By Ralf Jacob, President, Verizon Digital Media Services
Many over-the-top (OTT) providers’ platforms were designed with video on demand (VOD) in mind. But live events are a completely different animal, with their own unique challenges – challenges that require robust, specialized infrastructure to meet. Here are five ways OTT providers need to upgrade their technology if they’re going to meet the exploding demand for streaming live events online.
1. Be ready for spikes in viewership
One major difference between live events and VOD is that with live, a huge chunk of your audience will be tuning in at the exact same time. Maybe it’s at the beginning of your broadcast, or maybe it’s in the nail-biting fourth quarter of a tight playoff game. In either case, your infrastructure must be capable not only of managing 10 million-plus sessions concurrently, but also of creating tens of thousands of new sessions each second, even when you aren’t expecting it.
That means having servers ready to handle surges in viewership. And I mean big surges. When you hit capacity during a live event, don’t just scale up one more server, scale up 100 more, in case demand keeps growing.
2. Optimize for quality
Delivering quality live video to huge high-def screens is its own challenge. With VOD, high-quality chunks of a popular video are usually already encoded and cached at the edge before the viewer even tunes in. Delivering those chunks to a 70-inch TV or another high-resolution screen is relatively fast and easy. With streaming live events, however, the content source can come from remote locations, with less than optimal connectivity, leading to delays.
To meet this challenge, providers need to optimize every step of the digital media supply chain. Workflows for contributing, ingesting, encoding, packaging and delivering content to the edge need to be streamlined to squeeze out any additional steps that slow a stream and pull viewers “behind live”. For example, at Verizon Digital Media Services, we build our edge node capacity to work at 30 to 35 percent utilization at any given moment, with enough headroom to handle a spike in traffic if needed. We’ve found that this is an important factor for getting video from encoders to origin storage to edge nodes as quickly as possible, while ensuring minimal delays for viewers.
3. Streamline the process for dealing with the live event life cycle
As if that weren’t complicated enough, there’s another major issue that comes with streaming live events that is foreign to on-demand or scheduled linear broadcasts: Live events are unpredictable. Rarely do they start exactly on time. Commercial breaks happen at unpredictable times. Rock stars are mercurial; music sets can end abruptly or run long. Without the appropriate tools, this can be a nightmare for producers.
Each stage of the live event life cycle, before the event, during the event and after the event pose different challenges. Before the event, audiences should see a message that confirms that the live stream is working through dynamic slates or a countdown clock, to avoid panicked users flocking to social media to complain. During the event, producers need to be able to quickly switch between slates or commercials, depending on what is happening in real-time at the venue.
And after the event, viewers don’t want to wait 24 hours to watch the event again. The highest levels of audience engagement (and opportunity for additional revenue), happen immediately following the event.
Failing to deal with your stream or viewers at any stage in the life cycle will lead to unhappy customers and the potential for lost revenue.
4. Work to bring down costs
Expense is a huge barrier to entry for live streaming, particularly because the expected audience size is hard to predict. Without a previous event to establish precedent, modeling the costs of streaming against predicted revenue can be a challenge. The big question for live event producers: when it comes to streaming live video, what is the ROI?
It seems clear, at the same time, that live events should be at the heart of OTT. No one wants to tune in and not be able to watch breaking news online. It’s up to us OTT providers to bring down costs so that it’s possible for anyone to stream live events from sports leagues to venues and even local news affiliates. That means streamlining processes, simplifying setup and above all, driving advertising deals that make the financials work.
Live video is an unprecedented opportunity to target advertising at individual viewers, rather than broad demographic segments. But all too often, this opportunity gets lost within OTT systems cobbled together from multiple vendors and designed without a cohesive vision. With a little bit of planning, along with the ability to target users via a 1 to 1 relationship, live event producers can attract the right advertisers on the right terms and capitalize on a captive audience.
More relevant ads mean happier viewers, which means more viewers, which means more ad revenue. And a unified plan for live video streaming is all that it takes to create that positive feedback loop.
5. Prepare for the future
Live event producers should also look to the future when designing infrastructure to handle live video. Maybe they only need infrastructure to handle a handful of viewers today, but what happens if a million viewers tune in tomorrow? What if those viewers want their content as streaming 360-degree virtual reality, or streamed to some device that hasn’t been invented yet? What if every one of them had their own customized feed of live videos tailored uniquely to them? We haven’t yet seen the full potential of live OTT.
Live event producers should be thinking ahead to these “what ifs” and others to guide them as they plan their next 10, 20, or 30 years of OTT strategy.
This article originally appeared in the M&E Journal from MESA (Media & Entertainment Services Alliance) with contribution from the Hippo Thinks research network.