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Hulu Talks About the Challenges of Live Video One Year Later
As it built out its live video service, Hulu found a lack of standardization in signal acquisition and metadata use. Now, it's pushing for greater uniformity.

Subscription service Hulu added live channels in beta in May 2017, and one thing the company has learned is that live video is a far bigger challenge than on-demand. Starting later today, Hulu will begin a series of blog posts that highlight its live video workflow and explore the challenges of providing live channels. The company gave StreamingMedia.com an exclusive first look at its findings.

As is shown in the image below (click to expand), Hulu's live video workflow starts with ingesting over 1,000 feeds from stations around the country. This includes owned and operated affiliates and smaller family-owned stations. Getting reliable live streams was the first major challenge. At the start, a computer being accidentally unplugged at a local station could cause an outage; Hulu now has redundancies in place.

"The station landscape is fragmented between national feeds, O&Os, broadcast groups, and individual operators," explains Rafael Soltanovich, vice president of software development at Hulu. "The level of technical sophistication and conformance to standards varies dramatically, which poses challenges when optimizing a digital supply chain. Network preferred stream aggregators vary, leading to differences in network topology, streaming quality, and metadata enrichment."

Hulu sees itself as a pioneer in standardizing signal acquisition, something it's been forced to undertake since no provider is stepping it. The company needs providers to deliver a high volume of streams in a consistent, predictable manner, with built-in redundancy, but at the moment that isn't happening. Serious progress looks to be three to five years away.

"Standardizing signal acquisition would offer a consistent and reliable transport to our cloud, ingest into our live video system, and visibility into stream health. This will result in a higher quality experience for our viewers," Soltanovich says.

Hulu inputs all video in HLS, and streams HLS to Apple devices and DASH to all others. Repackaging involves stripping out production data from the feeds, adding commercial DRM, and sending streams to partner CDNs. The company works with multiple content delivery networks, constantly measuring output quality and shifting its workflow as needed. If one CDN is having issues, Hulu leans on the others.

After ingestion difficulties, the second great obstacle Hulu encountered is with metadata. Early on, Hulu built its own data store, but learned its listing don't always agree with those from Gracenote and other services. For example, if a series begins with a pilot episode or has a two-part finale, data probably won't match up. If a 12-episode series was repackaged as 10 parts, data won't match up. Those issues need to be reconciled—sometimes by hand.

Hulu uses industry SCTE (Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers) standards for metadata, using SCTE-35, which includes cues for ad breaks, for inbound data, and SCTE-224, which includes data for program guides, for out of band. While these are standards, they're new standards and aren't used consistently. Sometimes Hulu gets SCTE data in Excel spreadsheets and sometimes in handwritten notes. Hulu is pushing for consistent use, since having accurate metadata is critical for its recommendation engine.

"Having timely, accurate, and rich metadata is paramount to our viewer experience. Standards such as SCTE are being used in ways for which they were not originally intended, leading to non-standard implementations and inconsistent performance," Soltanovich says. "As an industry, we need to unblock innovation. The real innovation should be around the experience for the customer, not around access. If these standards aren't meeting the needs of the industry, we need to iterate to make them better or partner to develop new ones."

Hulu can currently stream all four major broadcast networks to 80 percent of U.S. TV households. As it grows in coverage and subscribers, it will work to improve input and metadata standardization and reliability. Doing so will lead to more automation for key video workflows, reducing the burden of operation and integration. The end result will be more stable and reliable services for the viewers.

The Hulu live video workflow (click to expand)

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