Broadcast is no longer the only show in town when it comes to delivering TV and film content to the masses. In recent years, the consumption of such content over Internet-enabled devices has exploded. From connected TV and consoles to tablets and mobiles, there is a rush to dominate the Internet TV service proposition and offer TV anytime, anyplace and in HD.
For consumers, this is a great time as TV and film services become richer, more customizable and “always on.”
For content owners, it’s a mixed bag of increased opportunity and increased operational pain. Content owners can no longer bet on a single Internet TV platform; they must sweat value from their content by leveraging multiple deals to stay in the game. The fulfillment and delivery side of things can be incredibly painful and costly with content preparation and repurposing costs often negating the commercial upsides for smaller deals. However, the same technologies that have enabled Internet TV have enabled file-based workflows and digital delivery that help overcome this.
In this article, we discuss the challenges and considerations for content owners when delivering content to Internet-enabled platforms and devices.
There are a number of delivery paradigms to consider when addressing the challenge of delivering content to the Internet. The first is a push-based approach, where content is bundled up and pushed to a remote Internet TV service. With this model, the content owner is responsible for AV formatting, preparation of metadata, subtitles and art work, and organizing the related files into the correct directory hierarchy.
The other concept is pull-based, where a remote Internet TV service requests content from a content owner through a form of remote browse or querying interface. The former is far more popular a concept and is analogous to the old world of tape-based fulfillment through content services companies.
When delivering to the Internet, there are several platforms to consider, including self-publishing, VOD service creation and VOD delivery. (See Figure 1.)
Self-publishing is where content owners create their own direct-to-consumer TV service. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up an account with the likes of YouTube or Dailymotion and push content and metadata to the service via plain FTP and simple XML. Most APIs of this ilk support programmatic control of delivery so that software and workflows can be used to automatically deliver to Internet TV platforms. Such APIs are now robust and relatively mature. It’s in the interest of Internet TV service providers to make it as easy as possible for content owners to publish their content and reach a wider audience.
A more sophisticated approach to consider is the creation of a white-label TV or film service. The content owner creates and manages its own video players and typically embeds them within its own website offering. It ensures much greater control over functionality, branding and user experience than merely configuring a YouTube channel. Probably the best way to get the ball rolling on this is to enlist the service of an online video platform provider that allows users to customize players to a larger degree, like Brightcove or Ooyala. The upside of using these services is that many of them are multidevice-aware and will support playback on mobile and tablet.
Occasionally, content owners will go one stage further and build their own Internet TV service from scratch. This involves developing their own player and utilizing CDNs, transcoding technology, and various payment and content protection software. Ditching out-of-the-box systems like Brightcove or Ooyala and enlisting the likes of an end-to-end video management company can be expensive and may involve enlisting systems integrators and front-end developers, but it allows content owners to create a completely customized and integrated Internet video business.
The alternative approach is to use what’s there and deliver to existing Internet TV platforms, removing the need to build a front-end service altogether. Where this approach differs, however, is that it typically follows a commercial content deal, and delivery can only commence following a contractual agreement between the content owner and the Internet TV platform provider. In this case, content services partners may be involved. They take responsibility for preparing and delivering content to the platform operator on behalf of the content owner. The reason for this is that paid-for Internet TV services such as iTunes and Netflix need to pay careful consideration to content quality and supplementary information such as regional subtitles.
Often the Internet TV service provider will have bought specific titles, seasons and episodes from a content owner’s back catalog. Hence, the content is specific and must be delivered in a timely matter to meet the commercial obligations. Content services companies often keep a copy of the content owner’s back catalog on tape and take on responsibility for content preparation and delivery. This removes the burden and complexity from the content owner but often at a large cost.
In most cases, content owners will hedge their bets and use all of the above to ensure they are on the most popular platforms while retaining a direct relationship with the viewers through their own service.
Packaging and delivery technologies for VOD
Self-publishing is by far the most simple approach for getting content onto the Internet. Often it’s as simple as manually or programmatically sending an AV file and some metadata via FTP. VOD delivery, however, is worthy of more discussion given the complexity and variation in packaging formats.
When it comes to VOD delivery, there is a myriad of technology considerations in order to get the right content in the right format to the right player, on time:
- File formats: The first is the audio-visual (AV) content itself. Some Internet services providers will be kind enough to accept a wide range of AV file formats and standards. However, many won’t, and the burden of AV transcoding and QC will reside with the content owner or content services partner. What may at first seem a trivial issue quickly becomes hugely complicated. Many Internet TV services, such as iTunes, have a brand to protect and expect AV content to be delivered in a very high quality with no audio-visual glitches. Often, the only way to avoid rejection is to manually QC all content prior to delivery.
- Metadata: Many Internet VOD platforms allow viewers to browse for content by category, release date, free search and the list goes on. For that content to be discovered by the viewer, VOD content must be delivered with the correct metadata. For the content owner, this means that delivering AV content is not enough. The content must be bundled with metadata (often XML format) that describes the content in as much detail as possible and in the format requested by the Internet TV service provider. Often this metadata preparation is done by hand and is labor-intensive and error-prone. As Internet TV platforms grow with greater content availability and increased back catalogs, metadata richness becomes increasingly important to ensure content is discovered and ultimately monetized.
- Subtitling: Another (often forgotten) component of a VOD delivery is captioning and subtitle information. There is a growing number of different subtitle formats, and all of them must be considered by a content owner wishing to monetize their content crossplatform. Subtitle creation can be costly and time-consuming, but it is often a necessity when delivering content to overseas territories. Many subtitle formats are delivered as accompanying XML in the same VOD package.
- Digital delivery: Many areas of the TV and film supply chain are replacing tapes with files and taking advantage of file-based workflows. VOD delivery is no exception, and many content owners and Internet TV platform operators alike expect content to be delivered as bundles or files (AV, metadata, subtitles, etc). In the case of delivering this content digitally, another challenge is that many operators take advantage of file acceleration for managing the delivery of large volumes of large assets. File acceleration UDP technologies can offer benefits over and above plain FTP in terms of faster delivery and more sophisticated delivery orchestration. This can be a challenge for content owners as different VOD operators support different delivery technologies from tape to accelerated delivery.
The standards paradox
One of the reasons that content owners offload the responsibility of content preparation and delivery for VOD platforms to content services companies is the sheer level of complexity. This is brought about by a lack of standardization and the amount of manual labor involved in delivering to multiple operators — often on short notice. This often results in a large cost of fulfillment for content owners wishing to monetize their content over the Internet.
It’s easy to look at the various components of VOD delivery and surmise that there are already standards in place to make life easier. However, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The explosion of multiplatform TV over the past few years has been brought about by a large number of technology innovators working in isolation to create new standards. As a result, for every component of VOD delivery (AV, metadata, subtitles/captions, network delivery) there is a growing number of competing standards.
Therefore, the paradox is that with many competing standards, there really is no official standard. As a consequence, delivery of TV and film to the Internet is still in its infancy and desperately in need of standards frameworks to remove the manual processes, complexity and costs.
Taking control with a single software platform
The good news is that standards are emerging that are better thought out and more relevant to the world of multiplatform delivery. Another nice side effect of the maturing industry is that viewers are consolidating to a smaller number of larger VOD platforms such as iTunes and Netflix. They’re also self-publishing to fewer and larger platforms such as YouTube and Dailymotion. Therefore, it will be easier for content owners to hit a larger audience while delivering to a smaller number of platforms.
In addition to this, software platforms are emerging to answer the new world of Internet TV delivery — whether through self-publishing or VOD delivery. New advanced MAM and workflow systems are emerging that can automate the complex business rules around VOD delivery, including transcoding, metadata transforming, republishing, packaging and delivery. These new software systems offer adaptors that plug in to existing platforms such as YouTube and Dailymotion and offer workflow orchestration for more advanced VOD delivery. Much of this new software is being offered as a service so content owners can take control of their content and delivery, thus increasing visibility and dramatically lowering their Internet delivery costs.
One thing that is for sure: Delivering TV and film content to the Internet will be quicker, easier and less costly in the next five years compared to the previous five years. This will be brought about by the consolidation of film and TV services and a slow adoption of standards for all elements of content delivery.
—Jon Folland is CEO of Nativ.