Exploring and analysing efficient content delivery methods, safeguarding content through anti-piracy measures, leveraging data-driven insights in OTT and addressing the technical challenges associated with live streaming were debated at the ASBU BroadcastPRO Summit in November 2023.
In the complex world of OTT infrastructures, reliable streaming and flexible yet precise content delivery are decisive in defining the ultimate broadcast-like user experience. Technologies collide in an evolving landscape and platforms make data-driven decisions to potentially monetise their base. And as content creates wider audiences, businesses continue to shield themselves from unauthorised usage and piracy.
Moderating the session was Dan Steele, VP, Sales EMEA, Brightcove, alongside a dynamic panel that consisted of Dominic Farrell, CTO-Shahid at MBC Group; Faraz Arshad, CTO, StarzPlay; Jean-Louis Lods, VP Media and Monetisation, Ateme; and Rama AlDairi, VP Digital, beIN Media Group.
To create a channel to start the conversation, Steele asked for individual perspectives on what was taking place in their respective areas of activity and what they had been working on in the past year.
At beIN Sports, the target was sport, remarked Rama AlDairi, after which “we expanded our coverage beyond sport into award-winning entertainment content”. Serving more than 50m subscribers across 33 countries and broadcasting in six different languages, “beIN is always looking at the next market to penetrate, how we can provide enhanced seamless and livestream experience to our customers.”
Viewing the ecosystem from a vendor point of view, Jean-Louis Lods spoke about the “glass-to-glass” experience and delivering a service all the way from contribution to distribution. “For over a year, we’ve had SaaS products and services focusing on business transformation. As cloud providers, we are looking to find new ways to simplify deployment,” he explained.
Going into multiple verticals to maximise offerings for customers, the past year “has been a rollercoaster ride” for Starzplay, noted Faraz Arshad. “We were in the traditional SVOD space, with a focus on acquisition, retention and engagement. This year, we took multiple approaches to fill in the missing gaps, going into different verticals, investing in generative AI to try to transform our business towards digital media transformation – methodologies to essentially improve our customer experience.”
Having also focused on sport in the past year, Shahid’s Dominic Farrell echoed that sentiment. With its exclusive rights to the Saudi Premier League and the spotlight on its big stars, Shahid’s objective was “improving quality, be that through content or service. This year, our focus has been utilising data to our advantage and we are looking to drive incremental benefits into the business.”
Perfect storm of content
With growth in subscription and audience numbers vital, successful forays into newer markets to increase subscription numbers become imperative. Rebranding the platform, driving subscriptions and investing heavily in original content worked for Shahid. “In 2018, the Shahid proposition was AVOD and the focus of that business was primarily driving advertising revenue,” said Farrell. “We decided then to flip the strategy.”
A gap analysis comparison with what was best-in-class (Netflix, Amazon) revealed that Shahid lacked the “hygiene factors” for a subscription business – “We had no personalisation, no recommendations, no offline mode and no binge consumption. So we took a strategic decision to rewrite all our front-end applications completely.”
The enhancements met with huge success that moved into Ramadan and on until Covid, when Shahid found itself in a “perfect storm of acquisition … people were stuck at home and wanted to be entertained, we had amazing new content, and this started to drive the growth that we saw”.
Picking up from Farrell, Steele asked what beIN’s technology focus was as it moved into interesting global markets, and how that underpinned the user experience.
“Localising,” said AlDairi, “and when I say localisation, we are talking about selecting content that resonates with what people want to watch, when, and in their own languages and local time zones. To deliver globally requires a serious content delivery network strategy that can supply this fluctuating need. We implemented a scalable and flexible CDN strategy because, unlike entertainment, sport is bigtime viewing, so partnering with the right vendors was important with a view to having geographical coverage and capacity.”
Adopting a multi-CDN approach is crucial to optimise the last mile, added Lods. “We do the glass-to-glass, including CDN. If you are a service provider with on-prem CDN, the ability to ultimately lower your cost-to-serve when you have your own network is very important.
“Specific network infrastructure can be used to scale up efficiently. We make it possible to optimise encoding depending on how many viewers are consuming a certain type of live content.
“If it’s football, then you put more resources into adapting the transcoding for that event and lower bitrates on the thematic channels. So it’s about adapting the network infrastructure to deliver at the highest quality while looking at the overall infrastructure, but ultimately also enabling you to do more with what you already have in place.”
Supporting sport streaming demands
Reforming CDN technology is vital, to support the huge audiences that sport demands.
“We are talking millions of transactions per second,” said Arshad. “Our biggest growth strategies started with sports. Being typically SVOD tech, we reworked our technical architecture to back the numbers that came with us exclusively serving the Italian league Serie A, cricket and so on. Having the right kind of architectures supporting multiple gateways, auto fallback, etc, and all of these must be streamlined to be able to deliver sports.”
In the run-up to big sporting events, streaming services work around data insights. Relying on historical data ensures a project is event-ready, aiding in predicting audiences and burst capacity. “The first time we did sports, we reformed our strategy. Managing our customers while having the service uptime required the right architecture and best practices in place,” continued Arshad.
Amidst the noisy clamour of enormous data availability, it is important that companies navigate intelligently to make informed business decisions. One of the benefits of having an OTT service is the wealth of data.
It is “an abundance of riches, really”, Farrell pointed out. “But the bigger challenge lies not in the lack of data but in focusing that data. We use a common data platform to aggregate the data, which is incredibly powerful, giving us a 360-degree view of the customer as well as the market. As a data-driven organisation, it underpins our major strategic decisions, drives our recommendation engines, aids in churn prevention, and identifies potential fraud and piracy cases.”
AlDairi agreed that even for beIN, which has an international footprint, what matters most is the 360-degree view of the customer journey.
“Keeping customer engagement and relevance is necessary, as we are competing for the attention span of the user – so the right type of content at the right time of day, catered to a specific device. If you’re on the move it’s your mobile phone, and at home it’s the big screen. It’s crucial that we synergise and synchronise data and understand what we are collecting, to be able to make well-informed decisions after that.”
A combination of data and AI to generate instant short-form content in sport is also driving engagement and keeping platforms relevant. Applying real-time action to deliver short clips has meaning to the consumer, even when he/she is not actively watching an event.
“This is a key area we’re focusing on,” said AlDairi, “creating short videos and having match highlights, and relying a lot on AI. Utilising data points ensures we cater the right short clips that create high attraction and higher engagement.”
With the amount of data existing, technology platforms must be careful about operationalising it and being consistent about creating actions around it.
“You’ve got to do what is right depending on the key drivers for you as an organisation,” said Farrell. “Are you a greenfield, a startup, an established organisation? Earlier, when I mentioned the strategic decision we made in 2018, all our front-end development was outsourced, we were using a white-label solution from one of the many providers. And we took the decision then to build our teams in-house, because at the end of the day frontends are the closest touchpoint you have to your customers and the thing that you will most likely want to iterate regularly and update regularly.
“Being a volatile and competitive industry, the ability to change direction and execute at pace is not something you necessarily have when outsourcing. That said, we also don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. Shahid today is a hybrid of in-house systems together with best-in-class solutions provided by trusted third parties.”
“I agree totally,” stated Lods, “you’ve got to know where you add value directly to your customers and when the product or service that you’re looking to use is more commoditised – in which case, you can benefit by buying a product developed for many customers. It’s a pick and mix, but certainly where you add value, you should be trying to own that.”
It’s about striking the right balance between what is out there in the market, how much IP ownership a company wishes to have, and the cost element attached.
“You want to customise and take control of the speed on how quickly you want a feature available for your customer. If something adds value to our core competency, then we would rather own it,” said AlDairi. “Like Dominic mentioned, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we utilise what is obtainable cost-efficiently.”
Arshad added that a roadmap, time to market and, more importantly, flexibility when it came to control was necessary – “a management that we can shift or fall back on in case a feature or product isn’t suitable”.
Just as new content is created to sustain viewership and increase user base, it is equally paramount to keep that content protected and secure. An increase in piracy and consumers falling prey to pirated content requires companies to improve capabilities on that front.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” noted Arshad. “You try different mechanisms – watermarking, blocking on social media – but it comes right back. We tied up with government and regulators, and that has turned things up for us. We can clearly see a shift and the conversion has started to improve. I think this is the way forward, to have the support from regulators as a consortium, not as an individual service provider.”
Farrell opined that all front-end solutions – DRM, watermarking, etc – were utterly useless for an OTT service.
“In a DTH world, businesses have your personal details, such as your address, your ID, etc. You watermark someone’s content and have a fairly good idea of who and where they are. For OTT providers, we make the sign-up journey as simple and frictionless as possible, but in doing so a customer can be completely anonymous to us. We can of course watermark your content and turn your account off, but we have very little information on who you are. The pirates, however, will have another 30 accounts waiting to switch immediately whenever we cancel their account.
“I agree with what Faraz said around engaging with governments, but honestly the wider issue in the region is the communication about what piracy is. People genuinely believe paying $20 a year for an Android set-top box that gives you all of OSN, beIN, Netflix and Shahid is not piracy, because they’re making a transaction. They associate piracy with free. There are technologies for detection and takedown, but the larger issue is for people to understand what is and isn’t piracy.”
It’s a never-ending story, said AlDairi. “The smarter we get with anti-piracy, the smarter the pirates get. What Dominic pointed at is an interesting challenge in the region. Anti-piracy is a priority because there’s lost opportunity in pirated content.”
As live streaming becomes increasingly important in sport, latency and bandwidth are things to consider when delivering to the consumer over OTT.
Solving the spoiler effect with ultra-low latency holds the key, said Lods. “Glass-to-glass sub five seconds, so from stadium to the phone that is all wrapped around the ecosystem that we’re in control of. It is the inter-opt technology behind it that enables us to do so and is an important milestone in terms of enabling sport on OTT, in comparison to traditional broadcast.”
With sport, seamless streaming regardless of bandwidth and end-user device is paramount, said AlDairi. Sports subscribers pay premium for a premium service and, unlike VOD users who can go “back to a show”, sport users don’t have that luxury. “It’s tough,” remarked Farrell, “but there are technologies out there that make it viable to have an almost broadcast-like experience.”
Arshad agreed that low latency was an important factor while serving sports. Playback consistency was also a feature to consider, he said, “especially when you’re shortening segments, finding the right tweaks on the player and not breaking the experience. It’s not always the CDN, it’s also at the device level, if the device does not have enough resources to support that kind of video streaming because FPS on sport is higher than the usual bitrate. Supporting those kind of frame rates on low-end devices is also a challenge.”
As the session wound up, it had become clear that as companies battle demanding infrastructures and diverging components in the streaming mechanism strata, the goal is simply to enable the distribution of exclusive, uninterrupted content in real time to a growing audience that expects best-in-class services.