Special Report: Broadband Video Evolves - Broadcasting & Cable

Special Report: Broadband Video Evolves

Programmers, tech vendors push higher quality in broadband video.
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If 2007 was a breakthrough year for broadband video, 2008 -- with broadcast and cable programmers bringing their primetime content to the Web in earnest -- is shaping up to be the swift evolution that follows the revolution.

Programmers are fine-tuning their broadband game, introducing more user-friendly video players and experimenting with new ad formats such as graphic overlays and the “skins” format, which surrounds the video player with branding.

Meanwhile, content providers are trying to raise the video quality of their offerings to deliver a TV-like experience to viewers who are consuming short clips or full-length shows on their PC or laptop screens. Being able to do so without raising distribution costs to the point where broadband video becomes a money pit instead of a source of incremental revenue is the big issue.

“Everybody's looking to get higher picture quality over a lower bandwidth at a cheaper distribution cost,” said Phil Sharpe, senior vice president of technology and operations for Turner Sports, which produces broadband coverage of Major League Baseball, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing and PGA Tour golf. Turner Sports also manages the NASCAR.com and PGA.com Web sites, and it will start producing broadband video for the National Basketball Association next fall.

Definitions of Web-video quality tend to be subjective. Many programmers are claiming HD quality at 1.2 megabits per second, while Sharpe believes providing near-DVD quality for standard-definition video still probably requires more than 2 mbps. But high-quality Web video, if not true HD, is becoming commonplace.

“We're all tending toward the same bit rates, the same aspect ratio,” Sharpe said. “No matter what you do with video now, it's all gotten really good.”

So in addition to pushing better video quality through advanced compression techniques such as wavelet encoding, Turner also focused on using the Web to provide different content than traditional broadcast coverage, such as alternative camera angles for basketball and baseball and “player-cams” that follow individual golfers during a PGA event.

Where 500 kilobits per second used to be considered a very high-quality feed, some programmers are experimenting with bit rates up to 10 times faster, said Suzanne Johnson, senior product marketing manager for content-delivery network Akamai Technologies.

“If you reference the data points from a year ago, the biggest change is that the envelope is being pushed higher and higher,” Johnson said. “[If] 1.5 mbps is the high end of SD, we've seen a lot of customers experimenting with and deploying HD-resolution video at much higher bit rates, from 4-6 mbps.”

Improved broadband speeds are the big driver. More than 60% of the connections to the Akamai network are faster than 2 mbps, and some 20% are at speeds of more than 5 mbps, which Akamai considers to be the minimum entry level for HD.

Content-delivery network Limelight Networks, the biggest competitor to Akamai in the media space, has been working to make HD broadband video an everyday reality by both improving its network and lowering cost.

“HD presents two problems,” said Dave Hatfield, senior VP of global sales and marketing for Limelight. “One is the technical problem of moving a 36-gigabyte file across an Internet that's choked with traffic. The other problem is that it's difficult to monetize HD at a rate four to five times a standard-definition object [to cover increased delivery costs for the higher bit rates]. While they can charge a premium for HD to advertisers, it's maybe 50%. We've been trying to lower our delivery costs to enable them to make money.”

OLYMPICS: A BIG TEST

A big test of Limelight's new HD infrastructure will come this summer, when it will handle the bulk of the traffic for NBC's broadband coverage of the Olympic Games. Limelight will be pulling live video from stadiums, encoding it and transmitting it globally across its network for both live and on-demand viewing. It's hard to project what usage figures will be, but Limelight is ready for heavy demand.

“We anticipate that there will be hundreds of thousands of concurrent users, and we're prepared for upward of 1 million or more,” Hatfield said. “That would be, by a landslide, the largest online event we're aware of in history.”

Besides NBC's Olympic push, other networks are stepping up their broadband offerings for the new TV season. ABC -- the first broadcast network to begin streaming primetime shows in HD -- is revamping the video player on its Web sites to include new navigation and search features, content-sharing tools and closed-captioning. CBS is upgrading its video player, with the biggest change being higher quality for both streaming video and progressive downloads.

“We also want to make videos a lot more viral, so we're adding the ability for clips to be embedded [on third-party sites such as Facebook] through embedded URLs, which we haven't offered in the past,” said Anthony Soohoo, senior VP and general manager of entertainment for CBS Interactive.

In another nod to the power of social networking to drive video consumption, the new CBS player will also allow users to clip a short piece of video and pass it along to a friend.

“If there's a funny scene of comedy, we don't want them to have to watch a whole 22-minute episode,” Soohoo said. “Basically, they can clip it down to the 20 seconds of what they want to share and add a comment to that.”

HANDLING HIGHER VOLUMES

As programmers increase their Web-video offerings, they have to be careful to manage their cost structures and automate their production and distribution workflow as much as possible, cautioned Joey Faust, systems engineer with broadcast- and media-consulting firm National TeleConsultants.

“A lot of our clients are seeing the need to create 50 or 60 different versions of the same asset and get it out to different platforms,” Faust said. “That means planning ahead and knowing in preproduction what paths the media is going to have to take.”

One network that has high-volume broadband video figured out is The Weather Channel, which averages 35 million unique users monthly for its Web site. That Web operation is seen as a key asset of parent Landmark Communications as it seeks to negotiate a sale to NBC Universal. TWC Interactive produces around 550 original weather videos each day, including six two-minute forecast updates for 75 markets, twice-daily in-depth forecasts for the top 25 markets and a variety of recreation-focused forecasts.

The network combines production in a dedicated broadband studio -- where on-camera meteorologists shoot standups in front of a green screen -- with an automated graphics-rendering system that uses the same data as its “Local on the 8s” television product for cable affiliates.

“We have a system that's able to look at a stream of data, pick out the relevant elements and put it in the screen to form a slide show,” explained Tom Flournoy, VP of advanced media for TWC. “We have that as an add-on component to the regional forecasts with the on-camera meteorologists. So for 75 locations, six times per day, you've got a combination of a live person with an automated tail-end.”

Noncommercial programmer PBS is refining its broadband offerings through a new deal with thePlatform, the online-video-management and publishing company owned by Comcast. thePlatform will standardize technology across PBS' national Web sites, including PBS.org, PBSKids.org, PBSParents.org and PBSTeachers.org, and facilitate the distribution of PBS Web video to member stations for inclusion on their sites. Local PBS stations will have access to thePlatform's publishing system and video-player technology, and thePlatform will also create and host a repository of both national PBS content and local-station video that will enable member stations to easily share video.

“We're putting together a whole back-end infrastructure with thePlatform, and that back end is going to be the engine for powering a very significant increase in the amount of video we're offering on both the PBS.org and PBSKids.org sites,” said Jason Seiken, PBS' senior VP for interactive.

Brightcove, a competitor to thePlatform, is looking to optimize video search with its next-generation online-video-publishing platform, Brightcove 3, which began beta-testing last week with customers such as Lifetime Television and Showtime. Brightcove 3 is aimed at making video easier to find for consumers either surfing the site directly or through search engines such as Google.

“We're moving toward more of a contextual video-publishing model,” said Brightcove CEO Jeremy Allaire. “We've created a tool kit that Web developers can use to more deeply integrate video into the Web site, with video embedded in page and lots of contextual links to other videos.”

Social-networking giant MySpace -- its MySpaceTV portal has become the second-largest source of Web video behind YouTube -- overhauled its video player as part of a broad overall redesign. The new MySpaceTV player features Adobe Flash Player 9 for high-quality full-screen video, a scrubber that lets users jump forward in the video and experience immediate playback, time-stamp, volume memory, a new menu system that makes it easier to find related content, greater sharing functionality and international language support.

About 75% of MySpaceTV's content is user-generated video and the rest is professionally produced. MySpace TV VP Jason Kirk sees the percentage of professional content increasing as networks get more creative with Web distribution by offering more short clips in addition to full-length episodes.

MySpaceTV has a smattering of near-HD-quality content, including movie trailers and the “Operation MySpace” concert for Army troops in Kuwait this spring that featured Jessica Simpson and The Pussycat Dolls. It is currently providing 480p resolution at 1.5 mbps and is looking to move up to 720p quality at a bitrate of 3-3.2 mbps.

“For the right content, people want it,” Kirk said of HD. “Even before the Internet, people always wanted a new TV and a better-quality picture.”

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