White Paper: Elemental Technologies – Implementing Live-to-VOD Services (2015)
Today, the lines between live TV and video on demand (VOD) services are blurred. Hitting the pause button to take a quick break during a live football game is no longer just a farfetched impulse; it’s a practical expectation. Replaying a scene from a live TV broadcast is now as simple as hitting the rewind button and catching up on a favorite show is just a menu option away. Though these VOD features make perfect sense to end users, implementing them requires good forward planning.
This paper focuses on how pay TV operators can best enrich the live TV experience with VOD-based features. It does not cover traditional pay-per-view VOD, but instead looks at how pay TV operators can add value to live broadcasts by creating VOD assets in real time. Though customer satisfaction and loyalty are important objectives for operators, so too is monetization. Live-to-VOD capabilities offer new ways to package live content alongside targeted advertising.
In addition to the technological choices involved in implementing live-to-VOD services, there are also a number of legal and contractual scenarios that need to be considered. Some premium content owners do not allow pay TV operators to repackage live broadcasts into VOD content, while others will encourage it in return for revenue-sharing. Regulations concerning catch-up TV and nPVR services also vary by market, sometimes requiring technological workarounds in order to ensure compliance. To better understand the issues involved, let’s first look at the different types of live-to-VOD services and how they can be implemented.
Catch-up TV – never miss a show
In order to remain competitive, most pay TV operators now offer pay-per-view or subscription-based VOD services alongside a live linear TV lineup. However, free VOD services such as catch-up TV are proving to be extremely popular. According to IHS Screen Digest , over 90% of pay TV VOD views consist of free content, mostly catch-up TV. This can be partly explained by the success of OTT (over-the-top) offers like Netflix which bypass pay TV operator packages. However, catch-up TV is also an attractive alternative to on-demand movies, further adding value to a pay TV operator’s line-up. Shortly after the privately owned French TV broadcaster M6 launched its catch-up TV service, 6Play, it was accessed by more than three million households per month through set-top boxes and smart TVs. This added further value to both M6, as an advertising platform, and to the pay TV operators carrying its channels.
Though catch-up TV is often perceived by providers as an easy-to-implement VOD service, there are a number of technical and legal issues to consider. First, it’s important to work out the most efficient and cost-effective way of including live-to-VOD capture and delivery within existing broadcast workflows. Populating catch-up TV menus with the correct program guide information also requires matching VOD content with EPG (event program guide) data. Storage and speed also come into play. How much space will catch-up TV files require and how quickly after a program ends can these assets be made available to subscribers?
Another key technical challenge is how to best implement ad insertion technologies. Catch-up TV is an excellent opportunity to monetise content through targeted advertising. In some cases, the ads may differ depending upon whether a TV, tablet, or smartphone is in use. For example, smartphones tend to be used by a single individual, whereas tablets are often shared amongst members of the same household. Advertising needs to adapt according to the audience.
Regulations concerning catch-up TV can differ greatly from market to market. In Switzerland, for example, a pay TV operator can offer catch-up content for a maximum of seven days after a programme is broadcast. In some cases broadcasters will allow pay TV operators to include content through an STB-based catch-up TV service, but not through second screens, as this may compete with the broadcaster’s apps.
Start-over-TV – back to the beginning
Start-over TV, as its name suggests, allows viewers to replay a live broadcast, already underway, from the beginning. Unlike catch-up TV, start-over TV gives viewers the option to switch back to the live broadcast. This makes ad insertion trickier as the full length of the final asset is not always known in advance, especially with a sporting event or news bulletin. In most cases, it is simply not possible to remove and replace commercial breaks as this would allow viewers to skip them completely by switching back to the live broadcast. Therefore, any form of ad insertion or replacement needs to fit within the technical and legal boundaries of a live broadcast.
Since start-over TV content is recorded in real-time, it is impossible to replace mass media commercials with simple targeted ads. Instead targeted advertising needs to be streamed ‘on top’ of existing commercial breaks and therefore perfect timing is extremely important. Ad decision and replacement systems must adapt advertising material to match commercial break durations.
In many cases, a pay TV operator must also respect contractual obligations that do not allow for altering or skipping original advertising. Some European countries require that the user experience between live and start-over be identical with no edits, ad removals or ad insertions. Despite these constraints, it remains technically possible for start-over TV to share the same file with other live-to-VOD services such as catch-up and pause TV.
Elemental strongly encourages pay TV operators looking to introduce or enhance a catch-up TV offer to include start-over TV as part of the service. However, different ad insertion policies must be taken into consideration for both types of live-to-VOD services.
nPVR services – just hit record
The ability to create and store personal recordings of live TV content has been around since the invention of the VCR. Today’s viewers now take for granted that a DVR-type service is included with a pay TV subscription.
Offering a DVR or nPVR feature helps pay TV operators build customer loyalty. If a user is happy with the way an nPVR service performs, they will be less likely to move to a competitor and learn an entirely new interface. Coupled with a recommendation engine, an nPVR service is also an excellent incentive for subscribers to consume more TV content. Whether the video file is stored on a hard drive built into their set-top box or on a centralised server makes little difference to users, as long as the service is easy to use and works. Allowing the same familiar electronic program guide for both live content as well as for setting nPVR recordings provides a clean and intuitive user interface. Network PVR can also be applied to catch-up TV. This allows subscribers to create a personal recording of a program from catch-up content before it is removed, in effect extending the service beyond the seven-day limit.
For pay TV operators, the ability to centrally store video files as a managed nPVR service offers many advantages over DVR. For starters, it’s a lot easier and less costly than managing hundreds of thousands of set-top box DVRs. Hard drives are the major single point of failure for STBs. According to a recent study by Backblaze , over five percent of hard drives fail within the first year of use. The number jumps to 22 percent over a four-year period. The average estimated cost of replacing a set-top box hard-drive (which includes shipping and handling, not covered by an STB manufactures’ warranty) is roughly $30. At a five percent failure rate, a pay TV operator with an installed base of one million STBs would have to replace 50,000 STB hard drives at a cost of $1.5 million per year. It is therefore much more cost effective to eliminate the hard-drive from the STB and instead offer an nPVR service. The cost of maintaining a data centre or ordering cloud-based storage specifically for nPVR is significantly lower over time.
Network PVR also enables some interesting personalized ad insertion opportunities. Though some users might be accustomed to skipping through ads when viewing DVR content, if the ads are better targeted, the viewer may be less likely to do so. Also, it is possible to measure how many viewers watched the ads rather than skipping over them, allowing for a pay-per-hit advertising model.
In some cases, pay TV operators may prevent users from fast-forwarding ads when playing back nPVR recordings. As an alternative to traditional commercials, digital overlays can be highly effective and less intrusive. For example, a digital overlay with a link to an attractive travel package to Morocco would be not only relevant but also useful to a viewer watching a recorded travel documentary about North Africa.
Despite the seeming simplicity of running a centralized nPVR service, legal issues need to be taken into consideration, depending on the market. Sometimes the lines between nPVR and catch-up TV are blurred. For example, some pay TV operators might not be allowed to offer catch-up of certain premium content even though users maintain a legal right to record a copy for personal use. Where this gets tricky is when the same file is used for both catch-up and nPVR, an efficient solution technically, but which can result in legal complexities. In the United States for example, individual recordings of TV shows are allowed under the famous 1984 Supreme Court Betamax decision, later extended to nPVR by a 2008 court appeal in favor of Cablevision, as long as the recordings are made at the direction of a user and only accessible by that same user. However, repackaging catch-up content as nPVR video is not always possible.
In designing and implementing an nPVR service, it is important to consider what type of storage system is best suited to both the existing broadcast workflows as well as legal requirements. In cases in which a separate storage system is required, rapid scalability and flexibility becomes very important. Unlike other live-to-VOD services, it is impossible to accurately predict how much storage the subscriber base will be using for nPVR. Setting a storage limit is one way of managing expectations, though if the limit is set too high then this could involve unnecessarily high capital investments. Another option is therefore to rely on a third party cloud-based storage service to accommodate storage peaks.
As for monetization, pay TV operators need to decide whether or not they wish to include ad insertion, and if they do, they need to accommodate the differences between catch-up TV and nPVR advertising. The latter needs to be far more targeted and less intrusive – otherwise the operator runs the risk of turning viewers off from the service.
Pause-TV – time for a break
Pause TV enables viewers to pause and later unpause a live television broadcast. This feature is perceived by viewers as a useful and cool service that ensures they won’t miss anything, even if they need to take a short break. Once unpaused, the viewer then has the option of continuing to watch where they left off, with a slight delay of a few seconds or minutes. Alternatively the viewer can also fast forward, repause, or simply return to the live broadcast.
Start-over TV is different in that end-users retain full control over the channels and can pause any program they want, as if they are using a DVR with a local hard drive; whereas for start-over TV, the channels and programs offered with this functionality are selected by the pay TV operator. This selection may depend on legislation in various countries, and on the rights given by content providers. For example, depending on contract agreements, in some cases sporting events can include a pause-TV feature, but may not be made available in catch-up TV mode.
For contractual and legal reasons, pause TV may not often be used for skipping past ads. This means that there needs to be a way for the pause TV function to detect ad insertion points and disable fast-forward or skipping past those segments. Generally speaking however, users are usually allowed to turn off pause TV and go back to the live broadcast. Other legal considerations include how long a program can be “paused”, especially if the pay TV operator doesn’t have the rights to present the content in catch-up TV mode. For this reason it is important to clearly define the difference between pause TV and catch-up TV.
Delay TV – spanning all time zones
Delay TV is a live-to-VOD based replacement of a broadcast application that is traditionally referred to as tape delay. There are several scenarios in which delay TV may be used. For instance, a national TV broadcaster might want a television programme to be aired at the same time across multiple time zones. This means that the programme will be broadcast live in one time-zone with another time-zone receiving a recording of the program exactly one hour later. The broadcaster may send the same content more than once, or in some cases the pay TV operator may be required to implement their own delay TV service.
Delay TV can also be used for broadcasting to overseas territories and military bases. In this case, it may be more efficient for a local pay TV operator to simply capture and record a live broadcast for delayed broadcast locally. Pay TV operators might then decide to insert targeted or local ads into the delayed program, so it is important to have a way of recognizing SCTE or manual ad insertion signals. In some markets such as in India, pay TV operators may also be required to introduce a delay of a few minutes for live events published on OTT sites. Other potential uses of delay TV may include very short delays of a few seconds to be used for censorship purposes such as inappropriate language during a live event broadcast.
Multiscreen – same features, different device
Live-to-VOD services can be adapted to second screen devices such as PCs, smartphones and tablets. For example, a viewer might decide to pause a live broadcast on their TV set and watch the remainder of the programme on their tablet. Live-to-VOD can also work across multiple screens simultaneously where the television set is used for the live broadcast of a major sporting event and a second screen is used for instant replay to better understand the game or to access alternative camera angles.
Formatting live-to-VOD content to fit second screen devices is not as straightforward as simply playing back content on a TV set. Firstly, it depends on whether the content is delivered to the second screen via a media gateway built into the set-top box or across the public internet as an over-the-top (OTT) stream. With a gateway and STB, bandwidth requirements are fairly easy to manage, but OTT delivery requires some form of adaptive bitrate streaming such as Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS). Some pay TV operators may even offer both a gateway for optimal quality viewing of content at home and an OTT service for viewing over a 3G or 4G network. Not only do bandwidth constraints need to be taken into consideration, but also screen sizes and device types. There is no point in streaming HD or 4K Ultra HD video to a low resolution smartphone, or to stream 5.1 or 7.1 audio to a system with only two speakers.
For all these reasons, a live-to-VOD service needs to be able to repackage content, using recorded catch-up TV or nPVR content as mezzanine files, to a wide variety of devices supported by the pay TV operator. The system needs to be both scalable and flexible to support edge servers and third party CDNs. With premium pay TV content, it is also important that live-to-VOD services incorporate DRM technology to protect valuable content regardless of the device used for playback. Finally, contractual issues also require consideration as some content owners might not allow programming to be accessed on second screen devices or for ad replacement within catch-up TV.
Whether it’s catch-up, start-over, nPVR, or pause TV, each live-to-VOD service implementation must also take into account the different types of screens and networks in use. Bandwidth, storage, monetization and security concerns can lead to complications that are quickly multiplied by the myriad viewer devices and scenarios involved. For this reason, it is critical to build live-to-VOD services on top of a system that is both highly flexible and scalable, ideally one that is based on software which is fully interoperable with third party devices, CDNs, ad insertion and DRM schemes.
As they look to the future, broadcasters and pay TV operators need to ensure they are ready to adapt their services to new as well as updated devices and protocols. By relying on a software-based approach rather than fixed-function hardware, live-to-VOD systems can be more easily upgraded to embrace new standards and features as they emerge. By also including a just-in-time (JIT) packager that can adapt video streams to network and device parameters in real time, pay TV operators can be prepared for whatever comes next.
How is Elemental addressing live-to-VOD?
Having worked with a wide variety of pay TV operators, content owners and third-party technology partners, Elemental is keenly aware of the technical and legal challenges involved in implementing live-to-VOD services. For live-to-VOD services to be both resource-efficient and cost-effective, they need to be easily integrated into existing broadcast workflows from live broadcast capture and video encoding all the way to the edge and onto viewer devices. Elemental’s software-defined video platform currently provides the foundation for a number of live-to-VOD services in the United States and in Europe. Elemental Delta at the origin or edge provides support for advanced live-to-VOD services for multiscreen delivery.
A core component of Elemental Delta is just-in-time (JIT) packaging, which can use a single live broadcast recording for re-packaging and formatting to a wide variety of devices on demand and on the fly. This includes adaptive bitrate streaming for adjusting picture quality and compression ratios to match bandwidth availability in real time. The system can wrap video content in different adaptive streaming formats including Apple HLS for iOS devices, Microsoft Smooth Streaming for gaming consoles, and Adobe HDS for PCs. Elemental Delta also creates the necessary profiles specific to different screen resolutions and sizes. JIT packaging can be done at the central origin server or from a local Elemental Delta edge server. Using Elemental Delta at the edge requires only one packaging format to be streamed from the central head-end. JIT packaging in all required formats and profiles can then be done at the edge, close to the subscriber. This results in significant reductions in storage and bandwidth requirements.
With scalability and flexibility in mind, Elemental’s video processing and multiscreen delivery solutions are all built with a software-based approach. This allows for the rapid addition of new live-to-VOD features and support for new types of devices as they are introduced to the market. Running on Linux, Elemental Live and Elemental Delta platforms allow for easy integration with third-party DRM systems, commercial CDNs and ad-decision servers.
Conclusion; Building a Complete Package
Introducing live-to-VOD services and features involves a number of technical and legal factors that can seem daunting when addressing multiple types of devices and networks. However, these issues can be efficiently managed by ensuring that the live-to-VOD system meets the following criteria:
• Automated creation of VOD assets from live broadcasts
• Support for multiple DRM technologies
• Use of single mezzanine files for multiple VOD services to keep storage costs down
• JIT packaging to support as many devices as possible without draining bandwidth and storage resources
• Ability to integrate with a wide variety of third party ad insertion technologies
• Software-based for flexibility and scalability
• Ability to support different types of file storage modes, mezzanine or viewer-specific files, in order to meet legal requirements for nPVR services
• Live-to-VOD support across CDNs and at the edge for OTT delivery
• Ability to integrate with cloud-based storage and software platforms to further increase flexibility and scalability
By meeting the above requirements, an efficiently configured live-to-VOD system can become a key differentiator for a pay TV operator against the competition, able to attract new subscribers based on feature richness and also drive new sources of revenue through live-to-VOD content monetization. When built upon a software platform, a live-to-VOD system can quickly scale up through ground or cloud-based video processing. Pay TV operators who continue to innovate live-to-VOD services will be able to build customer loyalty, extend their market reach and generate new revenues streams.
For the full text of this White Paper, including illustrations, please visit https://www.elementaltechnologies.com/resources/white-papers/implementing-live-to-vod-services.