NBC Sports’ Eric Black: For Digital Video-Ad Insertion, Server-Side May Not Be the Only Answer

Speaking at NAB Show New York, the digital CTO says security remains the largest challenge

NBC Sports and its digital-streaming platform Playmaker Media are one of the biggest players in live-video delivery. With more than 30,000 live events expected to be delivered this year alone, NBC Sports Digital faces numerous challenges, perhaps most notably in striking that ideal balance between a perfect premium-viewing experience and the need to monetize those offerings and services.

NBC Sports Group Digital’s Eric Black: “We don’t want to disrupt legitimate users, but we really do want to disrupt piracy.”

The biggest catch-22 in live-streaming video is that, although there’s always a desire for more viewers, with more viewers come bigger technological challenges in delivery. Naturally, media companies paying boatloads of money for the rights to events aim to make money from those live streams. That puts delivery of ads in a digital environment constantly in the crosshairs.

Many in the industry approve of a server-side ad-insertion model, which uses a personalized connection with the user that allows all the important parts (ad-server communication, bitrate and resolution management, etc.) to be handled before the content is delivered to the fan. However, Eric Black, CTO, NBC Sports Group Digital and Playmaker Media, is not convinced that that’s necessarily the best play on the biggest events (of which NBC has many: this year, the network has streamed Super Bowl LII, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and the FIFA World Cup).

“I’m not necessarily a believer in server-side as the only answer to the problem,” said Black, speaking at the opening of the Streaming Summit during this month’s NAB Show NY. “We actually run a mixed model of a client-side and server-side within our environment. If you’re talking about an at-scale event — like the Super Bowl, for example — you have 3.2 million peak concurrent viewers; each of those server-side manifests is a one-to-one generation. [With] every person that comes in, you are spinning up a new manifest to deliver ads in a server-side methodology. That’s great until you are starting to pile on 200,000 people every 60 seconds. There’s a major technological challenge in these uber-scale events. How do you support both [large events and regular ones]?”

As big a challenge as ad delivery and digital monetization can be, it’s still not the biggest mountain to climb on a daily basis. That distinction is still held by, what else, piracy.

“I don’t know if [advertising] is the most complicated thing that we’re doing right now,” said Black. “I think some of the security stuff that we’re doing is a little more complicated. Screen-scaping is incredibly challenging. From a piracy perspective, people tend to go for the lowest common denominator: highest-quality video they can get in the easiest way they can get it. We’re trying new things, safe things. We don’t want to disrupt legitimate users, but we really do want to disrupt piracy, because I don’t think it’s good for the industry.”

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