Today, live video is a key source of news and entertainment for many consumers. What is driving the consumer appetite for live news, sports and other events on TV? Research shows live events are the main reason viewers choose to watch on an actual TV (according to 44% of polled audiences). The second most mentioned reason (37%) is that it's easy to access a TV for live events. Consumers enjoy being able to watch sports events on a large TV screen, with no delay, and from the comfort of their own home. Also, staying on top of news as it happens is important in today’s highly connected world.
Live video delivery basics
Live video can be delivered over traditional networks (terrestrial, cable, or satellite) as linear TV channels. But more and more OTT (over-the-top) services now propose live video. In OTT, live video is streamed over the top of access networks via the internet to consumers. When watching a live event (sports, news, etc.) you’re not viewing a scheduled recording but something that’s happening now. That live content is delivered to your screen with the shortest possible delay. Linear TV channels, on the other hand, are delivered over traditional television networks to a TV set. Linear TV channels are scheduled viewing experiences. Consider the last time you watched the evening news on a local channel at 6:00 p.m. That’s an example of a linear viewing experience.
Live video delivery is evolving
Live video delivery has changed a lot over the years. The first live television broadcast took place in the U.S. in 1951. Since then, live video has evolved to encompass live video streaming and live TV. Streaming is extremely popular today, but still, it’s a newer concept compared to the long history of live TV. HTTP-based adaptive streaming wasn’t introduced until 1997. In those early days of video streaming, delivering on-demand content was the primary focus.
Not only has the distribution method for live video changed, but the market players are also changing too. Live video is traditionally delivered by broadcasters and pay-TV operators on their legacy networks. OTT service providers are now offering live content, too, and that is pushing broadcasters and pay-TV operators to complete their offerings by adding OTT services (TV Everywhere). Even the English Premier League recently announced that it is considering launching its own OTT service. The service would include live streaming of games, highlights packages, and news content.
Although we’ve made incredible progress, the industry still faces challenges to deliver live video when it comes to the top most popular events. Those challenges are being addressed head-on by innovative solutions and technologies that we explain here below.
Overcoming workflow complexity
One major challenge is workflow complexity. Broadcasters today want to meet the growing consumer demand for live OTT content, so some have introduced OTT offerings to complement their broadcast channels. However, managing two separate workflows for OTT and broadcast can be complex and requires making investments in multiple infrastructures. By deploying a unified OTT and broadcast platform, you can simplify live video processing and delivery. With a unified approach, you will no longer need two architectures. You can use one platform for both OTT and broadcast service delivery.
We are seeing a growing industry trend of using cloud-based platforms for unified OTT and broadcast delivery. With the cloud approach, you can launch video streaming services faster, scale on the fly and stream premium live sports events to millions of subscribers. The cherry on the cake is having a common live video delivery workflow for broadcast and OTT paths that makes it possible to leverage advanced features. Mixing both broadcast and OTT significantly improves the viewing experience.
challenging. When millions of simultaneous viewers are watching an event for live OTT, scalability problems can occur. This happens because a high number of subscribers want to suddenly view an event at the same time, and the delivery systems get overloaded. This may impact the viewer experience, increasing rebuffering during events or even causing the video to cut out completely. By the time a broadcaster or OTT service provider knows there is a QoE issue, the live event is over and it’s too late to do anything about it.
Content-aware encoding (CAE) is a great solution empowering service providers to meet the consumer expectation for superior-quality live video experiences. Using CAE, you can deliver pristine-quality live video for IPTV and OTT services, with up to a 50% reduction in bandwidth. What’s unique about CAE? CAE uses the mechanics of the human eye to assess video quality and optimize encoding parameters in real-time. CAE enables service providers to deliver high-quality live video on any device — even over constrained networks. When video quality goes up, satisfaction goes up and viewers spend more time watching content. Preparing content more efficiently using advanced compression technics is important but it’s not enough. You still have to get your content across the OTT delivery networks.
More advanced delivery tools and features
Today we are seeing content delivery networks (CDNs) as being central to solving scaling issues for live video streaming. Using multiple CDNs, telco, cable and mobile operators can successfully and cost-effectively handle the unexpected peaks in viewership during live premium events. How does it work? By leveraging multiple delivery paths, you can scale rapidly while supporting the quality demands of live video streaming. Harmonic’s VOS®360 Live Video Streaming Platform is an example of a solution that has successfully been deployed by operators to optimize live video delivery. We believe that the dynamic selection of the optimum delivery path is a key feature to guarantee at any time the best QoE to the consumer.
Reducing latency for OTT
In the live video streaming environment, a latency of 30 to 60 seconds is common. But viewers expect latency to be the same for OTT as for broadcast. Why is latency an issue? Low latency is critical when viewers are watching high-profile live sporting events. No sports fan wants to find out what happened in the big game 30 seconds to a full minute after it actually happened. Also, as we mentioned above, having OTT latency on par with broadcast latency enables a new class of advanced user experiences where broadcast and OTT content can be joined (multi-view, multi-angle experiences).
Using the MPEG Common Media Application Format (MPEG-CMAF) as a cornerstone for the low latency evolution, along with the successful and generally adopted DASH and HLS streaming protocols, the industry can effectively resolve latency issues. Using CMAF, you can deliver a segment by small chunks, for example, a 200 ms chunk, before the full two-second or six-second segment is calculated. In fact, CMAF allows you to start decoding before a complete segment is received. The result? An end-to-end latency of three seconds or less is achievable for live OTT video streaming with fully standardized solutions in DASH or HLS.
Trend watch: what’s next for live video delivery?
The live video delivery market is expanding. New entrants include sports leagues, OTT service providers and traditional TV networks that want to enrich their broadcast offering with a live video streaming option. Live video appears to be the next frontier for OTT services, and sports offerings will play an important role in shaping that future. According to industry research, 63% of all sports fans are interested in paying for an all-sports OTT channel. Of those interested in streaming sports, 56% would pay more for online streaming than for traditional TV channels.
To have successful live TV service, you need to be able to scale rapidly during viewership peaks, deliver a high QoE and do your best to reduce workflow complexity. Unified broadcast and OTT platforms are a great way to increase efficiencies and lower distribution costs. By adopting CAE solutions, CMAF, and multi-CDN platforms, you can deliver an exceptional QoE for live video on every screen at any time.
Patrick Gendron is Director of Innovation at Harmonic for Digital Television applications. He joined Harmonic with the acquisition of Thomson Video Networks. Patrick recently moved from managing the Harmonic R&D Innovation team to the Marketing Innovation & Evangelism team and is Harmonic’s representative at DASH IF, DVB TM and Streaming Video Alliance. Previously, Patrick held senior program and engineering management positions in the digital television headend domain, with international R&D management activities, at Grass Valley and Nextream. He started his career as a research engineer at the Laboratoires Electronique de Rennes (Thomson CSF) where he developed new technologies for professional video transmission over optical fiber (long-haul, single-mode links). As digital technology was maturing for television applications, he moved to Thomson Broadband Systems in a project management role for a number of first-generation digital TV products such as satellite modulators and contribution MPEG codecs. Patrick is a graduate in Computer Science and Telecommunications from the Ecole Supérieure d’Electricité (Supélec).