Applied Technology: Crystal Connect

Many broadcasters and television networks consider the provision of linear content Over The Top (OTT) for on-demand streaming a necessity. The process, however, is far more complex than preparing a file and sending it to an OTT provider. Several factors need to be considered, from advertising insertion to compliance with industry standards, not to mention the cost and time involved.

Earlier this year, Crystal completed the deployment of its Crystal Connect solution at one of America’s leading television networks and its affiliate stations. The network's requirements and the resulting solution offer valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of OTT.

One of the largest media groups that can gain from providing OTT services are broadcasters. OTT is a great opportunity to engage with consumers in a more compelling way. The question for traditional providers when it comes to OTT is no longer ‘if’ but ‘when’.

At the same time, to maximize its potential and value, networks are turning to targeted content and advertising. Such a solution used to be difficult to implement because broadcasters lacked the essential tools to produce OTT content at scale.

The OTT challenges

Delivering an OTT feed to an entire network requires being able to replace national content with regional content and vice versa. Prior to introducing Crystal Connect, reformatting the network’s linear content for OTT was a labor-intensive task.

Rights management was this network's top challenge. With O&O stations located across the U.S., managing rights specific to each piece of content was highly complex. The affiliate distribution system managed this well for linear TV but OTT is inherently global, and the risk of rights infringement was high.

A second-level challenge was speed. Nielsen's rating system measures viewers for the first three days (C3) after a program is aired. This creates an incentive to move linear content into OTT as quickly as possible. The network’s previous workflow was a manual process taking hours. The network needed a faster solution.

Maximizing ad value was the third challenge. The ability to swap out ads after the C3 window expires, on day 4 or D4, and target them to specific viewer demographics creates new advertising potential. With a manual workflow, this option is all but impossible.

Designing a solution

Several challenges need to be overcome to make this OTT deployment a success.

The first challenge was delivering the network’s compressed content via a transcoder to avoid reliance on recompression. This saved money because there was no need for additional encoding equipment.

The second, and most prominent challenge, was the need to swap between local and national content on the fly, on a frame-accurate basis. The network’s affiliates typically broadcast local, linear content between 18 and 22 hours per weekday, switching to the network’s feed during primetime. Of course, the local stations must also be able to override network programming for local news events.

System requirements:

  • Recognize the originating video source. Three choices include; local playout, the network’s feed, or the live local studio.
  • Retrieve and use the relevant information from the correct playout system (or ignore the triggers during live local events). The program then needs to frame-accurately describe content with metadata markers.

These processes are crucial to the creation of OTT streams at the local station. Without the metadata markers, the system cannot be sure exactly when a segment of local content begins and ends. The result would likely be inaccurate replacement of network-originated content.

Seamless delivery

Crystal Connect is part of the Insight suite of products. It is a software solution to simplify and monetize VOD content. Running alongside the playout automation system and breakaway switchers at the network’s stations, it detects information about content and determines its source. By extracting specific frame and asset IDs for conversion to unique content IDs, Connect can create and insert frame-accurate SCTE markers into the transport stream.

Fully-decorated transport streams are then routed to OTT encoders along with cut and splice points to mark content segments. This enables linear content to be easily prepared for on-demand streaming by the network and specific content items to be replaced when needed. 

Crystal Connect network system diagram.

Crystal Connect network system diagram.

By working with the transport stream and SCTE 35 markers, a conversion to baseband can be avoided, which negates the need for expensive conversion and 104 insertion hardware. It also keeps the signal in the format the OTT service or satellite transmitter requires.

Cost savings are always welcome, but the real value of the metadata markers is in the revenue-generating activities they make possible.

SCTE markers enable the removal and replacement of any content not cleared for delivery over-the-top or in certain regions or to certain devices due to distribution rights. Adhering to these rights may not generate network revenue, but it prevents penalties for misuse.

With the beginning, end, and duration of all content segments marked upon transmission, targeted advertisements can be inserted on the fly according to a number of parameters triggered by metadata. This increases the value of the ad for both the advertiser and the network. The network’s viewers are also happier with ads more relevant to their location and interests. Other features, like restarting a program at the beginning frame, are also possible.

Lastly, the solution deployed enables the automation of C3 and D4 VOD assets in place of manually editing each piece of linear content. As a result, the time taken to format content for on-demand viewing is greatly reduced, sometimes from between 12-72 hours to around 2-3 minutes. OTT content can be provided almost instantly, meaning that broadcasters can take full advantage of the Nielsen C3 ratings window. All of these processes save time and therefore money, and, especially in the case of targeted ads, generate revenue and increase the value of the network’s OTT content.

Behind the scenes

This solution proved particularly beneficial to the network and its affiliate stations as the markers inserted into linear content were non-intrusive, merely acting as a sidecar to the existing transmission path. No workflow changes were required and the network’s complex playlist and schedule did not need to be altered. Connect simply picked up the same content routed to affiliates and produced an OTT feed. The result also was a higher-quality network feed because of fewer transcoders.

This solution enabled the markup to be driven by the actual playout of content rather than the EPG. The playout of content, replacement of advertisements and start-over TV was then completely accurate. The result was more suitable for the network, which was looking to reproduce linear content as VOD.

The potential of OTT has everyone in the television business excited. One thing is clear, the old manual ways of adapting linear content to OTT are fast reaching their end as volume rises. Crystal Connect provides a solution to this complex and task-intensive process.

Author:  Roger Franklin, President and CEO, Crystal.

Author: Roger Franklin, President and CEO, Crystal.

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