Engineering a TV-Like Streaming Experience: Streaming Forum 2016
“Live streaming is an integral part of the viewer's journey with ITV, and we have made it seamless with catch-up and VOD,” said Tom Griffiths, director of broadcast and distribution technology for ITV, during his keynote address at the 2016 Streaming Forum in London.
However, with the increasing demand for live streamed content comes the challenge of meeting viewers' heightened expectations of quality, he warned.
“The days of tolerating buffering are going,” Griffiths said. “People expect it to be on, and on instantly, and to match the quality of linear TV. They are looking for a positive experience.”
Griffiths also outlined a number of problems affecting ITV's ability—and that of organizations like it—to delivery a TV-like experience through streaming.
ITV Hub, launched last November, is the broadcaster's front-end showcase for VOD content and live channel streaming.
Since then, live streaming of ITV channels accounts for 30 percent of traffic on its PC and mobile platforms, rising to 50 percent during major live events (such as the Rugby World Cup 2015). “That is an incredible result based on where we were two years ago,” Griffiths said.
It was important for ITV to meet expectations reliably and consistently, he added. “On top of that, in a highly competitive market, we needed the ability to update and change the consumer proposition without a lengthy re-engineering of the ecosystem.”
Consumers only view two types of content, Griffiths asserted: Either a live event stream/linear channel which they watch by appointment, or on-demand content.
“Viewers will use the platform most suitable for them—whether that's an iPad or TV. Streaming is merely a transport mechanism, like DTH and DTT. Our job is to make delivery invisible to the viewer's experience.”
ITV's broader strategy has three objectives, Griffiths explained: maximizing revenue from both the free-to-view and VOD business, growing its international content sales, and growing its global pay and distribution business.
“Our pay and distribution business has traditionally been based on VOD deals, but increasingly customers want to include live channels in their TV anywhere solutions,” he said. “We found that really hard to do before because of the way our previous solution was architected.”
The strategy is underpinned by an ongoing technology modernization program which is principally intended to simplify the end-to-end processes for ITV's content supply chain.
“To scale successfully you can't take disparate systems for VOD and for broadcast,” Griffiths said. “They need to be brought together into a unified chain in order to deliver efficiencies, scale, and flexibility.”
Feeding into this is a need to tie in core business systems, such as airtime scheduling and ad sales, fit for multi-platform distribution in multiple territories.
“We needed to get our streaming infrastructure right to deliver the consumer propositions we were looking for,” he said.
Re-Engineering in Detail
The re-engineering of the broadcaster's streaming infrastructure has led to siting linear playout and streaming ingest and outgest in two separate data centers (run by Ericsson). This released ITV from a single-site architecture with limited resilience and no disaster recovery.
In addition, ITV refreshed its encoding platform, making it more scalable for multiple renditions and multiple partners (Telestream Vantage is its dominant transcoding platform).
Mezzanine streams rather than final format renditions are taken out of the encoders, from which ITV produces HD and SD variants. In turn, this is transcoded as multicast IP.
“It was key for us to separate encoder and transcode functions to remove bottlenecks and for processing higher volumes,” Griffiths said. “We recommend separating the streaming encoding process from the creation of the final platform rendition in order to achieve greater flexibility and scale.”
The whole set-up is an on-premises solution which Griffiths admitted may raise some eyebrows. “We might have moved to at least partially a cloud-based solution, but our assessment was that for a service that is 24/7/365 the economics of putting it in the cloud didn't work. Particularly since we are having to deliver native HD SDI to the cloud. That's not to say we wont change. We might move to a hybrid in future or move everything to the cloud. Next time we do a playout refresh a cloud environment may make sense."
Issues still presenting a challenge included the ability to scale the network to accommodate traffic growth.
“As numbers rise, our network architecture and the way we carry traffic as unicast over the network is not sustainable,” Griffiths said. “Viewers' QoS demands are only going to increase. Pressure on the network is something we are all having to address to deliver live streams as consistently and reliably as TV.”
Another problem is end-to-end service management. “If you are going to deliver QoS to the consumer you have to understand what is happening. It is not good enough to monitor the network—we we have to monitor everything from the the point of origin to final delivery, and to act on those things quickly. If we don't, people are less likely to consume services.”
ITV is currently only using one CDN, but will deploy a more wide-scale monitoring system and better analytics to learn whether or not a single CDN is the right solution or if moving to multiple CDNs is a better option. One advantage of a single route is scale and consistent approach, he said.
Another challenge, Griffiths noted, is ensuring ubiquitous broadband and mobile reach, which he reckoned was only just over 80 percent of coverage in the U.K.
Then there are content rights, typically solved by blanking on streaming platforms, but a sources of “great irritance” to ITV viewers when a linear channel is not available as an OTT stream.
“We've work to do with rights holders. DRM is a solution but not a panacea for them.”
Griffiths said the broadcaster is planning a possible implementation of HEVC and MPEG-DASH, and is prepping for 4K/UHD.
“As far as possible, try and forward plan,” Griffiths recommended. “This market is changing extremely fast, so we have to build flexibility into our solutions going forwards.”
Watch the full keynote below:
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