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The State of Live Video 2017
Sport leads the way as live video continues to grow. Will this be the year it overcomes problems delivering quality results at scale, conquering latency, and securing monetization?

Viewer hunger for live streaming content is abundant beyond sports. GlobalWebIndex found that live funny/entertaining videos rank the highest in viewer popularity (53 percent), followed by breaking news stories (41 percent), music/concerts (38 percent), educational talks (29 percent), brands/commercial videos (26 percent), celebrity videos (22 percent), and vlogging (19 percent).

“As live OTT video continues to expand into more of these areas, the need for these content players to optimize with a unified workflow that reduces costs and increases the quality of live content delivery is more crucial than ever,” stresses Finch.

Perhaps most dramatically, the expectation for live is feeding user-generated content via social media platforms. Social networking is forecast by Ericsson to be the second biggest data traffic type on mobile after video, growing by 39 percent annually. For Wowza, the evidence lies in the number of sites from which users can watch such live streams, and the number of Wowza customers using its software and services as part of their workflows to deliver those experiences.

“Consumers want a live option for anything that falls into that category of ‘appointment to view,’” says Berman. “People are viewing live streaming as an opportunity to promote their brand and make money through their personality and interests,” observes McVicar. “As part of this, vloggers have increasingly become part of the cultural mainstream due to the relative ease with which they can use simple technology to reach mass audiences.”

Facebook Live’s launch prompted rivals to up their game. “YouTube has invested more into the live environment and made discovery very much easier (though not as good as Facebook),” says Gareth Capon, chief executive at Grabyo. “With Periscope Producer, Twitter offers content owners the ability to stream higher quality content to audiences, while Twitter Live is focused on the top tier of the market acting more like a traditional broadcaster by paying for rights to distribute across the platform.”

When Facebook unveiled its live streaming API in April, one of the first media partner solutions to board was Grabyo’s online video production and distribution software.

Soccer club Real Madrid immediately used Grabyo to push content from its club TV channel to Facebook Live, subsequently generating more than 110 million views. The success not only highlights the way in which social offers greater reach than traditional channels but also the threat that OTT is set to pose to those same channels.

Social Drives Live Sport

As sports rightsholders (like the NBA and NHL) begin to take live games to social media, the monolithic TV model looks to be in the first stages of fragmentation.

Those with a deep fan base realize they can directly monetize consumers with subscriptions and bypass the middle man. Meanwhile, many traditional broadcasters cannot afford not to be on every platform. This is not just about bringing live streaming to other devices that have not been part of the normal distribution; it is fundamental to TV Everywhere.

Even rightsholders of niche sports, like World Surf League, are able to do this increasingly as the cost of production and distribution continues to reduce while video quality continues to rise.

“The major change has been around live with regards to social distribution,” says Capon. “Three years ago, I don’t think we’d find a major sports property streamed live to Facebook without a direct commercial model being associated with it. Fundamentally, streaming live on social platforms delivers reach and engagement for sports.”

Other examples include the French Football Federation broadcast of 400 third division and grassroots matches on Dailymotion, along with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) October launch of digital and social content division WTA Networks and the November launch of Dugout, a social media network backed by Europe’s top-tier soccer clubs including Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich (though live video is not part of Dugout’s initial plans).

“The driver has been enormous growth of video consumption through social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, all happening primarily on mobile,” Capon suggests.

It’s telling that one of the biggest rights deals of the last few months was struck by Chinese video streaming service PPTV, which spent £560 million (about $706 million) on English Premier League rights over 3 years.

“You are seeing rights owners like Formula E make distribution deals with Facebook in every market where they don’t have TV deals, using social platforms systematically to reach a new audience,” says Capon. “The NFL’s deal to distribute live games on Twitter is a chance for it to play around with social and start to understand consumption patterns and the market for streaming to mobile devices.”

Proving return on investment is an obstacle because of inconsistent cross-platform measurement. “While sports generates a lot of consumption on social platforms, the challenge is to merge the ratings around traditional TV with a complete multiplatform framework,” adds Capon.

OTT and TV in Sync

The inherent problems with respect to delays and sync with today’s live OTT solutions became evident to the public, boosted by several articles in both trade and daily press.

Time lag can be up to a minute over OTT, which matters when sports like Formula One or athletics count victories by 1/100th of a second. One of the breakthrough technologies in 2016, set to make a big impact in 2017 and the winner of Streaming Media Europe’s Readers’ Choice Award in the multiscreen solution category, is Net Insight’s Sye.

“With VoD and recorded content becoming a commodity, live content constitutes an increasingly important part for both content owners and broadcasters,” says Net Insight’s Lindgren. “Around live, it is possible to create an increasing amount of extra content, but the actual live moment is what engages viewers and fans globally and locally. There will also be an increased focus on low delay and sync to enable such new viewing experiences, and this will in turn open up new business models where OTT will not just be a cheaper or more agile way of broadcasting live content, but will change the way people experience and interact with live content.”

Sye claims it can frame-accurately marry the OTT stream to the TV network-delivered broadcast, making it ideal for second-screen viewing. It has been in commercial tests with Tata Communications, the firm that provides connectivity solutions to Formula One. The software runs over Tata’s network, effectively converting it into a virtual CDN to deliver synchronized broadcast and streamed content to all end points.

“We’re not trying to be real time, but to harmonize with existing satellite distribution,” Lindgren explains. “The aim with satellite is to deliver within 8 to 12 seconds and with the delay resulting from video contribution and other upstream processes being typically around 5 seconds, we still have 3 to 7 seconds to play with for synchronization.”

Another Scandinavian company also claims to have cracked mobile/broadcast sync. Oslo-based The Future Group is developing the game show Lost in Time with X Factor producer Fremantle, which transmits a live studio production created in Unreal Engine synchronous with a game also created in Unreal to a mobile app.

Discovery and Disney Play for “Sports Netflix”

Perhaps the most significant mergers of traditional with what used to be called “new media” were the deals struck in July by Walt Disney Co. and in August by Discovery Communications with BAMTech, a spinoff from Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM).

Discovery and Disney are using BAMTech’s backend streaming optimization services to power multisport direct to consumer products. In Discovery’s case, this is the Eurosport Player, which the operator’s CEO David Zaslav has dubbed the “sports Netflix.”

Discovery owns pan-European sports channel Eurosport and used it as a vehicle to acquire, for $1.2 billion, the pan-European TV rights to the Olympics from 2018 to 2024.

The goal is to help Discovery amass 1 million subscription video on demand (SVOD) subscribers globally this year, a figure forecast by the operator to rake in $100 million in extra revenue.

Discovery will do this by curating services around the sports properties it holds, including the Olympics, the Tour de France, and Wimbledon. That task falls to Ralph Rivera, formerly the BBC’s digital director, who has led Eurosport’s digital operation since September.

BAMTech, meanwhile, gets its first major foothold in Europe and strikes at the heart of the live and on-demand streaming business that Italian-based specialist Deltatre has built up with clients like UEFA, ATP Tennis, and HBS, the host broadcaster for FIFA.

Meanwhile, Disney is launching an ESPN-branded online proposition. “It will not, however, include any current ESPN channels or its content,” says Daniel Gadher, analyst at Ampere Analysis. “This cautious approach is perhaps due to a fear of cannibalizing its audience. ESPN’s new service will exploit rights held by BAMTech, MLB, and NHL.”

The runaway success of MLB.tv and its mobile app At Bat—which helped propel the MLB to $10 billion in revenue in 2016—attracted Disney’s investment in BAMTech, which valued the firm at $3 billion. The deal gives Disney an option to buy BAMTech outright, potentially extending the organization's reach into Europe via Eurosport.

A smaller but equally smart sports rights aggregator may beat them to the punch. The Perform Group launched DAZN in August, which according to CEO Simon Denyer is “the first time anyone has launched a pure multisport OTT platform.”

“By going direct to individual consumers, we will build a record of viewing history, and we will be able to automatically recommend and serve content relevant to each viewer,” he says.

Perform paid $2 billion for rights to Japanese soccer’s J-League starting in 2017—the largest commercial deal in the history of Japanese sports. Other rights in select territories include the German soccer league Bundesliga.

Using cloud-based production and facilities located in every continent, Perform aims to take DAZN global. It takes the international host-produced signal of live events and customizes it for audiences with commentary and stats compiled from the data specialists Opta and Goal.com it owns.

“We have researched 30 territories and prioritized those we think have good fan bases for sport, a good broadband infrastructure and 4G network,” Denyer says.

One thing is clear: the consumer appetite for live content shows no signs of lessening, nor does publishers’ and technology vendors’ desire to deliver that content in new and innovative ways.

This article was published in the Spring 2017 European edition of Streaming Media magazine.

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