packaging capabilities into the Amazon cloud.

“The video market is currently at a major inflection point, and one of a magnitude that only happens every few decades,” says Elemental CEO Sam Blackman in an email message. “Together we intend to provide companies all across the globe the means to efficiently scale their video infrastructures as the industry moves to Internet-based delivery.”

In another sign of the shifting strategic picture, Microsoft’s Azure Media Services has implemented new measures aimed at facilitating live programming distribution and DAI. “We’ve seen a big tidal shift with the unbundling of channels and an emphasis on streaming live as well as on-demand programming,” says Sudheer Sirivara, head of engineering at Microsoft Azure Media Services.

“Content owners want to create their own branded bundles with a viewing experience that meets consumer expectations on all screens,” Sirivara adds. “They don’t want to completely cannibalize the legacy pay TV business, but they want to have their oars in the water with the ability to play around with different combinations of advertising and subscription revenue models.”

In response, Azure Media Services has leveraged its experience with specially built live streaming projects like NBC’s webcasts of the 2014 Winter Olympics and other major events into a pre-packaged set of solutions that any content producer can tap into. “It’s there as a complete end-to-end linear TV workflow with dynamic packaging for mom-and-pop businesses as well as big broadcasters,” Sirivara says.

Server-side DAI is now integral to the Azure service package, he adds. “We can execute DAI through the client on the end-user device, as we’ve always done,” he notes, “but with wide deployment of HTML5-capable browsers and the explosion of devices, people are questioning whether they want to continue deploying clients for each device.”

Morever, there’s a big challenge to getting ads to run smoothly with the client-side approach. “By using the HTML5 browser as runtime and doing ad insertion on the backend, we are providing a simpler solution that many customers prefer,” Sirivara says.

Presently, he adds, the server-side DAI is executed in the cloud. But with scaling of DTC broadcasters may eventually want to insert ads that have been cached as assets at the CDN edge points. “Positioning video fragments in the CDN makes sense,” he says. “But when it comes to manifest manipulation (for pulling in ads on the ABR stream), it’s preferable to handle that level of logic at the backend.”

With about $15 billion sunk into datacenter resources worldwide, Microsoft has developed an ecosystem of partners offering specialized functionalities that can be accessed through Azure Media Services. “Our customers need a robust cloud infrastructure to reach all devices on a global scale, but they need to have the flexibility to access best-of-breed solutions to satisfy their specific needs,” Sirivara says.

One such partner is online video publisher iStreamPlanet, in which Turner Broadcasting System has taken a majority stake as it shifts its core technology infrastructure to the cloud. TBS hasn’t acknowledged any DTC plans, but officials have made clear their new positioning gives them flexibility to move in that direction.

“We’ve worked with iStreamPlanet in the past during the PGA Championship, and they have also delivered world-class events such as the Super Bowl and Olympics to millions of viewers,” says Turner chairman and CEO John Martin. “This partnership will expand our capabilities to offer live events within and outside of the traditional ecosystem and, by bringing iStreamPlanet’s innovative technology in-house, allow us to cultivate future business opportunities on digital platforms.”

But as the technological framework for enabling TV-caliber service over the Internet comes into focus there remains considerable uncertainty over whether broadcasters can pull off a DTC play without causing farther harm to the increasingly fragile traditional pay TV business. Ironically, during the recent stock market turmoil, investors hammered media companies over losses attributable to cord cutting while service providers were garnering strong analyst support as providers of broadband connectivity.

For example, Wells Fargo Securities analyst Marci Ryvicker issued an advisory downgrading CBS, Walt Disney Co. and 21st Century Fox while extending buy recommendations for Dish, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter. Noting this has been one of the worst earning seasons ever in the media sector, Ryvicker said, “We can’t help but think some level of value is transferring from content to distribution.”

Citing ongoing cord cutting, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said in a note to investors, “Almost every investor with whom we have spoken has described an almost palpable sense that sector sentiment has changed, some would say perhaps permanently….The process has already begun of sifting through the wreckage and considering positioning ‘the morning after.’”

DTC strategies would seem to put broadcasters in line with the thinking that views broadband as the preferred distribution medium, but not everyone is convinced DTC is a winner. BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield in a recent blog post takes issue with DTC as a way out of the revenue squeeze without significant consolidation in the programming sector. Consolidation, he believes, would expand the range of content options from any one DTC distributor.

Challenging Disney’s statements that ESPN or other Disney networks could move to DTC successfully if the company chooses, Greenfield says, “Whereas niche worked in the cable network world, in the DTC world, programmers need to have breadth of content.”

But, as previously reported on a number of occasions, one of the big benefits of DTC for companies like Disney is there are no channel limits akin to the restricted capacity on MVPD networks, which gives media companies the option to create whatever niche “channels” they want. For example, in the case of ESPN, global reach for minor sports categories that might draw a sizeable audience of devoted fans create advertising opportunities that otherwise would not exist.

Moreover, established categories where Disney might want to compete with leaders like Scripps’ Food Network create new revenue opportunities and a new competitive arena within niches that aren’t open for competition in the legacy pay TV domain. Disney, the first major content provider to announce plans to move its entire post-production operation to the all-digital consolidated workflow platform developed by Imagine Communications, will be well positioned once it completes the conversion to pull whatever assets it has, from deep archive to the latest productions, into any combination of programs for any interest category old or new.

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Broadpeak Is Targeting NA Ops In Multicast-to-Home Initiative

Nivedita Nouvel, VP, marketing, Broadpeak

Nivedita Nouvel, VP, marketing, Broadpeak

French CDN Supplier Prepares to Pursue Opportunities from New Offices in NYC

By Fred Dawson

August 10, 2015 – CDN technology supplier Broadpeak is establishing a presence in North America that could open new synergies between content suppliers pursuing direct-to-consumer OTT strategies and network operators looking for monetization opportunities in the OTT space.

In a nutshell, Broadpeak hopes to persuade network operators that by supporting a direct-to-home multicast path for OTT content via its nanoCDN technology they could offer broadcasters and other OTT providers an attractive, lower-cost alternative to streaming increasing volumes of live content in unicast mode, which subjects every stream and hence user experience to the vicissitudes of congestion and subpar performance. Along with generating revenue from content suppliers who would avail themselves of the multicast opportunity, network operators would also benefit from having a multicast solution in place to support their own multiscreen pay TV services, notes Nivedita Nouvel, vice president of marketing at Broadpeak.

“We know network service providers in North America have been deploying their own CDNs and caching servers,” Nouvel says. “We can be part of that story, but where we’re bringing new value and a new approach is in the reconciliation between content providers, network operators and CDN service providers.”

The strategy envisions use of proprietary software running on origin servers to convert ABR (adaptive bitrate) unicast streams into ABR multicast streams for delivery to broadband gateways and IP-enabled set-tops, where the nanoCDN software agent converts the multicast content back to unicast for streaming to IP devices in the home. Distributors can also deploy Broadpeak’s CDN technology in their networks to utilize the company’s multicast technology for delivering live content to devices outside the home.

By making IP-enabled set-tops boxes and media gateways active components of the broadband content delivery infrastructure, the Broadpeak solution delivers other benefits as well, Nouvel notes. For example, when used in conjunction with Broadpeak’s transparent caching capability, the nanoCDN becomes a location for caching the most popular on-demand video content closer to end users, thereby improving quality of experience.

But it’s the support for multicasting live TV for multiscreen access that Broadpeak hopes will anchor its entry into the North American market. “We ended 2014 with 55 percent growth primarily serving the European, APAC and Latin American markets,” says Broadpeak CEO

Jacques Le Mancq. “Now we’re opening our offices in New York City and getting in touch with cable and telephone company prospects.”

Broadpeak’s multicasting technology, which overcomes the “joining” limitations of traditional IP multicast, has been one of its great strengths in building business worldwide, Mancq adds. “ABR streaming of live content is becoming a big problem,” he notes. “When you have ten million users watching the same event it’s going to cost millions of dollars to support that distribution over unicast streams. We’re engaging now with broadcasters, operators and CPE manufacturers who want to apply our solution to dramatically reduce these costs and ensure a consistently high quality of experience with live content.”

As consumers’ use of connected devices to access premium content drives pay TV distributors into IP-based versions of their broadcast channel services and pulls ever more TV networks into direct-to-consumer initiatives, live broadcast content is taking a much more prominent role in what once was largely a non-linear on-demand OTT video services market. According to the Q4 2014 Global Video Index from online video publisher Ooyala, the average amount of time users spend on different types of devices watching live versus on-demand video has shot way up.

Tracking millions of streams worldwide, Ooyala reported average viewing time for live content hit 34 minutes per play on desktops compared to 2.6 minutes per play with on-demand viewing. Other ratios of live versus on-demand viewing time recorded by Ooyala included connected TVs at 53 to 4.6 minutes, tablets at 9.8 to 3.7 minutes and smartphones at 4.6 to 2.5 minutes.

Of course, the volume of on-demand videos viewed, encompassing YouTube and all the other sources of short clips, is much greater, but Ooyala also records a big surge in the volume of long-form content, including live and on-demand. For example, Ooyala reported that 70 percent of video viewing time on tablets over the period from Q4 2013 to Q4 2014 was spent with content lasting more than ten minutes, and 41 percent of viewing time went to such long-form content on mobile phones. Clearly, a large share of that long-form viewing is going to live content.

This is confirmed by metrics released by FreeWheel, the OTT video ad management firm recently acquired by Comcast. In its most recent Video Monetization Report surveying the amount of interstitial advertising viewed with live and on-demand programming, Freewheel reported 73 percent of ad views in Q1 2015 occurred with consumption of live programming. Percentages on tablets, desktops and smartphones were 30 percent, 13 percent and 7 percent, respectively. While viewing of sports events dominates the live online video consumption, FreeWheel reported the amount of regular TV programming that’s viewed as it’s broadcast is on the rise, reaching 7 percent of live viewing in Q1, which marked a 28 percent jump from the previous quarter.

These numbers likely represent just the tip of the iceberg, given the level of commitment to direct-to-consumer initiatives among programming networks and the growing trend toward delivery of “skinny” bundles of live program channels on the part of pay TV distributors. As previously reported, these developments are fueling other multicast initiatives tied to CPE on the part of Akamai and ARRIS.

But Broadpeak appears to be farther along in providing a commercially deployable solution. On the distributor side, an early commitment to the nanoCDN technology comes from France-based Eutelsat, the satellite operator offering support for DTH service providers worldwide. The nanoCDN technology will be incorporated into Eutelsat’s smart LNB (low-noise block downconverter), a dish antenna component designed to bolt interactive value-added services, including Internet broadband, onto broadcast platforms.

Slated for rollout in 2016, the enhanced service capability will use multicast to enable direct-to-home IP video broadcasts. “Eutelsat’s smart LNB is groundbreaking, because it significantly extends the reach of broadcasters inside the connected home,” Mancq says.

Broadpeak has made considerable progress gaining support for nanoCDN among OEMs. For example, the company recently forged a deal to embed the technology into Android TV set-tops supplied by Chinese OEM Geniatech. Equipped with a quad-core CPU, Geniatech’s ATV1900 Series set-top is designed to combine legacy and Web-based content and features to deliver “an amazing user experience,” says Geniatech CEO Fang Jijun.

Support for multicasting IP video is essential to that goal, Fang adds. “[G]iven the unpredictable nature of live OTT video consumption, we saw the value in implementing Broadpeak’s nanoCDN agent in our devices,” he says. “The result is a guaranteed high quality of service for our customers at all times and the possibility for operators to deliver live OTT content to virtually any number of subscribers with our STB using the same amount of bandwidth.”

Another partner on the Android set-top front is multiscreen middleware supplier Comigo, which has teamed with Broadpeak to create an integrated solution supporting delivery of personalized, feature-rich live IP video multicast streams to those devices. “This collaboration with Broadpeak transforms the way that IPTV operators deliver live content while providing them with an effective monetization strategy for multiscreen,” says Comigo CEO Motty Lentzitzky.

Broadpeak is also making headway in fostering partnerships with CPE and other ecosystem suppliers through its Broadpeak Open Alliance, Nouvel says, noting alliance partners now include Technicolor, Wi-Fi gateway supplier AirTies and middleware supplier SoftAtHome. Broadpeak also established a relationship with Pace prior to its acquisition by Arris, which will allow Arris to integrate the nanoCDN technology into Pace-developed terminals if and when operators request that capability, she adds.

By building alliances with set-top manufacturers like Technicolor, which is set to acquire Cisco’s CPE business, Pace and Geniatech, Broadpeak has seeded the market with CPE platforms which network operators can turn to for ready-to-deploy multicast-enabled terminals. But they must be persuaded there’s an advantage to using such devices.

“We need to have the support of network operators,” Nouvel says. “Once operators have deployed the technology in their networks they can easily go to content providers and say, ‘I have this technology in my network that will allow you to greatly reduce your distribution costs while optimizing the quality for end users.’”

But Broadpeak will hold off on engaging North American operators in those efforts until its New York office is up and running with a full staff later this year. “We want to have the office opened first before we’re really going out to see people,” Nouvel says. “We need to have people ready to manage proofs of concept on the tech side so that we’re not just pitching something.”

Broadpeak may find a market open to the idea now that network operators have become more receptive to new technology from non-traditional suppliers. The fact that a home-based point of terminating multicasts of live OTT programming could facilitate operators’ moves into the broadband TV space with their own “skinny” bundles of broadcast pay TV content could turn out to be at least as big an incentive as setting up a revenue-generating means of supporting programmers’ direct-to-home initiatives.

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SES Prepares to Jumpstart UHD With Dedicated Channel Service

Steven Corda, VP, business development, SES

Steven Corda, VP, business development, SES

Satellite-to-Broadband Wholesale Initiative Aims to Ease MVPDs’ Entry into 4K

By Fred Dawson

June 22, 2015 – SES is in the advanced stages of testing the viability of a 4K UHD wholesale distribution service aimed at jumpstarting the flow of 4K UHD TV programming and opening new opportunities in satellite support for multiscreen broadband video.

The service would allow MVPDs to bypass the Internet with IP-streamed simulcasts of live sports and other events along with a full programming channel’s worth of content shot in 4K, including TV episodes and possibly some motion pictures. It remains to be seen what the adoption rate will be among distributors, but, judging from a live demo and early support from smart TV manufacturers, the service has the infrastructure in place to make it work.

“We’ve designed the service to be distributed to consumers over dedicated bandwidth via DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems,” says Steven Corda, vice president of business development for North America at SES. In other words, this is not a best-effort Internet feed but one delivered over a fully managed end-to-end satellite/terrestrial distribution infrastructure that opens the door to shifting the long-standing pay TV distribution model to the broadband space.

The content will be encoded using HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) compression and formatted for satellite uplink either at SES fixed facilities or directly from the field using a portable UHD-capable encoding, encrypting and uplink unit to enable live broadcast of UHD-captured events. SES will take care of content protection utilizing encryption tied to DRM technology.

The company will take the lead with, it hopes, growing industry support in lining up TV programmers who, at this early stage, might want to share certain shows shot in 4K with 4K set owners as a way to build demand for eventual full-channel UHD offerings. “We negotiate with programmers for transport rights to put their UHD content on our system,” Corda says. “Operators have to negotiate rights with those suppliers to distribute the content in their markets.”

So far, industry response has been encouraging, he reports. “We came up with the concept a year ago,” he says. “We held focus groups with cable operators to gauge consumer response to what we’re offering and determined there’s high interest.”

SES then went to the studios and sports networks to draw their engagement. “We intend to have a demo channel running this summer,” Corda says. “If the pilot trials go as planned, we hope to get up and running next year.”

At INTX in Chicago last month SES ran a UHD demo of some sample content broadcast via the SES-3 channel that will be used this summer to enable cable operators to prepare and test their networks for UHD trials. Along with some canned UHD clips, the demo included an uplinked feed of live content captured outside the McCormack Center.

The display used with the demo was Samsung’s 8550 4K TV. So far SES has agreements with both Samsung and Sony for displaying its 4K UHD service on various models, Corda says. “We’ll come in through apps developed for their app stores,” he says.

SES also has three UHD demo channels operating over different satellite positions serving most of Europe. In June the company partnered with Canal + Group to test broadcast the final of the Champions League soccer match in UHD. In May at the SES Industry Days conference in Luxembourg the company delivered the first DVB transmission of High Dynamic Range (HDR) UHD TV using Samsung’s new HDR display technology.

The first announced commercial UHD broadcast operation using SES facilities, slated to get underway in Europe in September, is a free-to-air channel to be offered by the German shopping service pearl.tv. “We will also be producing and broadcasting pearl.tv in native Ultra HD from a brand new studio,” says Michael Sichler, managing director of Enstyle GmbH, pearl.tv’s parent company.

In the U.S. the initial commercial service will consist of a channel featuring a mix of pre-recorded TV programs shot in 4K from different programmers plus occasional live events. “We may also go to the studios for placement of content shot in 4K that doesn’t have any other distribution path,” Corda adds. Where live content is concerned, “We envision programming networks will use our service to simulcast events in 4K,” he says.

“It will be two or three years before programmers have a full slate of 4K programming to deliver over their own channels,” he notes. “In the meantime we give them the opportunity to gain exposure for any content they have available in 4K.”

In the demo of the live uplinked feed at INTX the SES mobile unit was taking in video from cameras at 12 gigabits per second and compressing it with HEVC encoding for delivery at 20 megabits per second. “We see15-20 mbps as the starting point for UHD delivered at 60 frames per second using 10-bit coding,” Corda says. HDR will be brought into the initiative once a clearer sense of direction on formats emerges from the various standards-setting processes now underway.

By providing MVPDs a way to deliver a dedicated channel of 4K UHD programming over broadband directly to UHD TV sets, SES is opening a path to enhancing service value without operators’ having to implement HEVC in their headends and set-top boxes, Corda says. SES will provide UI support to ensure operators are able to promote whatever content they’ve licensed from the service within their own navigational environment. “We’ll change metadata on the fly as the programming changes,” he says.

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Big Bandwidth Efficiency Gains Are on Tap for UHD Migration

Kumar Subramanian, CEO, MediaMelon

Kumar Subramanian, CEO, MediaMelon

Distributors Will Have Multiple Options for Cutting Bitrates by Up to 50 Percent or More

By Fred Dawson

May 26, 2015 – The emergence of three radically different approaches to cutting video bandwidth consumption promises much-needed relief beyond the benefits of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) as Ultra HD begins to pressure already-saturated access networks.

All three technologies have a long way to go in their efforts to build mass-market support.  But they have gone well past the vaporware stage with eye-popping demonstrations of their capabilities that have been galvanizing attention across the content distribution ecosystem. Adding to the bandwidth-savings potential is the fact that the solutions are not mutually exclusive, which means in theory, at least, any combination of the three could be employed to deliver even greater benefits.

Only one of the new solutions, the encoding technology known as Perseus commercialized by V-Nova, Ltd. is positioned as an alternative to HEVC or H. 265, which already has gained strong traction in chipsets manufactured for smart TVs, set-tops and other devices as the successor to the ISO Moving Picture Expert Group’s H.264. While supplanting H.265 on a large scale would be a tall order, V-Nova’s gains, touted as 2x to 3x over H.265, are already being employed in specialized usage situations by a growing list of adherents.

Like Perseus, the other two developments, including a range of video processing solutions from Faroudja Enterprises Inc. and improvements in ABR (adaptive bitrate) streaming efficiency from software provider MediaMelon, Ltd., are barely out of the starting gate. But, despite lower bandwidth efficiency gains than those claimed by V-Nova, their solutions may have a faster track to wide-scale adoption because they work with whatever encoding systems distributors choose to deploy

MediaMelon

MediaMelon’s approach is uniquely different from the focus on video processing that characterizes both V-Nova and Faroudja. The company has developed software that manages bitrate selection in the ABR streaming process to deliver an average 35 percent improvement in bandwidth efficiency, says MediaMelon CEO Kumar Subramanian.

Essentially, the MediaMelon QBR (Quality Bit Rate) technology turns ABR into an intelligent means of optimizing bitrates whether for purposes of bandwidth efficiency or to sustain quality against impairments caused when ABR drops the bitrate below the level required for optimum quality performance. The QBR technology, operating in the network core and in client devices, does this by means of rapid scene analysis, content characterization, perceptual quality mapping and advanced buffer management techniques, Subramanian explains.

“We figured out a way to improve streaming efficiency using ABR a better way,” he says. “It works with all the ABR formats – HLS, Smooth, MPEG-DASH, HDS. We’re pushing more bits when it matters and reducing the bitrate when the rate chosen by the ABR system is more than needed.”

In a demo at the recent INTX show in Chicago, MediaMelon showed side-by-side viewings of content streamed at 9 Mbps by ABR without QBR and at 4 Mbps with QBR. There were no discernable differences between the two streams. The demo also showed both streams operating at 4 Mbps where the impairments were quite noticeable on the ABR-only stream while no imperfections were visible on the QBR-enhanced stream.

During a viewing session, ABR client software chooses the transmission rate for each content segment from a set of bitrates at which each segment has been encoded for a given type of device. The choice of transmission bitrate is based on how much bandwidth is available to the device at that moment, which can result in wasting bits on still and low-motion video scenes and poor quality on complex scenes demanding more bits.

MediaMelon’s solutions, available as managed services or licensed software, work in live and on-demand streaming environments to bring intelligence to the ABR process by ensuring that the bitrate chosen to transmit each segment from the ABR streamer is based on which of the multiple bitrates encoded for each segment is best suited to delivering that segment at the desired quality level. On the bandwidth side, the company says the range of bitrate savings resulting from the process might be as low as 30 percent or as high as 45 percent, depending on bandwidth conditions, but, as Subramanian suggested, it averages out to 35 percent over time. From a quality standpoint, the company says the platform typically increases perceptual video quality by over 200 percent by allocating higher bitrates when available to video scenes where a lower bitrate would have caused artifacts.

At the transcoding end, operating either as an integrated component with the transcoder or as an independent component in the ingest workflow, the MediaMelon software uses sophisticated real-time frame-by-frame analysis of the content to determine what the optimal bitrate is for a given level of quality on each ABR segment. This doesn’t impact the rates at which the content is transcoded for streaming over ABR.

Instead, the optimal bitrate option based on the QBR analysis of each segment is conveyed to QBR client software that has been integrated with distributors’ media players to ensure that the ABR client software asks the streamer to use the preferred bitrate for that segment of content. MediaMelon says the QBR Player is available on iOS, Android and popular web video players such as DASHjs and Exoplayer. It’s also available as an SDK that can be easily integrated with smart TVs, custom player and CE devices, the company says.

MediaMelon, which has offices in San Francisco, London and India, isn’t ready to announce customers, Subramanian says, but adds, “We’re talking to everybody who’s engaged in streaming video, including content owners and service providers.” Third party outsourcers like Deluxe OnDemand who process video for streaming are also targets, he says, noting QBR has already been integrated into the Deluxe workflow.

Asked whether Deluxe is seeing the results claimed by Subramanian, a Deluxe OnDemand official says, “It’s every bit as good as they say it is.” Speaking on background, she adds “We see it as having a big impact on our customers’ ability to deliver UHD 4K content.”

V-Nova

As the video services ecosystem takes the measure of MediaMelon, the emergence of V-Nova’s Perseus has begun to shake up perceptions about the path ahead for encoding technology. The company mustered a phalanx of analysts and market players to vouch for its claims as part of an impressive April rollout that highlighted some customer wins, one of which, with Hitachi, was used to dazzle NAB Show visitors with demos of the bitrate-cutting prowess of the platform.

“Perseus has the potential to revolutionize video,” says Philipp Nattermann, a director at McKinsey & Company, in a statement included with collateral issued by V-Nova at NAB. “Its applicability is vast, both within broadcasting, as well as other industries including aerospace, defense, security, video conferencing, medical imaging and telematics, to name a few.”

The compilation of endorsements released at NAB included glowing comments from new customers such as Sky Italia, now preparing to implement Perseus commercially with its OTT and, eventually, legacy pay TV services; India’s Tata Sky, which is giving Perseus a hard look; European software supplier Wyplay, which reports it has successfully integrated Perseus to run with its Frog Client middleware on a Tier 1 European MVPD’s existing set-top platform, and Hitachi, which demonstrated a deployment-ready UHD ecosystem, combining Perseus with the latest Hitachi Kokusai 4K camera and Hitachi Data Systems servers to deliver UHD movies at 6-7 Mbps and sports programming at 10-13 Mbps, representing about a 50 percent improvement over current HEVC performance levels.

The European Broadcasting Union has chimed in with a vote of confidence for Perseus as well. “EBU has always played a key role in identifying innovations that are beneficial to our associates, and we have followed the development of Perseus products since its early stages,” says Puiu Dolea, the EBU’s manager of business continuity and special projects. “The step change in performance offered by Perseus opens many opportunities for new high-impact broadcast services that we are contributing to develop.”

Perhaps even more impressive is the praise Perseus has drawn from chipmaker executives at Intel and Broadcom. “Broadcom supports the Perseus compression standard, which offers an advanced tool to effect improvements in bitrate, quality and latency,” says Rich Nelson, senior vice president of marketing for Broadcom’s Broadband & Connectivity Group. “Combined with Broadcom’s set-top box technology, Perseus compression can help enable more efficient HD transmissions and more widespread Ultra HD content to subscribers around the world.”

Says Christian Morales, Intel corporate vice president and general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa: “Perseus impresses with exceptional video compression performance on standard server and PC hardware, including real-time Ultra HD decoding or SD video at sub-audio bitrates on mobile devices. I am confident that with such performance Perseus is predestined to unlock great opportunities in multiple industries.”

But skepticism about the ultimate impact Perseus might have abounds, and understandably so in light of the failed attempts of many proprietary systems claiming superiority over the MPEG standards to crack through to comparable levels of mass market scale, including most recently the Google-backed VP9. As Elemental Technologies CMO Keith Wymbs puts it in a statement reported by European online publisher VideoNet,  “In the media and entertainment market, particularly in the pay TV segment, it’s difficult for proprietary solutions vendors to build out an ecosystem that is robust enough to gain widespread traction. As a result, proprietary codecs have never made serious inroads. Microsoft’s VC-1 codec came the closest, but that initiative has waned due to broad acceptance of H.264.”

Elemental is prepared to consider any new codec if there’s sufficient demand from Elemental customers, Wymbs says. “But for technology vendors like us to make this kind of resource commitment, the demand needs to be widespread,” he adds. “For codecs, that typically means it’s being driven by a standard of some sort.”

V-Nova executives seem to be pretty clear-eyed about what they’re up against, but they offer many reasons for their optimism. “We solve problems no other coding technology provider solves,” says V-Nova CEO Guido Meardi. After five years working in stealth mode with a consortium of 20 partners worldwide, the company is well-positioned to make its case, Meardi adds, noting, “We wanted to come out with products, not ideas.”

“Perseus is a software upgrade that works on current infrastructure, including current encoding and decoding hardware, workflows and CDNs,” he says. “Software operates as a plug-in to encoding COTS (commodity off-the-shelf) servers. Multiplexers are untouched.”

Where end-user devices are concerned, citing the Wyplay example, he adds. “For set-top boxes, Perseus can be implemented as an over-the-air upgrade on top of existing chipset libraries. For connected devices, Perseus works as a plug-in to media players.” VisualOn’s newly announced integration of Perseus with its multi-device OnStream MediaPlayer+ client is a case in point, he notes.

V-Nova is also making the case that encoding with Perseus eliminates the need to perform multiple encodes on each asset to support all the bitrates used in ABR streaming for each class of devices. All it takes is one Perseus encode per asset, which is then decoded by whatever codec and to whatever resolution level is supported at the device end. For example, Meardi says, if a device can only decode MPEG-2, that’s what it will do on the Perseus-encoded asset, ignoring everything else.

Everything V-Nova claims could indeed have a revolutionary impact on the marketplace, as McKinsey’s Nattermann suggests. But the company’s limited explanations of how the technology works combined with the absence of testing on a wide scale makes it hard to analyze the validity of its claims.

Still, enough has been revealed to piece together how the technology might achieve the capabilities touted by Meardi. A starting point for development of the technology was to take advantage of today’s massively parallel CPU/GPU processing capabilities, which were not available to developers of the block-based frame-to-frame correlations and pictorial differences between those correlated blocks that the MPEG Motion Vector Prediction process uses to determine where new information needs to be added to the dataflow.

Perseus algorithms do away with block-based correlations to allow multi-core silicon to work simultaneously across the entire image, thereby identifying all correlations and differences between them much more efficiently – with a degree of comprehensiveness that can support completely lossless encoding if users so choose, according to the company. By eliminating the block-based approach, Perseus achieves ever greater efficiencies with higher resolution and higher framerate transmissions, since block-based inefficiencies mount as higher resolution brings more pixels into play for correlation analysis and as fewer changes are registered from frame to frame as framerates increase.

But, apparently, Perseus is sufficiently compatible with the underlying Fourier Transform mode used with MPEG to allow MPEG decoders to translate the information in the Perseus-encoded stream for applying decoding algorithms based on block-oriented Motion Vector Prediction. While V-Nova says 30 patents have been created around the Perseus platform, it also appears the company is utilizing some elements of MPEG technology on which patents have expired, notes Tom Morrod, senior director for consumer electronics at IHS.

“V-Nova’s first claim is that Perseus is entirely novel in process and structure,” Morrod writes in a recent blog. “In reality this means that it doesn’t infringe upon any currently enforceable patents, most notably for existing compression standards such as MPEG-2, H.264, HEVC, VC-1 or JPEG-2000; that Perseus is protected by at least one of V-Nova’s 30 claimed patents; and that there is no example of prior-art (previous patent or implemented example) of the patent before publication of V-Nova’s filings….It could be no coincidence that V-Nova has come out with compression technology as many core video processing patents expire and become license-free.”

As to how Perseus accomplishes the single-encode approach to assets in a multi-format distribution environment, V-Nova officials point to the hierarchical nature of the encoding process where data is allocated progressively to support ever more granular levels of image articulation, which allows each device decoder to identify and process just the data essential to rendering the stream to required levels of quality on that device. “This guarantees rapid, seamless deployment and an extremely high return on investment,” Meardi says.

Faroudja

Operating on a completely different video processing track that requires no changes in encoding techniques, Faroudja keeps coming up with innovative ways to cut bitrates and improve quality. As previously reported,  Faroudja applies pre-encode and post-decode processing functions that are ancillary to existing encoders and device codecs to produce a 35-50 percent reduction in bitrates for live and on-demand content in any given encoding environment with no decrease in quality.

These performance levels were born out in a demo at the NAB Show, where a large TV screen showing a 1080p HD stream running at 7 Mbps over H.264 was paired with one showing the same stream with Faroudja processing applied running at 4 Mbps, with no discernable difference in quality between them. The comparative performance was also demonstrated on tablets and smartphones.

Now Faroudja has added some additional solutions which can be used individually or in various combinations to improve performance with 4K UHD as well as HD content. One solution, for example, performs debanding and deblocking on the encoded stream so that only meaningful distinctions across the whole picture from one frame to the next are processed by the encoder.

Another solution restores bandwidth that would otherwise be consumed by the encoded stream by identifying pictorial elements where compression is needlessly applied to insignificant nuances that aren’t noticeable to viewers. By shifting resources from these elements to elements where improvements have greater impact on the viewer’s perception of picture quality, the Faroudja technique delivers a better picture while reducing total bandwidth consumed at any given bitrate.

“We’ve had a great response from people who have seen these demos,” says Bill Herz, COO and vice president of business development at Faroudja. “We’re now working with potential customers to package our solutions in ways best suited to working with their existing infrastructures.”

The scope and depth of this interest will determine how quickly Faroudja productizes its solutions. At the pre-encode processing end, customers will need to install new equipment or assign existing COTS servers to run the Faroudja algorithms.

At the receive end where post-processor functions are less intensive, the platform can utilize existing hardware with cooperation on firmware upgrades from IC manufacturers. Or, rather than waiting for Faroudja-capable devices to become available, customers could achieve significant bandwidth gains by implementing the post-processing functions on CPU/GPU resources at edge distribution points.

Clearly, none of the technologies discussed here will have an immediate impact on the market’s progress toward delivery of high-value premium content to every type of device. But with a growing need to add 4K UHD resolution and, with it, High Dynamic Range quality of experience enhancements, content distributors have no choice but to move beyond the capabilities of their installed MPEG-2 and -4 infrastructures.

What the most efficient, cost-effective approaches to doing this turn out to be is impossible to say at this point. But it seems inevitable that one or more of these new options will be major factors supplementing or supplanting HEVC in moving the market where it wants to go.

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Confusion over How to Manage UHD/HDR Interplay Intensifies

Sree Kotay, chief software architect & EVP, technology design & development,  Comcast

Sree Kotay, chief software architect & EVP, technology design & development,
Comcast

Waiting for HDR Could Incur Strategic Risks

By Fred Dawson

May 1, 2015 – With ever greater exposure in industry circles, high dynamic range video technology is driving a rapidly building consensus among some service providers that HDR needs to be made the priority over 4K Ultra HD as the transformative force in viewing experience.

One signal as to how thinking is evolving among MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) was delivered recently by Sree Kotay, chief software architect and executive vice president for technology design and development at Comcast. Speaking on a panel at a private event hosted by Imagine Communications at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, Kotay voiced concern that subscribers taking Comcast’s new UHD service were not particularly impressed by what they were seeing.

“HDR has a much greater impact on user experience,” Kotay said. “We’re going to be putting much more of our attention on HDR.”

Kotay, who spearheaded development of the Comcast UHD service, expressed the frequently heard view that viewers with UHD sets can’t really see much of a difference at normal viewing distances between content delivered in HD 1080p resolution and content that has been upscaled to the 3,840 x 2,160 pixel resolution of 4K. But, according to people working on the previously announced next steps in Comcast’s UHD service evolution, preparations to expand the service with introduction of a 4K-capable X-1 set-top are still moving forward, which attests to the complications that go into formulating a next-gen TV service strategy at this early stage in UHD development.

“There are now a lot of doubts about going to UHD services without HDR,” said Envivio vice president of products and solutions Boris Felts, during an interview. “People question whether it’s worth the effort just to prove you have UHD service without delivering the benefits of HDR.” Said an executive at another supplier of UHD and HDR processing solutions, speaking on background, “It’s about 50-50 between customers who are going forward with UHD and those who say they want to wait for HDR.”

It’s easy to see why opinions are split. On the one hand, as noted by entertainment technology consultant and former Paramount executive Robert Kisor, “The big improvements [in viewing experience] will be with HDR. The picture stands out whether it’s used with UHD or HD resolution.”

Moreover, Kisor added while speaking at a Verimatrix event at the NAB Show, the impressive HDR experience can be delivered in HD without incurring the bandwidth squeeze imposed by the amount of information that has to be sent with a 4K UHD signal. Given that HDR-capable 4K UHD TV sets are designed to upscale HD 1080p to take advantage of the higher resolution capabilities, the upscaled HDR HD picture will be a stunning improvement over 4K UHD-formatted video that is not enhanced with HDR.

Discussing the relative bandwidth impacts of 4K UHD and HDR during a recent meeting at CableLabs, Daryl Malas, the organization’s principal architect for video applications technologies, told ScreenPlays, “Depending on the type of content, 4K consumes roughly 30 percent more bandwidth than HD on the same encoder. The increase for HDR is in the range of 10 to 15 percent.”

But there’s a downside to holding back on offering UHD services in favor of putting all the eggs in the HDR basket. By all indications, the market has to wait for a new generation of TV sets that can truly deliver on the promise of HDR. If that’s the case, the question becomes whether there’s any advantage from an MVPD perspective to proceeding with development of UHD services ahead of HDR.

A careful weighing of the market trends lines and competitive environment seems to argue for pressing ahead with UHD.

Just how far today’s 4K TV sets are from delivering a satisfying HDR experience was vividly on display at the NAB show. Commercially available or soon-to-be-available 4K sets billed as having luminance and color ranges sufficient to support HDR actually delivered viewing experiences that fell woefully short of the mark set by prototype displays with much higher luminance and color ranges.

For example, a new 65-inch Vizio display entering the market a little later this year was the centerpiece of the Dolby Vision section in Dolby’s booth at NAB. Dolby Vision has been widely interpreted as a high-end version of HDR pegged to enabling luminance and color dynamics far beyond the current generation of TV sets, in contrast to other HDR solutions that are designed to work at the outer limits of current display capabilities.

But the Vizio model on display at the Dolby booth turned out to be in the latter category with a luminance range of 800 nits (candelas per square meter), the commonly used measure of the difference between the darkest and brightest frames delivered by a given display system. This is well short of the 4,000-nit range Dolby has touted as the contrast limit for its first commercial iteration of Dolby Vision but well beyond the 100-nit luminance the TV industry has adhered to as part of the ITU REC 709 standard set some 20 years ago. The rendering of movie sequences shown on the Vizio set, which used the DCI P3 color range set for motion pictures rather than the full ITU REC 2020 range targeted by Dolby, was impressive but lacked the stunning realism enabled by more advanced sets showing HDR sequences on the show floor.

This was true even though the Vizio display utilized local dimming mechanisms to control LED backlighting in different zones or aggregations of LEDs rather than uniformly controlling backlighting across all LEDs, as is the case with most UHD LED systems currently on retail shelves. As noted by John Couling, senior vice president of Dolby’s e-media business group, the more advanced backlighting technique allows the display to approach the 0 nit level of total blackness, which is critical to expanding the overall dynamic range.

Explaining how an 800-nit display system could be characterized as a showcase for Dolby Vision, Couling said it was a misunderstanding of Dolby’s position to suggest Dolby Vision is strictly a super high luminance alternative to other HDR modes. “We’ve always been looking at bringing this technology to market using available display technology,” he said. “Our goal was to create an approach to HDR that would work in the current environment but also offer a solution that could take advantage of future display systems to deliver an even more compelling picture.”

Dolby is pressing this message in many forums, Couling said, including the newly formed UHD Alliance, which, along with some motion picture studios and premium video distributors, includes many CE manufacturers, some of whom are offering their own HDR technologies. “We don’t think it makes sense for the market to adapt to an HDR platform specifically designed to the limitations of current technology and then have to adapt to another version of HDR to maximize performance on future sets,” he said. “We believe our solution allows you to deliver the best possible picture across a broad range of product styles and displays now and well into the future.”

Dolby’s approach is designed to deliver a basic REC 709 video stream with a metadata overlay that conveys the additional information for generating the enhanced HDR images on compatible display systems. The two-layer technique allows content formatted to these enhanced HDR specifications to be viewed on non-compatible UHD TV sets as well, but it requires use of 12-bit coding, whereas the single-stream HDR techniques, typically topping out at 1,000 nits, use 10-bit coding and therefore consume less bandwidth.

To provide the messaging required to support dynamic ranges extending to 4,000 nits and the rendering of the 68.7 billion colors enabled with 12-bit encoding of the REC 2020 gamut requires a new type of transfer function, which serves to map the grey scale signal strength of the display system to the color gamut and dynamic range of the HDR-optimized content. Dolby, Philips and the new Blu-ray Disc Association UHD standard, slated for release later this year, use the Electro-Optical Transfer Function (EOTF) defined in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineer’s 2084 standard, while HDR systems with a 1,000-Nit luminance ceiling can use an enhanced version of the existing gamma function that has long been used with REC 709 displays.

But, when it comes to the quality of experience on the current generation of luminance-limited displays, these nuances don’t mean much. Just as disappointing as the Vizio Dolby Vision demo, in terms of how these displays stack up against high-luminance displays, was the picture delivered by a Samsung UHD LED display attuned to that vendor’s HDR technology and operating at a slightly broader luminance range than the Vizio set.

Like the Vizio demo, the Samsung HDR picture, on display at an encoding vendor’s booth on the NAB Show floor, lacked the real-life quality one expects with HDR. Plus, it introduced “judder” impairments – uneven or jerky video playback that arises from movement of objects, edges or detail from one frame to the next – that weren’t noticeable on the Vizio display,

As explained by a senior engineering executive speaking on background at the encoder’s booth, increases in contrast, sharpness of detail and motion speed introduced by HDR can cause judder, especially with increased screen sizes. “We wanted to show our encoding efficiency with HDR,” the engineer said, “but I’m not sure this display is delivering the message we wanted to convey, through no fault of our own.”

In contrast to these current-display renditions of HDR, prototype displays operating in the 2,000-nit or higher luminance ranges delivered stunning pictures that easily stood out from everything else, even when perceived from well outside the display areas. One dramatic display that far out-shown HDR on any current-generation screens could be seen at Ericsson’s booth, where video clips shot with a Sony FCB-EH4300 HDTV camera appeared on a 2,000-nit display capable of rendering the full REC 2020 color gamut.

Even though the clips were shot by an HDTV camera and no special post-production HDR processing was applied, the display system produced a picture that was vastly superior to any of the HDR-processed video appearing on current-generation UHD displays.  A similarly dazzling display of contrast and color range was on display with a high-luminance system operating in Cannon’s booth.

The message in all this is HDR is not so much about specially produced or post-tweaked content and variations in approaches to HDR technology as it is about a new generation of TV sets that will far out-perform today’s displays. In contrast, 4K UHD has not lived up to its billing, in part, because the real pictorial difference to be achieved with 4K requires use of content shot with 4K cameras. So far, with the exception of some original series offered by Netflix, distributors have relied on upscale processing of TV programs shot in HD and films predating use of 4K cameras.

“People are a bit down with 4K because they’re not showing its full potential,” noted Jean-Pierre  Henot, CTO of Envivio. “When you use the right cameras, 4K pictures are sharper, look much better.” In any event, Henot added in an interview, “For those who are contemplating extending 4K to include HDR, that’s something we can deliver. It would be a great step forward to make HDR part of the user experience.”

But, as Bob Kisor pointed out, while there are a handful of TV models that can support one or another of the various HDR formats competing for market traction, “it will be sometime next year before things settle out, at the earliest.” Having a Blu-ray UHD standard in effect by year’s end may help, he added, but, when it comes to implementing HDR support in new displays and determining which type of transfer function should be implemented on chipsets, there’s a lot to be sorted through. “Metadata processing is a big issue,” he said, in reference to how the transfer function works.

Meanwhile, 4K UHD sets continue to build market penetration. “More than 50 percent of the TV sets at 40 inches and above sold at retail are 4K sets,” noted Elemental Technologies CMO Keith Wymbs, another speaker at the Verimatrix conference. Last year, he noted, orders for 4K-level compression systems sold by Elemental “approached ten percent of our business. This year it’s much more. We’re on course to triple or quadruple that share.”

That’s a clear signal from a leading supplier of compression systems that 4K UHD services will soon have a much greater presence in the market than has been the case, raising the risk for those who wait for HDR to take hold. By this time next year, Wymbs said, “Despite the ambiguity on UHD, there will be multiple channels of UHD service available in the U.S.”

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Coupling HDR with UHD Sets Parameters for Next-Gen Pay TV

Scott Mirer, VP, device partner ecosystem , Netflix

Scott Mirer, VP, device partner ecosystem , Netflix

Progress in Standards-Setting Process Clarifies Roadmap for MVPDs


By Fred Dawson

March 30, 2015 – Notwithstanding the disruptive intrusion of high dynamic range (HDR) technology into distributors’ preparations for Ultra HD services, the next-generation TV picture is starting to gain some much-needed coherency, thanks to progress in standards development on a number of fronts.

Two key developments in this vein are finalization of UHD standards by the Blu-ray Disc Association and release of an updated set of recommendations for protecting high-value UHD content from Motion Picture Laboratories (MovieLabs), the research and development joint venture founded by leading Hollywood studios. Adding to the momentum is the UHD Alliance, a consortium announced at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show that brings together several key ecosystem players, including DirecTV, Dolby, LG Electronics, Netflix, Panasonic, Sharp, Sony Visual Products, Technicolor, Disney, Fox and Warner Bros.

HDR, which combines greater luminosity, deeper contrast and a broader color gamut to dramatically enhance the TV viewing experience, has added another set of elements to the Rubric’s Cube of issues that must be resolved by MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) as they evaluate how best to implement UHD services. In fact, HDR, which isn’t dependent on 4K-level resolution, offers such a powerful improvement in picture quality, many experts believe HDR should be used to enhance HD as well as UHD programming.

Thomas Wrede, vice president of reception systems at satellite distributor SES, echoed the point and went a step farther at his company’s UHD conference in London last month. “I think that this introduction is too big a topic to be just linked to Ultra HD,” Wrede said, according to press accounts. “So maybe we need to decouple the launch of Ultra HD, initially at least, from HDR, also because HDR is very relevant for HD as well.”

But it’s the impact on UHD that is the priority in industry-wide efforts to exploit the benefits of HDR. Some cable operators, for example, rather than decoupling HDR and UHD, are wondering whether they should shift focus from just getting UHD off the ground to making sure they can leverage HDR to bring a truly differentiated viewing experience to subscribers.

“We’re seeing a split developing among our customers between those who want to focus on UHD and those who believe the better approach is to figure out how to get HDR into their UHD services,” says an executive whose firm provides support for next-gen MVPD services. Speaking on background, he adds, “So we’re making sure we have both those bases covered.”

New Content Momentum

There’s a lot to cover when it comes to setting all the formatting, encoding and other workflow parameters for distributing HDR-enhanced UHD content. But MVPDs must be prepared, given the momentum among content owners and manufacturers toward resolving key issues that will contribute to making HDR UHD content available, possibly by year’s end and certainly at a rapidly escalating pace in 2016.

In a recent interview with consultant Benjamin Schwartz posted on the CTOi Consulting website, Thierry Fautier, vice president of video strategy for Harmonic Inc., stressed the challenges distributors face in arriving at an end-to-end template for delivering UHD services. But, he added, there’s no getting around the fact that consumers will have access to HDR UHD content.

“[T]he technologies are being set up and should be ready in 2016 to make live large-scale interoperability testing during the Rio Olympics and also have the first services to OTT or on Blu-ray Disc that supports the HDR and WCG (Wide Color Gamut),” Fautier said.

Netflix, for example, has publicly committed to begin streaming HDR-caliber content this year, starting with its Marco Polo original series. Netflix has been deeply involved with Dolby as that firm has developed backing for its high-end HDR technology known as Dolby Vision, but Netflix executives have indicated the OTT distributor will also be able to support HDR UHD in formats more suited to early rollout, now targeted for at least nine other series besides Marco Polo.

Speaking on an HDR panel at CES, Scott Mirer, who oversees the device partner ecosystem at Netflix, underscored the advantage OTT providers have over traditional distributors. “HDR is something that can move at Internet speed and not the speed of typical TV standards,” Mirer said. “I don’t think there is any holding this back.”

Things are moving rapidly on the studio front as well, said JoDee Freck, senior vice president for mastering and technical services at Lionsgate Entertainment. Freck predicted studios will bring HDR into the re-mastering process as they prepare their high-end catalogs for UHD.

And there’s great interest in being able to bring HDR into the initial creative process, Freck added. Noting responses from directors and cinematographers to viewings of HDR content, she said, “They are all excited. They want dailies on site to see what they’re shooting so, down the line, their vision will be easier to attain in different color spaces, as well as the blacks.”

Warner Bros. has already formatted three of its movies, Into the Storm, Edge of Tomorrow and The Lego Movie, for viewing onDolby Vision displays with more on the way. Twentieth Century Fox has announced an exclusive deal to make some of its movies available for viewing on displays using Samsung’s Open HDR. The studio showed clips of Life of Pi and Exodus: Gods and Kings in a joint demo with Samsung at CES.

Perhaps the biggest early driver to availability of content will be a new generation of

UHD Blu-ray players, which the Blu-ray Disc Association has announced will be in stores by the 2015 holiday season. With agreement on Blu-ray UHD standards, which include specifications for HDR, and the firming up of MovieLabs’ specs for protecting newly released movies, owners of UHD TV sets can look forward to having a better viewing experience then they’ve had so far with Blu-ray HD content, which most UHD sets automatically upscale to higher resolution, and with the trickle of UHD content now available from a handful of OTT and MVPD suppliers.

Buyers of UHD TV sets equipped to support one of the HDR formats will be able to experience the full impact of HDR with any Blu-ray UHD content that has been formatted for HDR. Owners of UHD sets without HDR capabilities who buy the new Blu-ray players will get the full 4K resolution benefits that come with having access to such content.

The Standardization Impact

The availability of UHD Blu-ray players and content formatted to the new standard should help set a benchmark for consumer expectations, which MVPDs can target as they work out the encoding bitrates and bandwidth allocations they’ll need to deliver a competitive next-gen TV service. Similarly, with MovieLabs’ latest release, operators now have a clearer idea of what the protection requirements will be for high-value motion picture content.

MovieLabs, whose founding members are Disney, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Bros., has updated the content protection recommendations it issued in 2013 without major changes. Based on “extensive interactions with industry partners and organizations that are working to adopt requirements in the Enhanced Content Protection Specification,” MovieLabs said it was publishing version 1.1 of the specs “primarily to clarify the intent of the original requirements.” Accordingly, content protection vendors are now in the market with forensic watermarking systems which distributors can deploy with assurance this hurdle to obtaining licensing rights to recently released movies has been cleared.

Many other UHD standardization issues are underway around the world, all of which factor HDR into the equation. These include the ITU’s pursuit of a global UHD standard; the U.S. broadcast industry’s development of ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) 3.0; Europe’s enhancement of the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) standard for over-the-air distribution of UHD content; development of HDR production standards by SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers); work on a new HDR syntax for the encoding standards developed by the ISO’s Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG); the end-to-end UHD agenda of the Harmonic-led Ultra HD Forum, and the efforts of the new UHD Alliance.

The Two-Track Approach to HDR

Amid all these efforts HDR has taken on a more practical dimension for consideration as a near-term enhancement to UHD, in contrast to how HDR was initially positioned by proponents like Dolby and Philips. For example, MovieLabs’ 2013 Specifications for Next-Generation Video established HDR contrast and color ranges in line with high-end approaches that set a bar too high for current LED (light-emitting diode) LCD (liquid crystal display) technology to meet. Since then, as evidenced at CES 2015, another tier of HDR proposals has emerged with broad support for parameters in line with what’s doable without waiting for a new generation of chipsets and displays.

At CES, most of the major brands had HDR-enabled UHD sets on display touting labels such as Wide Color LED from LG Electronics, Dynamic Range Remaster from Panasonic, X-tended Dynamic Range from Sony and SUHD from Samsung. These systems typically support a dynamic contrast range from close to absolute black to about 1,000 candela per square meter or “nits,” which is to say, the equivalence of the luminosity generated by 1,000 candles in a space roughly equal to a large TV screen.

This compares to the current standardized contrast range of just100 nits, which reflects the limitations of the cathode ray tubes that prevailed when that standard, known as ITU REC 709, was set 20 years ago. But 1,000 nits is far below the peak 4,000-nit luminance Dolby has set for the first phase of Dolby Vision, which was on display at CES via prototype systems from Toshiba, Hisense, Philips and Vizio. Ultimately, Dolby wants the Dolby Vision dynamic range to go all the way to 10,000 nits, which is the luminance peak set by the MovieLabs specifications and reflects what Dolby found in focus group studies to be about the limit of what viewers are comfortable with.

But even at the lower luminance peak, Dolby Vision requires a new type of display system that uses individually modulated LED semiconductors, which can be switched across multiple steps of luminance from 0 nits to the chosen peak level of brightness. In contrast, the current generation of LCD displays, particularly those with better local back-lit contrast controls, can be repurposed with firmware upgrades of current-generation SoCs at the factory to support HDR platforms operating in the 1,000-nit range.

One thing providing a big boost to the ability of LED LCD’s to support high contrast ratios is a technology known as “quantum dots,” which has been widely embraced by manufacturers as an alternative to much costlier OLED (Organic LED) displays. Rather than relying on the usual filtering process to generate multiple colors from LED backlit displays, which wastes a lot of light energy, manufacturers employ semiconductor nanocrystal technology – the quantum dots – to emit light at very specific wavelengths as they are stimulated from unfiltered blue-light LEDs. With its adoption of the high-contrast quantum dot technology, Samsung last year went so far as to say it was abandoning production of OLEDs.

Besides enhanced contrast range, the other big point of debate in HDR standardization is how far the color gamut should be extended beyond the 16.78 million colors supported by REC 709. The ITU’s REC 2020, used in the new Blu-ray UHD standard and the MovieLabs specifications, encompasses 1.07 billion colors with 10-bit encoding and 68.7 billion colors with 12-bit encoding.

But many proponents believe a more reasonable target to shoot for is the color gamut devised by SMPTE several years ago with the DCI P3 standard, which is the color range that cinema projectors are pegged to and which, therefore, is the color range used in the filmmaking postproduction process. With 10-bit encoding DCI P3 encompasses a range of about 750 billion colors.

Fortunately, by virtue of the overlay-approach Dolby and Philips have taken in conveying HDR parameters to display systems, it’s possible to incorporate the higher and lower dynamic ranges and their attendant color gamuts within an all-encompassing set of standards. These high-end systems deliver a basic REC 709 video stream with a metadata overlay that conveys the additional information for generating the enhanced HDR images on compatible display systems. The two-layer technique allows content formatted to these enhanced HDR specifications to be viewed on non-compatible UHD TV sets as well.

The Blu-ray Disc Association has taken the high-end/low-end HDR approach in setting its new UHD specifications. According to press reports, the new BDA specs, to be released later this year, will support an open HDR standard using 10-bit HEVC encoding and a new transfer function developed by SMPTE known as SMPTE 2084 while making provisions for Dolby Vision and the Philips plan as enhancement options that can be layered onto the basic platform using 12-bit encoding.

The Transfer Function Hurdle

The UHD Alliance appears on track to follow this course, where, at the lower tier, a single open HDR standard will be chosen setting parameters for a “premium” HDR option. In fact, the impetus behind the formation of the alliance was Samsung, which has made its version of HDR license free.

But there may be a significant difference between the approaches taken by the BDA and the UHD Alliance with regard to transfer functions, which have to do with mapping the grey scale signal strength of the display system to the color gamut and dynamic range of the postproduction master. Presently two approaches are under consideration: an enhancement to the traditional gamma function, also known as the Opto-Electric Transfer Function (OETF), used with REC 709 video or the aforementioned SMPTE 2084, also known as Electro-Optical Transfer Function (EOTF), which is designed to support operations in the REC 2020 domain at the highest dynamic ranges under consideration for HDR.

While enhanced OETF is meant to support HDR systems operating in the 1,000-nit range, SMPTE 2084 greatly adds to the flexibility of those systems as well as higher-range systems to support optimal HDR parameters. At the same time, SMPTE 2084, also embraced by MovieLabs, will require new cameras that can support the necessary changes in how light is encoded, which will add costs.

Unlike the Blu-ray UHD standard, there may be a dividing line in whatever emerges from the UHD Alliance between a baseline and a “premium” version of HDR based on the levels of HDR performance that can rely on the enhanced gamma function versus performance levels that require use of SMPTE 2084. This would greatly assist distributors who want to get rolling with HDR-enhanced UHD sooner than later by ensuring bitrates can be mapped to the baseline HDR requirements without having to accommodate the requirements of SMPTE 2084.

There’s no getting around the fact that the emergence of HDR as a near-term influence on consumer expectations complicates MVPDs’ preparations for UHD services. But by paying close attention to ongoing developments in the standards-setting processes they at least should be able to incorporate HDR into their UHD planning with some degree of assurance as to where the industry is headed.

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Vyve Broadband Illuminates Realistic Path to Rural Growth

Vin Zachariah, SVP, residential services, Vyve Broadband

Vin Zachariah, SVP, residential services, Vyve Broadband

The Question Is Whether New Regulations Are Going to Block that Path


By Fred Dawson

February 23, 2015 –  With what might best be described as cautious exuberance, mid-tier MSO Vyve Broadband is pursuing an ambitious development agenda that could serve as a lesson in rural broadband economics for anyone who cares to understand the forces that undergird sound growth strategies in the hinterlands.

Founded in 2012 as BCI Broadband by two former Bresnan Communications executives with funding from Brown Brothers Harriman, the company got underway in 2013 with acquisition of Tier 3 operators Allegiance Communications based in Shawnee, OK and James Cable, dba Mediastream, based in Waycross, GA. Since then Vyve, which adopted the new name a year ago, has been focused on upgrading services across a footprint encompassing 300,000 households in Georgia, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado.

Over its short lifespan the company has been able to implement a 140-channel all-HD digital TV service, increase broadband speeds with offerings ranging from 25-105 mbps, launch an advanced digital voice service, introduce TV Everywhere, build a commercial services unit and make significant headway toward consolidating headends in key states with interconnection of systems via fiber ring networks. With many of these initiatives still to be completed across all properties, there’s no slowdown in sight.

“We only took charge in the summer of 2013,” says Vin Zachariah, Vyve’s senior vice president of residential services.  “2014 has been a year of construction, buildout and a lot of back-office integration. 2015 is going to be a really busy year.”

And one fraught with uncertainty as Vyve, along with every other player in broadband distribution, tries to figure out the implications of new FCC Internet regulations and as it continues to deal with surging programming costs and the need to deliver what customers want at affordable prices. While some federal government officials may think they have a better approach to determining and meeting rural market needs, it’s hard to imagine a more effective, aggressive way to gauge and address demand than the market-driven strategy pursued by Vyve and other forward-thinking rural service providers.

As Zachariah explains, there are a lot of moving parts to figuring it all out and creating a response to demand that is economically sound. For example, when it comes to setting broadband speeds, the company’s new baseline 25 mbps, priced at $49.99, is double what’s been on offer to residents in its markets to date. With the other options set at 50 and 105 mbps, priced at $69.99 and $89.99, respectively, the question isn’t whether the data rates are high enough; it’s whether the company will have the latitude to price the service profitably.

“We’ve spent a lot on infrastructure and CPE, installing new CMTSs (cable modem termination systems) and swapping out DOCSIS 2.0 for 3.0 modems,” Zachariah says. “There’s a lot of talk about rushing to 1-gig service, but I’m not sure we see the demand. We can’t ignore capital costs by providing service for which there’s little or no demand.”

With an aggressive commercial services unit now in place, the broadband demand calculation includes business needs. “We’ve built up a strong sales team devoted to this side of the market, which isn’t typical among smaller operators,” he says. “This is a big growth area for us.”

If the demand is there for higher speeds, Vyve will go after it, he adds. For example, fiber connections offering higher speeds to businesses are now part of the commercial offering.

But it would help if the company had a clearer idea of its latitude to set prices. “Right now prices are based on speed,” he notes, “but, eventually, we might prefer to go to usage-based pricing.” Unfortunately, as he noted in an appearance at the SNL Kagan Summit in the fall, “There’s a lot of trepidation over how that will be received under the new regulations.”

On the pay TV side of the ledger, Vyve is in the midst of assessing market reaction to the dramatic shift in the service profile since it took over its acquired properties. Where, before, many customers were on all-analog service, today they’re getting an all-HD lineup with no analog.

One interesting clue to Vyve’s commitment to taking the market where it wants to go is its role in fostering TiVo’s engagement with Evolution Digital, which led to enabling Evolution’s HD universal digital transport adapters to work with TiVo’s UI service, including advanced content discovery capabilities. Early last year Vyve became the first MSO to bring TiVo and Evolution together in a commercially available service.

The combining of TiVo with the Evolution DTA has allowed Vyve to eliminate the need for costlier set-tops. It is using the DTA to serve all TVs in the home, while leaving open the option for people who want DVR capabilities to get them with an integrated set-top DVR supplied by Pace, which is another CPE vendor that has integrated with TiVo.

Whether Vyve goes farther with TiVo toward use of its whole-home media gateways or engagement with new capabilities such as TiVo’s planned network DVR service remains to be seen. For now, what matters is that Vyve has been able to market an all-HD service with advanced navigation supported by a terminal that costs about $50.

But while this strategy has significantly reduced the costs of mounting a cutting edge service in the rural marketplace, Vyve, like other pay TV providers, is struggling with the economics of pay TV service with a willingness to play hardball when it doesn’t see a clear financial benefit to accommodating ever-rising licensing and retransmission fees. Last year the company dropped all Viacom channels and has had no regrets since, Zachariah says.

The bottom line for Vyve is its pay TV business has to remain viable on its own, which means it will not shirk in passing on increasing costs of programming to subscribers, as long as the programming is deemed to be a contributor to the overall value proposition. With multiple increases in retransmission fees on the horizon, “we feel pretty strongly that we’re going to stand up to this,” he says. “And whatever rates we accept we’ll pass through to our customers.”

While some MSOs see value in offering a highly discounted small bundle of pay TV channels packaged with high-speed data, Vyve isn’t ready to go there. “We don’t have a discounted video offer and have no plans to do that,” he says. “We’re very adamant that we’re not going to subsidize our video business from our data business.”

At the same time, while customer reaction to the all-HD pay TV service has been “very positive,” the company recognizes it will have to be responsive to consumer demand as business models evolve. “Once we rationalize our video products and figure out the pricing and value for everybody, there’s going to be a need to look at that (small, lower-cost service bundles),” he says.

“It’s hard for the whole industry to deal with consumer expectations and the question of how to get video service down to $20 to $30,” he adds. “There’s no way to do that with any margins.”

At least not within the confines of the current pay TV business model. But an all-IP strategy could create a lot more flexibility.

Last year Vyve launched TV Everywhere service by tapping into the turnkey authentication and back-office integration platform created by Ohio-based Massillon Cable. The platform, offered through the National Cable Television Cooperative, amasses participating cable companies’ subscriber data to allow consumers to log in and access any programming licensed to a given operator for distribution over broadband to connected devices.

And now Vyve is looking into the possibility of offering VOD over broadband, rather than supporting a traditional VOD service, which would require deployment of set-tops with two-way capabilities. It’s one way to begin opening a path to all-IP TV services, which is “a path we want to be on,” Zachariah says.

The consolidation of operations through interconnection of little systems to centralized headends via fiber rings is a key step to making such a path possible, he adds. So far, consolidation projects have been completed in Oklahoma and Georgia with Louisiana next on the list.

Clearly, when it comes to government goals to foster broadband expansion in rural markets, the move to all-IP video services would have the effect of expanding broadband throughput. Yet the cloud hanging over the industry with the implementation of Title II regulation of broadband makes it hard for companies like Vyve to map such plans. “We’re very much thinking about the long term, but it’s hard to make decisions,” Zachariah says.

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Turnkey Cloud Services Promise Faster Track in IP TV Migration

Mark Hyland, SVP, sales, QuickPlay Media

Mark Hyland, SVP, sales, QuickPlay Media

QuickPlay Prepares to Offer End-to-End Shared Content, Facilities and Processing Solution

By Fred Dawson

January 29, 2015 – As MVPDs in growing numbers embrace cloud-based solutions to take some of the pain and costs out of various steps in the evolution to next-generation video services, the prospects appear to be improving for more ambitious end-to-end turnkey services that could greatly accelerate service transformation at all levels, down to the smallest MVPDs.

MVPDs’ reliance on cloud-based managed services has been steadily increasing with the emergence of software platforms that facilitate execution of various tasks associated with video processing, extensions of advanced navigation, personalization and other middleware-supported functionalities to every type of device, virtualization of CPE functions and much else. Now the question is whether MVPDs are ready to leverage a shared-cloud support environment to execute the entire process of migrating to all-IP TV operations, from content ingestion, processing and storage through to distribution of multiscreen streams over dedicated facilities directly into their access networks.

One supplier that believes the market is ready to support such solutions is QuickPlay Media. Over its 11-year history QuickPlay has expanded from providing managed service support for delivering content to mobile devices into a multi-platform support operation with a modularized portfolio of managed functions that it shapes into a customized multiscreen service with a dedicated set of content offerings for each customer.

Now says Mark Hyland, senior vice president of sales at QuickPlay, the company is preparing to bring all its capabilities together into an end-to-end turnkey solution that leverages shared access to hundreds of live programming channels and thousands of VOD titles as well as to all the underlying facilities and functions that go into getting all that content to end users.

“This isn’t something we’ve been talking about publicly,” Hyland says. “But the momentum is growing for this as a logical next step for us. We believe we have an opportunity to catalyze the shift to multiscreen delivery of pay TV service over IP by providing shared access to pre-encoded, prepackaged content for different distributors.”

There’s a growing need for such a catalyst as migration to all-IP multiscreen premium service becomes a strategic necessity for every type of MVPD, he says. “This presents a real challenge to pay TV providers, especially smaller companies,” he adds. “People need a way to deliver a grown-up version of OTT service that goes well beyond what we’ve seen so far with TV Everywhere.

QuickPlay is also getting a push in this direction from content suppliers, Hyland says. “After they’ve given us one copy of their content to manage for a particular customer, they don’t want to have to do it again with the next customer,” he explains. “Making that content available to multiple customers takes a lot of the operational complexity out of supplying content to distributors.”

In so doing, Hyland notes, QuickPlay is moving into a space already occupied by providers of solutions tied to shared access to content such as Deluxe Digital Distribution, a unit of Deluxe Entertainment, Vubiquity and Verizon Digital Media Services, but with key points of differentiation. “They all have that shared-access model in mind, but we see an opportunity to compete effectively based on the expertise we’ve developed in providing an extensive portfolio of managed services to companies like AT&T, Verizon, Rogers, Bell Canada and TELUS,” Hyland says.

For example, he notes, QuickPlay is providing backend support, including transcoding, stream packaging, content protection and distribution for both AT&T’s U-verse online multiscreen service and its mobile TV service. This includes processing for distribution of 240 live channels as well as on-demand titles offered in different package iterations by the AT&T services. The companies have also partnered to create an in-vehicle entertainment service delivering live and on-demand content to automotive manufacturers who collaborate in AT&T’s Drive Studio, the first connected-car innovation center in the U.S. to be opened by a wireless carrier.

Along with providing the workflow elements essential to creating a multiscreen service for AT&T, QuickPlay has provided a foundation for OTT distribution that sustains TV-caliber performance through to the end user, Hyland notes. “We transport over a couple of heavy-duty fiber lines out of the San Diego datacenter into the AT&T network,” he says.

QuickPlay leverages integrations and business affiliations with Akamai, Limelight and other CDN suppliers to ensure high-quality OTT distribution to AT&T customers wherever they are, he adds. “We’re also integrating with Alcatel-Lucent’s Veloxis CDN technology,” he says. “They’re an increasingly important partner for us.”

The distribution architecture along with everything else QuickPlay has put in place to support robust multiscreen service performance for AT&T and other customers can be leveraged to support a new shared-access model, Hyland says. “We now have thousands of titles running through our system without human intervention,” he notes.

But there’s more to do. “We’re building up our VOD and linear assets, including overcoming a lot of roadblocks associated with localization and customization of content targeted for specific geographic areas,” he explains. “And we’ll have more [datacenter] locations for redundancy.”

With datacenters located in Germany, Singapore and India as well as San Diego, QuickPlay is well positioned to pursue the new strategy on a global basis, Hyland adds. The newest of these facilities, in Chennai, India, is designed to support growing demand for cloud-managed multiscreen services in that part of the world, including a soon-to-launch service by an unannounced customer that will tap a catalog of 40,000-50,000 titles.

While QuickPlay has developed various functional solutions in house to facilitate customers’ multiscreen service needs, it’s focus is on building the best possible shared tenancy managed service framework by integrating best-of-breed solutions into its workflow, Hyland says. “Our workflow platform is core to everything we do,” he says. “We wrap best-of-breed technologies together with our own into those work processes based on each customer’s needs.”

For example, he notes, QuickPlay, which announced its own network DVR platform in mid-2013, is now working with Alcatel-Lucent to integrate that vendor’s nDVR solution into the workflow. In some instances, as with transcoding solutions supplied by Harmonic, Envivio and Media Excel, QuickPlay may have several partners customers can choose from.

To expedite third-party solution integrations QuickPlay’s Next Generation Experience Solution provides an extensive array of developer tools (SDK, Developer Sandbox, RESTful APIs) to allow any application or front-end solution to be readily integrated with QuickPlay’s Managed Video Service. Most recently the company added tools supporting development of Android TV applications to run on its platform.

The Android TV package, which includes a reference user experience for live and VOD services, has drawn in partners such as Intellicore, Comigo and Oregan Networks, reports QuickPlay CEO Wayne Purboo. “The open approach we are taking with our Next Generation Experience Solution will help providers offer the best premium user experience, powered by Quickplay’s extensive discovery and content management back office, along with a virtual head-end that provides 200+ programmer interfaces, hundreds and thousands of titles and nearly 700 live channels,” Purboo says.

In its partnership with Comigo, QuickPlay is making available that vendor’s cloud platform to allow operators to manage the TV experience on any screen, including iOS as well as Android screens. As previously reported, the Comigo platform makes it easier to provide personalized content recommendations, social engagement and interactivity related to the viewed content. Quickplay handles all of the adaptive streaming and content management, including DRM solutions like Microsoft PlayReady, user entitlements, dynamic advertising insertion, banner ad support, multi-language support, and featured content from over 200 premium content providers.

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