The effect of OTT-based delivery is wide-reaching, stretching all the way back to the original content production domain and creating new technical requirements and opportunities.
The ever-increasing availability of network bandwidth provided by telco operators to stream all types of data is the enabler of four specific outcomes related to OTT video:
- Consumer devices, such as smart TVs, are continuously evolving to increase the resolution of content they can receive and the sophistication/power of apps they can run, which is then supported by the delivery networks.
- Cameras that capture content in increasingly higher resolutions can be used in the knowledge that the higher bit-rate content will be accessible by OTT viewers.
- The OTT viewing experience that can incorporate more video capture elements (e.g. footage from multiple cameras) on a single screen encourages the delivery of innovative viewing experiences.
- The relative ease of content delivery to a smaller, more niche audience that is interested in consuming as much content as can be delivered, simply encourages more content to be produced.
There is a natural cause and effect relationship where more bandwidth availability to the consumer causes more content to be supplied to fulfil demand. Supplying more content to consumers then causes higher demand for bandwidth in the production domain as production quality and variety increases. In addition, new opportunities for additional marketing and branding activities (e.g. app-based transactions) create additional bandwidth demand.
D2C (Direct to Consumer) Content Providers are therefore working to overcome two challenges in order to deliver excellent viewing experiences to their audiences. First, the expansion in delivery of live content from the point of acquisition to the head-end. Second, the seamless delivery of live content all the way to the consumer devices. These challenges exist specifically because of the growth of OTT and need to be addressed for OTT services to scale.
From Acquisition To Head-end
Acquisition network bandwidth – from camera to studio aggregation - is increased for two primary reasons: to accommodate higher resolutions from the same number of cameras (e.g. HD to 4K) and to accommodate the addition of more cameras to capture more content.
Contribution network bandwidth – from studio aggregation to head-end – is increased for the same basic reasons: to deliver higher resolutions for the same number of channels and to deliver more unique content streams.
OTT distribution growth is enabled directly by the combination of consumer device capabilities and the bandwidth growth of fixed-line and mobile broadband (e.g. DSL to FTTP (fiber to the premises), 3G/4G to 5G. OTT production growth responds to this demand. Because it is possible to deliver more content, more content shall be delivered.
Today, leading service providers offering Live Production services are observing high growth for acquisition and contribution network bandwidth from stadiums and venues. Venues that have recently expanded from 10GbE connectivity to 100GbE are now working towards many hundreds of GbE. So what is driving this and what does it mean for the technology?
First, let’s take a step back to look at a major driver of contribution networking – remote production.
The shift to more remote production, albeit accelerated by the COVID pandemic, was already in progress as the cloud-technology increasingly supported it and production businesses sought cost-efficiencies, a reduced carbon footprint and easier access to talent. Remote production brings with it a need for more distributed bandwidth to both connect the venue to the cloud environment but also to connect the production team to the content.
High production quality requires low latency contribution and lossless compression formats. While encoding technologies like Zixi and SRT provide reliable video streaming over the internet, they are not designed for very low latency, lossless delivery which remote production requires. In addition, we are now reaching a new price-performance cross-over point for codec vs. bandwidth charges. Historically, bandwidth has cost enough that it made sense to invest more into the choice of codec in order to compress well while retaining high quality video. But today, with significant expansion of IP networking capacity, it is possible to use lighter point to point compression with codecs such as JPEG-XS which can reduce complexity and increase production quality. In the coming years it is likely that fully uncompressed contribution feeds will be widely used for higher value live productions over very high bandwidth connections which will remove compression concatenation issues and reduce the points of failure in the contribution chain.
This economic shift creates the ability to make live remote production look like being on-site in a studio or OB truck. Latency is low, resolutions are high, and the quality of production is heightened. However, this does mean that utilization of acquisition and contribution bandwidth increases. The best economic benefit is likely to be realized through live production service providers with their multi-use network infrastructure and ability to price accordingly. Individual D2C OTT operators can utilize these more economical services and benefit from high quality production from remote locations, using flexible technology that can tie in with other on-demand services such as AI processing and Live to VOD file delivery.
This new flexibility and cost-efficiency means that more content can be captured and then monetized. We already see many examples today of OTT-only content that supplements a primary feed for a terrestrial channel – it’s the evolution of the “red button” model deployed for years by DTT broadcasters. The OTT viewing format with lower-latency stream switching, the ability to view multiple streams simultaneously on a single screen and the option to add advertising and community-interactions (e.g. social media feeds) make this extra content more valuable. More cameras deployed to capture this content which then stream content to specialist remote production teams results in more demand for network capacity. And if more cameras are streaming in higher bitrates because of the lower bandwidth costs, then more bandwidth is needed.
The good news is that there is no technological breaking point that can get in the way of this. 10GbE, 100GbE or 1000GbE is all about providing enough connectivity. It is not a technological issue. It is entirely economical, and the business case depends on whether the increased network capacity combined with remote production make sense for the event or event series versus the alternative of on-site production teams. Second it depends on deciding whether extra cameras and/or higher resolution cameras make sense for the content to be delivered to the content-loving fans. This consideration is naturally tied closely to live events, whether that is sports, music or the arts and where the detail and quality of content is most monetizable.
From Acquisition To Consumer
It is precisely because D2C OTT operators need to maximize the value of their live OTT content that there is growing demand for service assurance across the end-to-end production and distribution chain and for non-live outputs to be automatically created from the original live production.
Service assurance is firstly about the management of the technology platforms at an aggregate level. Tighter network integration between acquisition, contribution and distribution networks enables the management of scalability of the E2E video chain, thereby allowing the commercially viable growth and targeting of more OTT content. Live events are by definition unpredictable; unexpected events can occur, and event durations can change. From a service assurance perspective, it is critical that the live streams continue to be delivered in the required quality and with the appropriate security and (where relevant) advertising insertions, even when demand exceeds expectations or when capacity is reduced below requirements. Preventing any form of service failure on Live OTT services will become even more critical as audiences grow and expected ROI increases.
Service assurance is also about the quality of streams and content that can be witnessed at an individual viewer or individual advertiser level. Some of the key considerations are:
- QoE monitoring and feedback – are the viewers receiving exactly what they should be receiving in terms of content, latency and picture quality?
- Ad sales and insertion activities – are all advertisements making it to the right eyeballs?
- Advertiser partnering – are advertisers interacting with the live event’s content as they are expecting to?
- Live community engagement – are viewers able to engage in live community activity (e.g. social media interactions or interactive voting) as intended?
Today, as OTT audiences grow and grow, it is becoming even more critical that D2C OTT operators have full confidence in their live content delivery. For Live Production service providers, it is therefore becoming even more imperative for the entire acquisition-consumer service to be under their control so that potential failures can be proactively averted. Combining data from client-side monitoring, CDN monitoring (including peering points and access networks), Playout and Origination platform monitoring, and Contribution-side monitoring is now necessary.
One of the biggest challenges with Live OTT content delivery is how to handle the completely unanticipated. Sometimes this is as simple as a device-type or operating system that hadn’t previously been experienced that does not receive the stream as it should. For this to be detected and the smallest of issues to be managed, unique stream-level monitoring is required. The leading “intelligent CDNs” that have been purpose-built for live video streaming are able to support this requirement at scale (see The World of OTT Part 5). And when the problem is detected, it’s important to resolve issues within the timeframe of the live event. It’s a tough requirement, but Live OTT needs it, and only the best delivery platforms can meet the demand.
When the Contribution and Distribution chains are joined together for end-to-end live event service assurance, a new capability emerges to combine Live and VOD creation and distribution. Live Production operators can leverage the now transparent or integrated Content Origination infrastructure to ingest live streams, record them and process them, and deliver VOD content. This could be short clips delivered to social media platforms during the event, or long-form VOD content to be delivered post-event. In this domain, AI tools can be leveraged to automatically detect content and create clips, and automated workflows can transcode, quality check and deliver files to VOD platforms. By leveraging the same content origination and CDN platforms, both the D2C content provider and the Live Production service provider can streamline the delivery of Live and VOD content.
D2C content providers have a broad range of options for delivering Live and VOD content in an OTT environment which brings the big promise of increased audience engagement and monetization. It can utilize the same audience interaction mechanisms as OTA, such as audience voting via SMS, but offers many more “in-program” opportunities such as community forums, click-through shopping and viewer recommendations.
With OTT Live Productions placing higher demands on network capacities than ever before, the network operators are responding to the challenge by significantly expanding network capacity.
But for these networks to scale continuously and efficiently to meet the demands of Live OTT services, it is also critical to create deeper integration between the multiple network domains and to find ways to automate value-adding VOD creation and delivery. OTT viewers expect broadcast-quality content delivery, but with new and exciting viewing experiences. To succeed in Live OTT, the D2C content providers will need proactive service assurance of the varied array of streams from acquisition through to consumption.
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