Vijaya Cherian talks to Ricky Ghai, the man behind the distribution of the English Premier League to the most demanding audience today ? Internet users.
Vijaya Cherian talks to Ricky Ghai, the man behind the distribution of the English Premier League to the most demanding audience today Internet users.
Why has ADMC decided to go with so many different distribution platforms?
The EPL was the perfect opportunity to make a premium content offering. I represent only one string online from the three distribution platforms namely IPTV, set-top box (STB) and Web streaming. This was designed to give maximum choice and reach to the broadest audience for the EPL. If you had only the STBs, you would have eliminated a large portion of the audience.
The fact that the internet is a way of life may be arguable in terms of broadband and connectivity but it is becoming an adopted form of everyday life.
Will your online offering be unique from what we have seen so far in the Middle East? I am sceptical about picture quality because of broadband inconsistencies in the region.
Watching premium content online is now common practice in international markets. Baseball especially has attracted millions of fans around the world. ESPN streams content all the time. In the Middle East, the Champions League and now, the World Cup have been streamed by Al Jazeera.
The fundamental difference is that up until now, most of the experience viewers have had with online viewing has been a YouTube kind of experience, where the stream is erratic because it is a single encoding rate. The image quality largely depends on your connection with your service provider and other factors such as the date of your PC, its processor power and so on. In short, all of that was left in the hands of the customer to solve. That experience is, therefore, imperfect.
When you are putting out something like premium football, you have to take some of the responsibility to, at least, create the very best output. We have done that by partnering with a company in the UK called Perform which is an expert in the space of online content especially sport together with a well-known content distribution network, whom we cant name just yet, but they are one of the top three in the world. These are the ingredients designed to bring to the last mile the very best streaming quality.
Up to that point, we have delivered the best quality stream we can. We have even gone one step further to create adapted bit rate streaming. Rather than encoding the stream at one level, which means everyone has to fit one glove, we encode it at four different levels from very low bit rate such as 300kbps right up to 1 MB. Because this is adaptive, the stream actually senses your broadband capacity and gives you what is possible on your PC. If your broadband quality goes from high to low half way through the stream, you wont lose the stream but your picture quality might suffer a little bit.
As a media company, from our side, we will do whatever is necessary with technical capabilities to offer all of the best options to the end customer. Of course, your ISP or the telco needs to take the battle from your hand and do their part as well.
Are they doing their part? I hear youve partnered with Etisalat and du?
Indeed, we have partnered with Etisalat and du. Business wise, the lessons to be learnt are that broadband providers are looking for new forms of revenue. A lot of customers are now asking their providers for more broadband to stream more content. Here is the perfect opportunity then for such companies to stimulate broadband uptake in the region because uptil now, I would have been happy with my 256 kbps and probably didnt need it for anything more than email. Tomorrow, however, I might want to stream live football and hopefully, HD movies. The skys the limit. In Hong Kong, there are speeds of upto 100 Mbps available to suit individual customers.
We hear that a telecom partner in Saudi Arabia is now talking of making such speeds available in the future. With E-life from Etisalat, you can get 30 MB which is more than sufficient for what most customers here need. What we are sending down the pipe typically requires only 512. Half-a-meg should be enough to stream very good picture quality. If you have about 1 or 2 MB, you should really have a great viewing experience for the EPL.
What about pricing?
We figured that the pricing for the internet would be the lowest price point to try and make this available to the widest audience. Online streaming is a good option especially for those for whom a dish or STB is not a viable option because of economics. Its also ideal for those who are outside of an IPTV or cable network.
We have two kinds of price points; US $100 for the GCC per season and $60 for non-GCC per season.
Internet streaming provides three things an affordable price point, mobility and eventually, well start looking at pay-per-event as well. If you are only transiting through the Middle East, you do not need to commit to a subscription. You could probably just pay premium for one match.
Is that service already available?
Not yet. Initially, we want to deliver a quality service at a consistent price point.
How would you counter pirates and hackers online?
With every platform, theres a risk of piracy. Theres less worry of piracy online because we are monitoring the bandwidth that is being streamed. Now, if you tried to place a camera in front of the screen and try to multicast from that, the quality would be very poor.
With regards to hacking, all the territories are geo-blocked because our rights are
only for the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. We can geo-block the
MENA region as a whole; we can isolate individual countries and we can also isolate individual ISPs.
Since Digital Media is a different entity at ADMC, how do you work out your technical infrastructure with the broadcast team?
We are a well-integrated company. Although there are three verticals within ADMC broadcasting, publishing and Digital Media at the top and the bottom, we are very closely interlocked. I work very closely with Karim Sarkis and his team in Broadcast to ensure that we are adopting a seamless 360 degree approach to football.
Our platforms are technically compatible and integrated straight into the broadcasting procedures, so encoding will be done as the feeds come into the studio and the commentaries are layered on top. Then, theres real time encoding into the four levels of bit rate we spoke about.
What are some of the challenges of putting this whole thing together?
By any standards, taking on a premium, high-calibre sport event that runs for ten months is a huge challenge. Specific skill sets are needed and workflows have to be changed. This is a product that you cannot afford to promise and not deliver. We have not taken any chances. We have employed and partnered with companies who have done this many many times, whether its Endemol or IMG Sport and Perform. These are companies that have understood the end-to-end workflow. The challenge was really getting ADMCs internal units aligned.
If you look at the USPs of our new production, we have Arabic, English, new programmes and we are showing every single match live. That is unique in itself.
Where must people go to view the matches online?
The landing site is called www.admcsport.com. This will have a dedicated live player which is being developed specifically for sport in conjunction with Perform but it is being used principally for the EPL.
Tell us about some of Digital Medias other initiatives.
We have just launched a special kind of Digital Signage solution. Business for this will roll out from July.
The plan is to provide a collected digital network of signage. These advanced HD streams will be integrated with kiosks that provide interactive information such as location maps, mobile applications and, more importantly, voucher systems.
You may also have heard that we are a shareholder along with Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and EMI Music in VEVO, which is a great platform to showcase new premium music videos. The announcement was made in December 2009.
Available free-of-charge to internet users, VEVO features the most extensive array of professionally-produced music videos, exclusive premieres, concerts and more anywhere on the Web from most of the major music record companies.
In North America, where VEVO was first launched, it gets 15 million unique hits a month and they have had more than four billion streams so far. It was such an amazing success story in North America. ADMC will bring VEVO to the Middle East for the Arabic market. We hope to make announcements of the launch plans in the near future.
Any final comment on Web streaming and generating revenues?
When I look down from the top and all the changes that are happening in the digital landscape, to me, the buzz word used to be just internet all the time.
The internet kind of opened up a candy box of choice. The problem with it is that initially, it was perceived to be free but this candy now comes in different ranges, and varies in terms of the layers, the quality and peoples preferences, and just as people tend to leave out the coffee ones or the orange ones, we now have to find a way of monetising the premium peanut ones or the truffles. This candy box of choice brings about a lot of exciting opportunities but also some tough challenges with regards to monetisation. Our EPL is one attempt to monetise premium content.
Its a long journey but we will get better with time.