With a plethora of streaming services vying for eyeballs, panellists at the MENA OTT Conference debated on some core issues that could potentially make or break a streaming service.
It is public knowledge that Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of streaming services in the last year amongst end-users, thrusting OTT players overnight into the limelight with massive changes in the ecosystem to boot, taking both streamers and solution providers by surprise.
As a result, there have been some interesting developments within streaming as everyone in the chain tries to identify the secret formula to winning the OTT race. John-Paul McKerlie, Chief Commercial Officer at Intigral; Remi Beaudouin, Chief Strategy Officer at ATEME; and Tim Pearson, Senior Product Marketing Director at Nagra explored with moderator Christophe Firth, Senior Principal at Kearney, the current status quo, new trends and evolving strategies in the OTT space. These included debates on AVOD versus SVOD, traditional licensing models, the personalisation and recommendation dilemma, piracy, pricing and the evolving role of set-top boxes.
JP McKerlie from Intigral, which has two OTT products including Jawwy TV, an SVOD-based service at present, and Dawri Plus, an AVOD sports streaming service, summed up the situation perfectly, when he stated that “we are perpetually in start-up mode in this industry”.
“It tends to shift quite rapidly with the expectations moving a lot faster than the innovation, and so you are constantly trying to catch up.”
Adding to this already-charged atmosphere is the entry of sports, a high-value player, which will disrupt the OTT space even further, noted Tim Pearson.
“OTT gives sports federations the opportunity to offer a whole raft of content that they didn’t previously have a route to market. These services give them a fresh avenue to engage with their fans. We will start to see a broader offering as part of that fan engagement throughout the year.”
A parallel effect of that would be “how sports is licensed so the regular fan base has access to content throughout the year through the tools that OTT delivers”, he added.
AVOD versus SVOD
With the panellists all establish
ing that OTT brought new opportunities for content and rights owners, moderator Christophe Firth channelled the discussion to the AVOD versus SVOD debate.
Remi Beaudouin from ATEME expressed confidence that there will be space for AVOD again although it has been impacted due to Covid-19.
He presented two scenarios that will drive AVOD. Firstly, those who entered the market late will find it challenging to penetrate the SVOD market and will rely on AVOD.
“This is a nice way to counter the over the presence of SVOD,” he pointed out.
Secondly, he believes that when hundreds of SVOD services become available, end-users who can’t invest in all will turn to AVOD.
“The content on one platform may well be on another platform in another country so financially, they won’t be able to stack so many platforms.”
McKerlie, however, commented that it all depends on how the platform is skewed.
Citing Intigral’s business model, he pointed out that the company currently has two products, an AVOD-based service that they are planning to move to an SVOD model like Jawwy TV.
“A lot of it alludes back to whether you have a prime asset that you believe will be enough to pull an advertising revenue stream towards it. Sports entities and sports properties can if they are in that tier 1 space with a high-demand audience. So, if you know you can generate the eyeballs, you need to build an ecosystem to support the advertising around it.”
Also responding to Beaudouin’s comment about stacking, McKerlie said Intigral recognised the consumers’ challenge in investing in multiple platforms early on, which is why it adopted a super aggregator approach.
“Intigral has aggregated those aggregators. We have signed deals with B2B partners like StarzPlay, OSN, MBC, Wide Khaliji and so on. Our philosophy is to bring everything to one platform, and we moved away from the advertising approach when we did that.”
But McKerlie also questioned if the value of one’s content assets will be negatively impacted if they are distributed through an advertising platform.
“There is a concept that if you want to build a subscription model, you have to invest in something that someone has value for. In some parts of the world, the presence of a Netflix or Hollywood content on your platform may drive someone to subscribe to your platform. Now, if you take that asset and drop it into an advertising revenue stream, would that devalue the content that is published on that platform?
“Also, will the content producer or distributor want to sell you assets that you then want to give away on an ad-driven platform? We ourselves have moved to the subscription service and generate revenue that way. The concept of not having ads is seen favourably here in this market.”
However, he agreed that the choice to stick with AVOD or move into SVOD often varies by markets.
“Unlike the GCC, if you look at the Levant, Iraq or Egypt — those are fundamentally different markets where your subscription value may not be enough to cover the cost of delivering that content so by virtue of that fact, you may be forced to explore other revenue and monetisation opportunities.
He added that should Intigral move to an ad or freemium service, “it may be a market-specific circumstance and we may limit either the quality, the streams, the device access or the product access to ensure there is a clear path to subscription in the future.”
Beaudouin concurred on the super aggregator model saying how “the great unbundling could lead to the great rebundling where people can have access to everything in one space”.
Nagra’s Pearson, however, cautioned that it was important to get super aggregation right.
“With super aggregation, you have to ensure deep linking so a customer can quickly get to his content of choice. If not, people will experience fatigue and not find the content they are looking for.”
Personalisation and Recommendation
This brought the discussion specifically to the all-important topic of personalisation and recommendation.
McKerlie pointed out that recommendations were not just about personalising an experience for a digital native population based on their browsing profile and viewing habits, but also served an underlying objective for streamers.
“We invest heavily in original content productions so it is in our interest to promote those titles and surface it early on into the customer’s experience with us because it then converts into consumption, which is a measure for us on ROI,” McKerlie elaborated.
“So how do you enable and customise that on a platform while also installing some intelligence to bring forward the recommendations you want, so you can manage the viewer’s expectations? Essentially, we want to be able to shape the way they view as much as you want the recommendation engine to recommend it. That level of personalised functionality for a user balanced with the acquisition content spend against the recommendation and intelligence is the holy grail of that exercise.”
Remi also concurred on the digital native theory but predicted that a reverse culture may also be underway, where people go back to a passive entertainment experience after tediously scrolling through piles of content.
“We all see the limits of the recommendation of the current engine. You can suggest content but if you add an advert kind of recommendation to that, it involves a lot of painful scrolling through content. We are heading to a point where we will get back to the roots of television, which is a passive experience where you consume TV to be entertained and take rest. What you can have is a recommended channel, which has a mix and match of the programmes that you are likely to have but you combine it with a passive experience.”
Pearson added to this that the flaws around recommendation remain because of the disconnect between man and machine.
“The challenge for recommendation engines is that as human beings, we behave very differently on a Sunday as opposed to a Thursday. It is interesting that the tech is there, but we need better consumer understanding because no one wants the fatigue of being recommended a hundred things that you don’t want to watch.”
The discussion then turned to rights management and all participants agreed that the current licensing mechanism poses a huge challenge on several fronts.
For instance, Pearson pointed out that sports federations will start to rethink rights when they see how OTT will help them go direct to the customer (D2C) and lower the barrier to entry.
McKerlie explained challenges within an SVOD scenario, where “you don’t have the rights to take the asset and create a channel with them”.
“You can’t keep an auto player on and run the next title that you recommend. You don’t have those rights. So, at a content producer level, a time will come to restructure the way those rights are won or bought. And in that, you will be effectively disrupting the broadcaster’s linear distribution models because you will be buying those channels and curating them based on that interest. We will eventually get there, and it will be a combination of whatever you want and will be customised to each person from different genres.”
Beaudouin seconded this, adding that this is going to be a major hurdle for the industry because it has to be addressed at the rights level first.
“To enable advertising power with a broadcaster going OTT with full customisation as well, that has to first happen at the rights level.”
Will the set-top box survive or is the future all cloud?
With so many streaming services in the market and primary dependence on software, which is more cost-effective, Firth questioned if set-top boxes served any purpose at all.
All participants agreed that STBs would be around at least another five to six years.
McKerlie stated that a discussion at IBC a year ago had centred around ensuring “that your device is connected to the OTT environment and through this, you have a level of control over the engagement”.
“If you are an operator, there are a few things you can do in terms of partnerships to monetise multiple subscriptions across the device or you can integrate your experiences into the box. For instance, do you upsell the speed of the network that you are connected on through the same device that the platforms are connected with? So, there’s definitely an angle from an operator perspective to have that hardware in the home.”
However, everyone agreed that the future lay with smart TVs. With most providers upgrading services via software and more apps including large screen clients on their footprint, to ensure better engagement, STBs roles are diminishing. In addition, STBs are also becoming cheaper as a lot of the smart aspects of the box have now been shifted to the cloud.
Pearson agreed that smart TV was the way forward.
“We have partnered with Samsung to ensure security is part of the TV and allows the client to virtualise the box within the TV with the same level of security. Smart TV allows the operators to get a whole new set of acquisition channels as well so they can sell direct to the consumer as they buy the TV. It’s an emerging story there on how that will add to the acquisition value chain for the operators and the interplay of how the future may play out,” he said.
The discussion then turned to AI, and Beaudouin explained some interesting ways in which ATEME was integrating AI into their solutions primarily to adjust the streams, the bit rate and the resolution that is being delivered to each viewer.
“We use AI to actually mix and match the data coming from the field, the available bandwidth and the type of content. Based on which content is consumed where and the complexity of that content, we can adjust the bit rate and the ABR ladders and the number of profiles delivered to a viewer. This helps ease consumption on the end-user side. This is how we mix AI and ML into video encoders and CDNs.”
As a service provider, McKerlie said he looks at the role of AI slightly differently.
“How do you use a trigger-based piece of data to make a better decision, because this is where AI gets interesting. We are not there yet with our experience.”
Pearson commented that Nagra is using AI in its solution mix as part of its data science solution “to work with operators to understand the nuances in consumer behaviour, so as to try and predict churn”.
“We are also using AI increasingly on the anti-piracy side and within OTT, there are some interesting use cases on how to reduce the total cost of ownership and bitrate switching.”
2021 – What Lies Ahead!
In conclusion, the panel looked at what’s in store for 2021.
McKerlie said he is keen to see how OTT will change the game for sports delivery once the issues around latency are addressed within streaming with major sports properties likely to consider DTC.
“Favourite goals, commentary about it, flipping paths … that will become available.”
Pearson also expressed excitement on how sports entertainment will see great traction within OTT.
“We are starting to see sports federations come to the party and provide that total fan engagement from the stadium to screen, and OTT has a massive role to play there.”
He also said he hoped more would be done around recommendations and deep linking.
Remi agreed on all of the above. He also added that he expects to see further consolidation between the platforms.
“Behind the scenes, we also expect to see the video end of the business and CDNs continue to evolve and merge. Essentially, everything you can do inside the network will evolve to streamline and fast track the delivery.”