Automation, Software Systems Help Video Distribution to Multiple Platforms

The explosion in new-media platforms — Web, mobile phones, video-on-demand, interactive TV, alternative-view channels — has made television distribution dramatically more complex than it was a decade ago, said network and sports executives Thursday at the HD World conference in New York.

In the panel discussion Strategic Challenges of Multi-Platform Distribution, moderated by technology consultant Roger Charlesworth, executives from Turner Broadcasting, NBC Universal, PBS, and NBA Entertainment described the difficulties of feeding their content in disparate formats to numerous Web video services and myriad mobile handsets, each requiring a different compression scheme and file “wrapper.” As traditional broadcast standards have been usurped by customized digital formats, programmers increasingly rely on automation and complex software systems to meet clients’ demands.

“If you took a snapshot of today versus seven or eight years ago, you would have two very different looks,” said Ron Tarasoff, Turner VP of broadcast technology and engineering.

Turner Broadcasting
That’s because, eight years ago, Turner delivered its content in the traditional method used by cable networks: beaming linear feeds over satellite for capture by thousands of cable headends nationwide. Those feeds were also played out off tape-based systems, and human operators were in charge of integrating commercials and promos and monitoring the feeds.

But, soon after moving to a new file-based plant, Turner started receiving requests from mobile-phone companies to receive Cartoon Network in streaming form, a task that Turner accomplished by using automation software to cue up playback from servers, without manual intervention.

“That was a change for us,” said Tarasoff, “the first time we were sending out streams of content that nobody [in a control room] was watching, where nobody had a hand in doing something.”

Now about half of Turner’s incoming video feeds go to something other than linear television: the Websites that Turner manages for the NBA, the PGA Tour, and NASCAR; on-demand content for its TV Everywhere online video initiative; or broadband feeds for NBA League Pass, a hybrid broadcast/broadband service that gives subscribers access to every NBA game every night.

NBC Universal
NBC Universal has seen a similar transformation in the delivery of its broadcast and cable networks, said Matthew Braatz, SVP of broadcast operations for NBC Universal. “There’s been a shift in broadcast operations, from control and monitoring of the linear network to a media-management operation.”

Although NBC Universal originally found it easy to deliver certain shows on a one-off basis to new-media partners, it quickly realized that model wasn’t going to be sustainable as more platforms emerged. So, five years ago, it rebuilt its distribution operations with the goal of using a single workflow to ingest, prepare, and distribute content to all platforms.

Now all NBC Universal content is controlled by a workflow-management system, said Braatz, regardless of whether it is headed for a TV network, the MediaFLO mobile-TV service, Hulu, iTunes, or cable VOD platforms. In the past year, NBCU delivered some 600,000 long-form pieces of content to its partners.

“The key to success is a single, unified workflow,” he noted.

PBS
PBS is delivering a similar high volume of online content and is also wrestling with the same format challenges, said CTO John McCoskey. Like NBCU, the network has tried to implement a single workflow for ingesting, preparing, and publishing content.

Today, the average piece of PBS content goes to 17 publishing points, each with own standard. In its kids’-programming area online, the network delivers 60 million-80 million video views a month, with an average viewing time of more than 20 minutes, and is pushing a petabyte of data per month through content-delivery networks (CDNs).

“It’s a different cost model than the broadcast world, and that cost is a commoditized cost today,” said McCoskey of CDNs. “Fortunately, that cost has dropped by a factor of three.”

NBA Entertainment
When it comes to digital platforms, the NBA is looking to serve two sets of clients: the fans at home and the teams themselves. The league maintains 100-Mbps fiber connections to all 29 arenas, allowing it to backhaul live feeds of every game, and also manages a rapidly growing digital archive of game footage and in-depth game statistics, which teams use for both coaching and marketing applications.

“We have a media-management system where teams can come in and browse the archives, select clips, and flip files to HD,” said Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, for NBA Entertainment. “Or a partner like Nike might come in and do an order for 2,000 or 3,000 clips of their players, and we’ll dump it off on a hard drive and send it to them.”

Although the NBA has outsourced domestic businesses like NBA TV, NBA League Pass, and NBA.com to Turner’s digital arm in Atlanta, international partners like Shanghai Media in China pick up their League Pass content feeds directly from NBA Entertainment headquarters in Secaucus, NJ. Like the networks, the NBA has faced similar challenges in meeting different clients’ format requests.

“I remember, at first, I set all my digital standards,” Hellmuth recalled. “Then, I quickly backed off and figured out how to deliver whatever the customer wants.”

Although programmers may be willing to deal with that level of complexity to bring in digital dollars, Hellmuth and the other panelists said the transaction process has to get easier as consumers are offered more digital-video choices. While no one expects a single authentication system to be created or a single platform like Google TV to become dominant for accessing broadband content, Hellmuth predicted that there will be some consolidation on the transaction side of new media.

“The huge success of Apple has been the convenience factor,” he suggested. “So whether it’s leveraging relationships with cable operators or someone like Amazon, these transaction technologies need to be studied actively.”

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