In recent years, the streaming media landscape has undergone a revolutionary transformation, with free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) channels emerging as a powerful force in the industry. These channels provide viewers with free access to a diverse range of content, supported by advertisements strategically inserted throughout the viewing experience. This model has gained considerable popularity, changing the way audiences consume digital content and challenging traditional television and subscription-based streaming platforms.
Anupama Anantharaman, VP of Product Management - Interra Systems.
The rise of FAST channels can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the exponential growth of internet connectivity and the widespread adoption of smart devices have empowered viewers to access media content seamlessly and conveniently from virtually anywhere, eroding the dominance of traditional broadcast television. Secondly, consumers increasingly seek out cost-effective entertainment options, and the "free-to-watch" proposition of FAST channels serves as an appealing alternative to subscription-based platforms.
Beyond their appeal to cost-conscious viewers, FAST channels have also proven to be a boon for advertisers and content providers alike. Advertisers benefit from access to a vast and engaged audience, enabling them to deploy targeted ad campaigns, ensuring greater relevance and efficacy. Simultaneously, content providers find new revenue streams through advertising partnerships, expanding their reach to a broader demographic without reliance on subscription fees. It’s easy to see why in this dynamic and competitive streaming landscape, FAST channels have become a pivotal player.
A Model Driven By Ad Revenue
For FAST channels, ad insertions represent the backbone of their revenue model. Ensuring the seamless integration of ads, devoid of glitches and timing discrepancies, is crucial to preserving a positive user experience, nurturing viewer loyalty, and, ultimately, maximizing ad revenue.
A Typical Ad Insertion Process/Flow
The process of ad insertion in a FAST channel involves several stages, including encode, transcode, and playlist preparation. Each of the following stages plays a crucial role in ensuring accurate and seamless ad delivery to viewers:
1. Encode Stage:
- Primary content, including TV shows, movies, or any video content that will be streamed on the FAST channel, is prepared.
- SCTE markers — timecodes that indicate specific ad insertion opportunities — are inserted into the primary content. These markers serve as reference points for ad placements during playback.
2. Transcode Stage:
- Encoded content is converted into various streaming formats suitable for different devices and bandwidths, ensuring efficient delivery to viewers across a range of platforms and network conditions.
- SCTE markers are preserved to maintain accurate ad insertion points throughout different streaming formats.
3. Playlist Preparation:
- A dynamic playlist is created based on factors such as location, demographics, and content preferences.
- The playlist contains information about the primary content, ad segments, and the SCTE markers' timing data.
- For dynamic ad insertion (DAI), the playlist may also include instructions on which ads to fetch and insert based on real-time viewer data and targeting parameters.
4. Ad Insertion And Delivery:
- When an ad avail (available ad slot) is identified, the ad insertion system retrieves the appropriate ad content and seamlessly stitches it into the primary content at the specified SCTE marker point.
- For server-side ad insertion (SSAI), this approach reduces the likelihood of ad-blockers affecting ad delivery.
- For client-side ad insertion (CSAI), ad content is delivered separately to the viewer's device and is inserted by the client-side player at the specified ad avail point.
Importance Of Monitoring Ad Insertions For Optimum Ad Performance
Prior to the final delivery of a FAST channel, the stream undergoes a series of operations, each potentially introducing errors. The process is further complicated by external ad server systems that are instrumental in orchestrating the ad insertion process, including parsing and performing dynamic ad insertion. Therefore, it’s important to monitor ad insertions during content preparation processes to achieve visibility of the entire ad insertion workflow — from pre-transcode to origin server — to ensure placements are accurate, and that ad operations adhere to the set criteria for ad frequency, quality, etc.
Interra Systems’ ORION content monitoring platform, for quality assurance of IP and OTT channels, includes comprehensive ad insertion monitoring. ORION probes can be placed at key stages in media processing workflows to monitor and collect relevant ad-insertion-related data. A key element of the suite is the ORION Central Manager (OCM). This centralized management software aggregates stream quality data from various probes — including ad marker information from source to origin — to show the complete trail of ad markers for a channel, and reports issues with ad marker propagation.
Once configured to monitor and collect all ad-relevant metrics — such as SCTE-35 markers, timing, and availability — ORION probes can help identify errors at each workflow stage. The OCM provides a comprehensive view of the ad insertion flow to trace the quality of each channel, generating alerts in real time and recording streams around splice points for proof of delivery. A single graphical view, along with visual error status, helps speed up fault isolation and recovery.
ORION multipoint monitoring performs the following functions for quality assurance of ads:
1. SCTE Marker Checks:
- Verifies the presence and accuracy of SCTE markers in the content. E.g., SCTE-104 in the pre-compressed stage, and SCTE-35 in the transport stream.
- Checks for placement and timing consistency checks across all variants. This is important, because when multiple streams are created from a single stream in ABR, it must be ensured that ad markers in the pre-transcode stream are properly transcoded for all variants, and that these are in sync with each other. In SSAI, this takes place at the post-packager stage. Failure to accurately translate any availability markers from the source stream to ABR manifests can result in a loss of revenue.
2. Ad Avails Verification:
- Confirmation that the specified ad avails within the content are properly defined and meet the requirements of the ad insertion schedule.
- Check that the ad avails are appropriately timed and aligned with the content's natural breaks to ensure a seamless transition between the main content and ads.
3. Seamless Transition Testing:
- Evaluate the ad insertion process to ensure a smooth and imperceptible transition from the main content to the ad, and vice versa.
- Verify that there are no abrupt audio or video cuts, flickering, or other visual anomalies during ad insertion.
4. Ad Duration And Format Checks:
- Validate the duration and format of the ad content to ensure compatibility with the platform and target devices.
- Check that the ad's aspect ratio, resolution, and bitrate match the requirements of the content and do not compromise its visual quality.
5. Performance Reports
- Log markers in different stages and store that information for performance analysis. Compare actual ads against ad targets; i.e., check whether the expected number of ads went out within a specific time or not. Analyze KPI such as number of ads per hour, ad duration per hour, etc.
6. Ad Error Handling And Fallback Mechanisms:
- Test error handling mechanisms to address potential issues, such as ad delivery failures or unavailable ad assets.
- Verify that appropriate fallback options are in place to prevent gaps in ad insertions and maintain a seamless user experience.
Additional benefits of multipoint ad monitoring through a centralized management dashboard include:
Ad Insertion Flow Visualization:
Multipoint management can help simplify and communicate complex information, enabling teams to identify and resolve issues more efficiently. By visualizing data across various touchpoints, including encoding, delivery, and playback, teams can quickly identify potential issues.
Alerts In Real Time:
Real-time alerts allows teams to instantly identify where in the OTT workflow issues are taking place. This is especially valuable for the live streaming of premium events, where problems must be fixed before they escalate into much bigger, customer-impacting issues.
Collecting metrics is an essential aspect of comprehensive end-to-end monitoring. The acquisition of quality metrics from each touchpoint serves as the foundation for tracing service quality, as they enable the measurement of infrastructure performance and facilitate tracking changes over time. Through diligent collection and analysis of metrics, it’s feasible to detect trends and patterns that aid in performance optimization and the prevention of recurring issues. Continuous monitoring and the provision of quality reports play a pivotal role in identifying weak points and performance gaps, ultimately facilitating effective problem resolution.
By integrating ORION seamlessly at key stages of the ad insertion workflow, FAST channel providers can confidently eliminate potential pitfalls and fortify their ad ecosystem. ORION vigilantly oversees content encoding and SCTE-35 marker insertion, ensuring that ads are inserted at the precise cue points for an uninterrupted viewing experience. ORION's comprehensive data insights provide invaluable ad performance reports, allowing companies to make data-driven decisions to fine-tune their ad strategies and maximize revenue potential.
Streaming companies make huge investments in creating and acquiring content. However, it can’t be monetized until expectations for streaming quality are met. For FAST channels, monitoring ad insertions for accuracy and quality is of paramount importance, and will remain a cornerstone in the quest to unlock their full potential as the streaming media landscape continues to evolve.
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