Guest Comment: Protecting premium live sports programming

Alistair Cameron, head of European sales, NexGuard

Alistair Cameron, head of European sales, NexGuard

This summer, for the first time, both the UEFA Euro 2016 and the Olympics will be broadcast in 4K UHD and in high dynamic range (HDR), enabling sports fans to enjoy the action in greater nuance and detail, writes Alistair Cameron, European sales director at NexGuard, a Civolution company. This marks a major evolution in sports broadcasting and it’s exciting for all sports fans, regardless of whether they already own a UHD TV, because the technologies used to broadcast this year’s Euros and Olympics will sooner or later trickle down for covering live action in smaller tournaments and national leagues.

The issue

As sports broadcasters continue to invest in improved image capture and signal distribution technology, it becomes evermore crucial for the industry to protect its assets from tech-savvy content pirates, who make money from illegally re-transmitting premium live sports content on counterfeit websites or via modified consumer electronics equipment.

The following three groups within the sports broadcasting ecosystem stand to suffer as live sports content is illicitly re-distributed via pirate networks:

1) PayTV and pay streaming service providers:

Premium live sports remains the number one driver of subscriber attraction and retention for PayTV operators. Therefore, it is seen as an engine for business growth – as demonstrated last year when Sky and BT together paid £5.136bn for exclusive live rights for the next round of Premier League rights licensing, starting this August. That equates to £7.6m per match for BT and £11.2m per match for Sky.

While pay TV operators have deployed Conditional Access systems to ensure that legitimate subscribers with the operator’s set-top boxes were the only people able to view premium games live at home, consumer demand for online access via fixed and mobile devices has forced operators to make live content available across multiple platforms.

Meanwhile, a cocktail of faster consumer broadband, powerful search and social media has had the unwanted effect of boosting the popularity of illegal live streaming sites, making it easier than ever for consumers to find and stream premium sports content from unauthorised platforms, either free or for a very small fee.

Therefore, to stem the flow of subscribers churning away from their services, it’s more important than ever for PayTV operators to deploy solutions that enable them to tackle the issue of illegal redistribution of sports content.

  1. Sports leagues:

Traditionally, most of the efforts of anti-piracy teams within rights-owning sports leagues were focused on stemming the flow of counterfeit physical goods such as counterfeit replica shirts, rather than on fighting live video piracy. This is changing, with sports leagues now becoming an integral part of the fight against TV pirates, and working directly with their licensees around the globe. With the value of premium live content rights reaching new highs and more ways than ever before to watch live sports, leagues need effective systems to find, in real-time, which pirate sites are illegally hosting their content and shut them down. Sending take down requests as a method of stopping the illicit re-streaming only goes so far; when a pirate site doesn’t comply with take down notices, another strategy must be used – namely to sever the pipe that’s feeding that pirate site with content.

  1. The fans:

Sometimes the fans get forgotten in the debate about piracy. But rights owners and sports broadcasters are worth nothing without the ardent fan base that sits at the centre of everything they do. And there are numerous ways in which fans stand to lose from piracy just as much as the industry:

– Firstly, the law-abiding subscriber fan base inevitably pays a little more than their fair subscription fee in order to make up for those PayTV revenues lost to piracy.

– Then, those fans that are tempted to try out pirate sites or pirate services often get more than they bargained for – but not in a good way. Pirate sites that are “free entry” have been seen to be running advertising that contains malware in the links – and services that require the download of a bespoke player also contain malware tools such as key logging, which could lead to fraud and identity theft.

– Finally, some pirates have created such professional-looking websites that they can charge a monthly subscription fee; fans are tricked into believing that these sites are legal services and so they unwittingly hand over their debit/credit card details to a criminal organisation.

This summer, the UEFA Euros 2016 will also be live streamed on Facebook, and the Rio Olympics will be streamed (in some regions) on YouTube, further blurring the lines between official content providers and social platforms, and potentially leading fans to pose the question: “If these great live events are free online, shouldn’t I be able to see any live sport free online?” It’s not a surprise that more fans than ever before will be seeking out the illicit re-streaming sites that are poisoning the industry.

Fighting the pirates

Technologies such as internet monitoring and take-down notice automation have helped to reduce the number of illegal streaming sites, but in today’s fight against illicit live sports re-streaming sites, they alone aren’t effective enough in suppressing pirate activity. The industry now needs to work together to constrict the pipes that are feeding these sites with content in the first place.

After all, while the audience of pirate sites may be growing, the number of people actually uploading live content to these sites is not so large. Up to now, they have believed themselves untraceable, but invisible forensic watermarking technology can now strip them of their anonymity – and that will allow the rights owners and rights holders to prosecute them.

Adding forensic watermarking to a PayTV operator’s content distribution workflow provides a powerful deterrent for pirates as it allows them to pinpoint the source of an unauthorised stream (right down to a single rogue subscriber among tens of millions).

And once you know who is uploading the content, you can stem the flow by revoking access with pinpoint accuracy. This enables the killing of illegally distributed streams within minutes of them being located on a pirate site, making forensic watermarking an invaluable weapon in the PayTV operator’s content protection arsenal, and benefiting the entire ecosystem of live sports broadcasting.


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