Red Bee Makes Play for Europe's Digital Gateway

“We want to be one of the top digital content services companies in the world,” declares Brian Levy, director and CTO of Red Bee Media.

The Red Bee brand may be unfamiliar outside the UK. It was created in 2005 following the £166m ($254m) sale of BBC Broadcast, the Corporation’s transmission services wing, to Australian-based banking group Macquarie. Indeed in the UK Red Bee is still predominantly associated with supplying playout services for the BBC, Channel 4, Five, and Virgin Media among others.

The business also handles 70% of VOD content consumed in the UK, including all ingest and file conversion for BBC iPlayer, and has ambitions to transition existing broadcaster clients and new media publishers toward a three screen digital distribution strategy.

Capacity and Scale

“Very few companies have the capability and scale that we have to execute on this market,” claims Levy. “We already have a tremendous capacity to transcode and convert files. We are playing out live to air most of UK TV on a daily basis. How many others are doing that? There is a phenomenal opportunity for Red Bee to take that content and repurpose it.”

Having established itself as a leading gateway for digital content distribution in the UK, the company aims to be one of the premier gateways for digital content across Europe.

In 2008-09 it turned over £153 million ($235m) and employed 1500 staff across its London HQ and operations in Australia, France, Germany, and Spain. A physical move into the U.S. is not ruled out.

It has begun working with an [unnamed] U,S, studio to perform versioning work on its content for the European market and is taking an active interest in the DRM initiatives DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) and its counterpart at Disney (Keychest), which Levy describes as “very interesting” for its future.

"As the content distribution market evolves from physical DVD to digital downloads you get to the point where any of the major studios might want to create a worldwide infrastructure to support it,” explains Levy. “It's unlikely that they will want to own that infrastructure but instead outsource the management of digital content to wholesalers who in turn will supply a series of retailers ranging from supermarkets to mobile operators on a per-request basis from those wholesalers. As the value chain evolves companies like Red Bee can move into this potentially massive, new market space.”

With Cisco predicting that 90% of all internet traffic will be video by 2013, a knowledge of how IP, content, and distribution to TV, PC, and mobile networks will merge is critical to Red Bee’s business.

What's Past is Prologue

Fortunately Levy, who joined the company in January to spearhead the transition, brings with him experience in just these areas spanning four decades.

His CV reads like a recent history of the evolution of telecommunications. He started out in the early 1970s as an engineer at British Telecom and then with BBC Radio before leading the deployment of AT&T’s ATM and IP backbone infrastructure across Europe and the development of its first web hosting services and internet services. Later, at Qwest, he ran the operations of EUnet across Europe (which spread the ARPANET throughout the research community on the continent). After stints at content distribution network Aduronet and Storm Telecommunications he re-joined BT as group technology officer for service strategy and innovation, where he conceived and developed services like BT Vision and BT FON.

Prior to joining Red Bee, Levy was president and CTO for Hewlett Packard’s global Communications and Media Solutions software business.

His appointment follows that of Chief Commercial Officer Alan Wright, a former Motorola executive with expertise in data management and another signal of the company’s intent.

Indeed Red Bee CEO Bill Patrizio, a former president of Technicolor’s broadcast network services business ,previously described the company as “not an IT outsourcing organisation, a data centre or a helpdesk. We are custodians of brands, images, channels and content.”

Move Towards Service Oriented Architecture

Red Bee has moved from a pure broadcast playout operation to one of managed service provision to what it now dubs a media logistics business. “It’s about getting the right media in the right format to the right place at the right time,” says Levy. “At its heart is a centralised store for all media and associated metadata from which material can be enhanced, by creating trails or promotions, adding subtitles or creating new versions.”

Programmes are delivered as published files or streams of video, audio, and data in a variety of formats using common components for transformations and core functions. Broadcast, multicast, unicast, and download modes are used to deliver the streams or files.

“Platform-specific transformations are conducted just in time for presentation,” he says.

“Specialised technology is employed as close as possible to the point of delivery," says Levy. "This provides a scaleable architecture, with simple delivery systems re-using data from the store, reducing the unit cost and enabling rapid deployment of new delivery platforms with minimal custom development required.”

Media can be played out as programmes in a linear channel schedule, or published to on-demand or file-based platforms.

“Most IT systems are based on the principle of transactional integrity, however in a television operation, continuity of service is of prime importance,” says Levy. “With often millions of people watching, it is more important that the show goes on, even if it isn’t all going to plan or we have to substitute the programme.”

Rather than having separate platforms to provide tailored services for each of its clients, Red Bee wants to aggregate common steps in the media workflows where possible—in other words, to implement a service oriented architecture (SOA) for media management and delivery.

“SOA offers us an approach to flexible and adaptable technology that can change with the needs of the business,” explains Levy. “In some cases, like playout, there are essential islands of technology that are tightly integrated for performance reasons, or because they use broadcasting-specific technology that doesn’t play nicely in a SOA architecture.

“Before SOA these processes were siloed, brittle, monolithic applications that were difficult to adapt or change over time. One benefit of adopting an SOA is the ability to align our technical capabilities to business functionality.”

Red Bee has organically built such an architecture with its single ingest and file-based approach to asset management, but Levy intends to expand on this so that the same content can be rebranded, appropriately captioned, language re-versioned, or re-cut for specific platform.

“We are seeing post production and production merging together,” he says.

It is also exploring how dynamic advertising is delivered around on-demand content. When viewers explore the EPG and expresses preferences for content, the service provider begins to learn more about them. Keen use of metadata can be used to serve suggestions to the viewer around that content such as additional VoD or related information pulled from the internet. This is where content owners can begin to make additional revenue.

“If we execute the move to the internet in the right way we can be phenomenal,” he asserts. “Red Bee is going to be extremely significant in this market.”

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