Once focused entirely on stored, file-based video, many OTT providers are embracing live content. Sports is driving this trend. What OTT can offer the market is high-quality coverage of a wide variety of global events delivered to any number of end devices, often with compelling features such as multiple camera angles, complementary statistics and social media integration.
Notable deals this year include Facebook’s partnership with Fox SPORTS to stream Champions League matches, Amazon’s acquisition of rights to ten NFL games, and iflix’s plans to stream all matches of two Indonesian soccer leagues.
In Australia the Men’s Open tennis tournament last year proved a massive online success. And the Rio Olympics are another proof-point.
Yet live OTT is not easy. On-demand video has its own challenges, but live streaming complicates the game in several ways. First, distributors that purchase rights need to recover those hefty costs. In addition to monetization, an OTT provider may need to execute its agreements in ways unique to sports broadcasting. Other challenges, all discussed in more detail below, relate to multiple devices, connectivity, global reach and production workflows.
Monetization. Making money with OTT live sports can be bundled in with a broadband or mobile plan. But insofar as the coverage mirrors television viewing, OTT operators also need to step up their advertising efforts and get to know related technologies, such as server-side ad insertion and programmatic sales. Other challenges are market-specific. Government regulation along with negotiated rights, for instance, may dictate whether sporting events should be available on ‘free-to-air’ Networks or can be kept behind a paywall model. OTT video suppliers should discover what works best given cultural and economic factors; learn how different combinations of content, pricing and payment perform in their markets; and then pivot when presented with the right circumstances.
Geo-filtering and DRM. Content owners limit the distribution of sporting events by time windows, types of devices, digital rights management (DRM) solutions, and more. Complexities can ensue. For example, DRMs required for popular browsers can create performance issues downstream. OTT video providers also need to honor geographic limitations. Governments can restrict video for various reasons, and as with traditional broadcasting, blackout-driven policies may have been imposed to protect local markets, promote pay TV packages or encourage local game attendance. Managing geo-filters can involve expensive integrations or manual DIY solutions; a third approach is to leverage new standards, such as SCTE 224, and platforms that facilitate automation.
Device fragmentation. OTT content providers need to do their research here. The big screen remains the preferred display device for live sports, but viewers are supplementing their viewing experience via mobile and tablets to access additional and synchronized content. But which devices should you serve? Both the market and negotiated rights will determine the answer, in some cases down to precise screen sizes or operating systems. Devices will have preferred DRM solutions, each one which aligns with distinct adaptive bit-rate (ABR) containers and packagers, adding further complexity and expense. Serving the OTT consumer means knowing how best to support those capabilities and end devices themselves.
Connectivity and scale. In addition to devices, OTT operators may also be held responsible for problems related to transmission, even though internet and mobile connectivity is outside their direct control. The same applies to source content. In effect, the uplink (fiber, satellite or wireless) at a sports arena serves as the origin server to the encoders.. Beyond that point, technologies such as ABR streaming and cloud computing can provide scaling and help ensure satisfactory user experience to the customers end devices. An OTT video provider still needs to find ways to optimise the quality of the service using minimum bandwidth across various networks types. .
Global events and delay. One of the benefits of the IP technologies driving OTT is the potential to expand coverage to all sports, globally. A big challenge, as noted above, is ensuring minimally required connectivity. In more precise terms, an OTT provider needs to architect a connection between streaming platform and remote encoders to reduce delay. Despite its name, for instance, HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), has certain default settings that are unfavourable to low latency. The challenge is to analyze performance and determine which parts of a delivery ecosystem – encoder, packager, CDN, player – contribute the most delay and then devise a better implementation.
Fragmented workflows. Sports fans expect flawless delivery. But the list of tasks involved in live OTT video production and delivery is staggering, including everything from ingest of video and audio to editing to encoding (SDI to IP) to metadata tagging to clip extraction to ABR encoding to VOD asset conversion to advertising insertion to transcoding (IP to SDI) to encryption to authorization and payment, all the while maintaining quality control. Whenever possible, as noted already regarding blackouts, OTT video providers should opt for solutions that promote automation and greater efficiency.
The Game is On
Sports are not the only live OTT category. There are also reality TV shows, concerts, political events, award shows, conferences, lectures and more. Nor is live the only component of an OTT sports offering. (Fans also want to view archived games, connect socially and review statistics.) But live OTT sports is on the rise. It can deliver new audiences to sports, new viewers to OTT platforms, and new multi-screen functionality to fans hungry for more engagement with their favorite teams and athletes.
Live OTT, however, is challenging. It is not surprising that OTT giant Netflix has, for now at least, stood on the sidelines, content with its SVOD model. But for those OTT providers willing to find ways to monetize live sporting events, deliver within complicated limitations, support a proliferating number of end devices, ensure connectivity, scale globally while minimizing latency, and optimize a myriad of workflows, then the game for this promising market is on.