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Web Video: A Streamlined Approach
by David Fox
Streaming media is, at best, still just an added extra to the broadcast process. Most broadcasters use it on their Web sites, but it is usually costly, labour intensive, and far from being a paying proposition. That is changing, partly thanks to a new breed of automation and management solutions from companies like Anystream, Citria and NaviSite, but, given the slow roll-out of broadband services across Europe, many broadcasters are still holding back from going fully on-stream.
Lack of infrastructure
The lack of infrastructure and bandwidth, and uncertainty about the economy and how the market will grow, has held back investment. "The infrastructure is not building as fast as everyone hoped it would be," partly because companies are dropping out of the market as a result of the economic slow-down, says Randy Levine, senior director for business development, Streaming Media Group, NaviSite.
"All of us had hoped everyone would have broadband by this year [late 2001], but it is probably a couple of years off now," he says, depending on how the economy goes. When it does come, he believes convergence and broadband will open up a lot of opportunities for pay-per-view and interactive projects.
"There is the opportunity to do that much extra. The interactivity of it, with multiple streams," and "get the viewer more personally invested in the programme, getting more feedback and involvement, and get more money from the viewer," says Levine. It can also give valuable polling and feedback, through real-time statistics and reporting, "which is something you couldn't get before."
Unfortunately, bandwidth is still expensive and broadcasters are spending more money on bandwidth than makes it viable. If the Internet cost structure can be made comparable with that of broadcast TV, he sees opportunities for niche programming, but feels that will take some time.
In the meantime, many broadcasters will have to do a lot of work to ingest material, log, index and catalogue it, and add metadata. A single programme area, such as the last 25 years of European football, may not be something anyone would want to watch all of in streaming video, but it may be an attractive, potentially lucrative, package if people can call up the highlights they want to see. This means the system has to know a lot about each game, and deliver exactly what people want. "Sitting, waiting for hours, for something to turn up won't be enjoyable. You have to give the viewer an enjoyable experience," says Simon Godden, head of video and digital media, Citria.
Current and future programming will benefit from the AAF and MXF standards, which will mean all the metadata will be added at the time of creation, so this should only be a problem for archive material, adds Jon Mayland, technical consultant, Citria's digital media division.
Even so, broadcasters will still have an awful lot of content to deliver, and need to deal with it efficiently. "It they have volume and time-to-Web requirements, then the only answer is automation - ours or someone else's," says Anystream's VP of European Operations, Bruce Brewer.
"In a news environment, time to Web is very important. They are looking at a one minute window between getting it in and putting it on the Web, as opposed to taking two hours to do it manually," he says. A lot of the encoding on cnn.com (one of Anystream's customers) is done in real time.
According to Godden, the most important thing is to manage costs better and work to generate new revenue streams. "Enterprises are willing to pay for video content now, whereas general viewers aren't," adds Mayland.
Pay-per-view is seen as one way forward, especially for one-off events like the recent Elton John concert, but Levine doesn't believe that the technology is ready yet, because it is generally too easy for hackers to get past authentication procedures. To protect it properly needs effective Digital Rights Management, which he says is available now for on-demand but will be a few more months for PPV.
He feels it is not just a matter of having the technology, but of creating a proper business environment, similar to broadcast TV. He believes that many Internet businesses have failed because they haven't had real sales people. Ultimately, he reckons, the advertising model can work, but only if it is backed by an experienced sales force - which broadcasters have - and effective DRM.
He doesn't believe micropayments will work, at least not yet, so he sees subscription-based services as being the way forward, which means that content will still have to be aggregated and sold by broadcasters or their equivalent.
"I think the broadcasters have a beautiful opportunity to do it correctly and to learn from the mistakes of the former Internet [failures]," he says.
Anystream's first major customer was CNN, which uses it for all of its Web streaming, taking feeds from around the US and elsewhere as video and repurposing it for the Web at various bit rates. "If you are trying to go for a very broad market, you have to provide the video in a broad range of formats," says Brewer. In this case, that means Windows Media and Real at three bit rates, plus one or two QuickTime versions, plus mobile codecs. It varies between nine and 12 formats on average, which is why it would be so time consuming if it was done manually.
To help overcome the problem of limited bandwidth, especially on dial-up modems, Citria is working with one company whose technology allows video to be downloaded progressively, so that the quality improves as you download it. This means viewers can identify a segment they want to watch from a lower quality version, then watch that in better quality.
Mayland believes that one interesting development over the next two years will be how the delivery platforms change, with TV becoming more interactive and the Internet becoming more like TV. "As set-top boxes widen to provide things like searchable video, the TV watching experience is likely to change. Video will become more like music is today. In a few years time, it will be common to see someone calling up a soap episode on a PDA, whether it will be accessed on demand or downloaded from household servers depends on the roll-out of 3G and DSL," he says. "But the important thing to allow all that is metadata and good asset management."
Any Stream, Any Time, Any Where
"Anystream automates the process of taking video from a typical broadcast environment into the Internet world," says its VP of European operations, Bruce Brewer. The cost of conversion means that "the only way this can be a viable proposition is with automation."
He claims Anystream's Agility system is massively scalable and can take the output from any source (satellite, tape, files, etc.). It also interfaces with Virage or other loggers, databases for billing, routers and switchers throughout the broadcast process, and outputs to video servers, ftp, etc. It also does a turnkey solution, Agility Workgroup (with or without SDI) for people who know exactly how much bandwidth they'll need (typically for advertising approval).
The system can also convert the video into MPEG for archive or broadcast at the same time as outputting to or saving for the Web, which is how it is being used for one project in Egypt. "We don't care what format the content is delivered on," he says.
In the UK, facilities house VTR use it for repurposing content for clients who want to do remote viewing and approval, while VTR's sister company, Clipstream does asset management and offers end-to-end new media services.
RTL is just starting to use it to repurpose its own content. Anystream is also working with ZDF on a project for next year. "A lot of the big European broadcasters are still working on what they'll be doing with their Websites," he says.
"We've put a lot of effort in to pre-filtering. That's the real make or break for the encoded signal. You have to start with the highest possible quality," says Brewer.
Because most consumers have very limited bandwidth, broadcasters have to make a lot of compromises, but Anystream uses smart algorithms to minimise the damage. It also does noise reduction and cropping (because there is often noise at the top and bottom of the video which "plays havoc with encoding"), although operators have to make sure it doesn't infringe on any logos. The TV colour also has to be matched to the colours displayed on the computer screen.
The system does a lot of tough pre-filtering, he says, compared to which the encoding is easy. It also adds idents or logos (or bumper or trailers), during processing, which improves workflow by taking one more step out of the process. It also has to keep video and audio synchronised. The automation system then spreads the workload across the available encoders to make the best use of them. It also has fault-tolerant network administration, which can recover if the network fails at any point. It then delivers the files to the servers.
Its latest software release (launched at Streaming Media Europe, October 2001), gives improved workflow, support for Windows Media 8, and full hardware independence.
Citria's Web solution is its Universal Publishing Platform, which it claims allows users to: "Create once, publish everywhere." It is not a product, but a solution, which can be re-configured for any client's requirements, from small digital TV channels to national broadcasters, to allow them output to different platforms.
The UPP can store and manage video media material in a way that enables the delivery of the material to any platform at any supported bandwidth, including broadcast and broadband Internet, and Citria offers "a range of business solutions which address how to manage content more effectively, mostly to do with digital asset management," says Simon Godden, head of video and digital media.
Technical consultant, Jon Mayland, claims it simplifies getting content from analogue video and digital streaming media to a wide range of delivery platforms, with Digital Asset Management playing a central role. "If you don't know where the content is and can't find it, it is worthless to you."
It does video indexing and searchable video and also manages the different streaming formats (Real, Windows Media and QuickTime) and bit rates. "Managing the encoding of those multiple formats is increasingly important," says Mayland. It uses tools like Virage or Convera, integrated in to its DAM system, to make the processes easily manageable.
It hasn't been integrated with any billing systems, but because it is based on open architecture XML and Java technology, Mayland claims it would be relatively simple to integrate it with any payments or customer relationship management system the broadcaster has. Indeed, he believes that CRM will become increasingly important to broadcasters, as it allows them tailor commercials to people's interests.
It uses templates and CMS content management technology so "it is almost a one-click process to deliver content to the different delivery platforms," he says. It can do this in a matter of minutes, depending on what encoding technology is used and whether the metadata is already available or has to be added during encoding. "It's almost entirely automated," adds Godden.
Although Citria is currently talking to broadcasters in the UK, France, Germany and Italy, the system hasn't been sold in Europe yet, partly because so few broadcasters have decided on what DAM system they are going to use, a decision Godden expects many to make next year. However, he says the system has been operational for six months and is working properly. Even if broadcasters are holding back to see where the technology is going, Mayland is adamant that "the sooner they start collecting metadata, then the stronger position they will be in in two or three years time."
The UPP can encrypt content and add digital rights enforcement (DRE) automatically - Windows Media Rights Manager version 7 is integrated. It can also add RealNetworks DRE software once that is completed. Both of these are aimed at live streaming, but there are also DRE packages, which can be used across all three formats for download.
Statistically Correct Drag & Drop
NaviSite's main product is streamOS, an Internet-based content management tool, which can be accessed via any Web browser. It allows users to upload content by drag and drop "so it is immediately available for viewing," says business development director, Randy Levine. It will also encode it automatically in the upcoming version. He claims there is nothing else like it currently available.
Users can view all the statistics about live and on-demand usage on their browser. It also packages content to work with Microsoft's Digital Rights Manager (an area it is developing for subscription-based and pay-per-view events, including integration with billing systems), and has a live event application, Broadcast Relay Manager, for event scheduling and network management.
"The point of streamOS is that it's an open infrastructure," he says. "It's simply a content management service that allows you manage your content as well as push your content to any streaming network."
"If you have one piece of content, you can drag and drop an AVI file with streamOS, which will then encode it in multiple formats, and then push it onto different networks, which will make life a lot easier for you," he says.
It is signed up to all the major networks, such as Akamai, and can load balance across any number of them for any event. On the Madonna concert last year, it load balanced across seven networks. Because of the volume of traffic, individual networks did go down temporarily, but streamOS re-routed the traffic to other networks.
For on-demand material, content is immediately available at NaviSite's own two network nodes, then replicated to the other networks. He claims that on a conventional edge network users wouldn't be able to view it for, perhaps, a few hours.
One of its users is TWI interactive, for which it delivered more than 750,000 streams during this year's Wimbledon tennis championships - with up to 16,000 concurrent viewers during the live Webcast of the men's final. TWIi also covered the British Open golf.
Other NaviSite clients include Microsoft (which is a minority shareholder), Universal Vivendi, KPMG, Anheuser-Busch and NFL Films.