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ABC Finds Converting a Massive Content Library is as Easy as 1-2-3

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[Note: Streaming Media publishes vendor-supplied case studies like this one based solely on their value to our readers.]

The ABC Player for the iPad launched with much fanfare and earned rave reviews. Building on this success, ABC set out to develop a dedicated ABC News application for the iPad, designed to provide a rich, interactive end-user experience in which text and video work together to inform and entertain. The free ABC News app’s debut targeted an installed base of more than 3 million iPad users. ABC News was the first broadcast news organization to offer an application for the iPad, garnering a large share of the initial market for professionally produced video on the new device. How did ABC port its content to the iPad in such a compressed time frame?

ABC’s Expansive Video Assets

The American Broadcasting Co. (ABC), a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Co., is a major producer and distributor of entertainment content. ABC owns a video content library dating from 1970 as well as most of its in-house television and theatrical productions. With close to 100 hours of network programming a week, ABC maintains and continuously adds to its vast video collection on an hourly basis. The network is also a recognized market leader in providing rich video content to online and mobile platforms by way of its innovative player that is available on the ABC website and on iTunes. In addition, ABC delivers a large portion of its content to ABC.com and through Hulu.

Challenge: Go Broad or Go Home           

As new media platforms proliferate, content producers such as ABC are increasingly challenged to supply archived and first-run video for playback in a variety of formats on a range of devices over bandwidth-constrained networks. When a new device such as the iPad is introduced into the market, large content providers must be prepared to convert video assets for compatible format and display. But formatting and display are only part of the equation. In the past, a single transcode was sufficient for progressive video download to a desktop or laptop computer; today, multiple copies, and therefore multiple transcodes of the same content, are needed to deliver the highest possible quality experience on a wide array of devices. Video compression is an extremely compute-intensive task, and with the increasing need for media multiplication across a variety of display platforms, it often proves to be a significant pain point or bottleneck for content providers and distributors.

Smart Video Delivery

Adaptive bitrate streaming is literally seamless in that the video consumer need not adjust settings to cope with variability in network conditions. In terms of perceived quality, the end user remains virtually unaware of changes to the video bitrate occurring dynamically in the background. Bitrate changes occur as both network and client resources fluctuate while maintaining smooth delivery of streaming video without buffering or other interruption.

Adaptive bitrate streaming to the iPad therefore requires not only conversion of existing content to a variety of display resolutions and bitrates optimized for the device but also a mix of files to be available for real-time stream switching. To achieve this, content providers must convert video assets to new file formats across a range of settings (i.e., resolutions, bitrates, protocols) rather than relying on a single encoded file to address all network and client conditions before delivering to a content delivery network (CDN).

A Big Win Using Content Conversion

Adaptive bitrate streaming, available through a variety of protocols specified by companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple, is quickly becoming a technology requirement for content providers and distributors supplying video to web-based devices such as laptops, mobile phones, and, increasingly, tablet platforms. In the case of the iPad, ABC had to encode and segment years and years of video into the fragments required for Apple’s HTTP adaptive streaming protocol to display the highest possible quality video via the web and on-the-go.

To meet this challenge, ABC deployed Elemental Server into its production workflow to customize video content for its ABC News application for the iPad. Elemental Server

is a file-based video processing system that performs high-speed video transcoding for multiscreen video applications. At the heart of the system is patent-pending software that harnesses the power and programmability of modern graphics processing units (GPUs). These highly programmable multicore processors feature a massively parallel architecture well-suited to complex video compression tasks. GPUs currently feature as many as 512 processing cores, all of which can perform heavy-duty video processing and conversion functions simultaneously. By harnessing the power of the GPU, the time required for video processing and conversion is greatly reduced.

In addition, CPU resources are freed for other tasks, allowing for increased throughput and for system resources to be used fully and efficiently.

Under the Hood

Elemental Server is a Linux-based system designed to perform transcoding jobs. A transcoding job is defined as the processing of an input media asset. This includes conversion of an input to one or many files as well as the application of any required video effects. The key functions Elemental Servers perform include decoding, video processing/conversion, and file formatting. Elemental Server offers universal input support, accepts a range of incoming file formats and codecs, and provides advanced preprocessing functionality optimized for the GPU.

Elemental’s output codecs are developed in-house and designed from the ground up for the GPU. Supported codecs include H.264, VC-1,and MPEG-2, and converted files can be wrapped in a variety of containers for Flash, for Windows Media, or in an MPEG-2 transport stream. Media can also be formatted for adaptive bitrate protocols including ISMV for Smooth Streaming, F4V for Flash Media Server, or m3u8 for Apple Adaptive. CableLabs-compliant streams are also an available option.

For ABC, Elemental Server expedites the transcode portion of the overall workflow and directly addresses the lag time between the availability of content on ABC.com and the availability of the same content via the iPad. Elemental Server speeds encoding operations five times faster, eliminates ABC’s transcode bottleneck, and helps the company deliver content to multiple platforms virtually simultaneously.

In addition to overcoming the speed and performance limitations of existing solutions, Elemental Server also addresses the Apple App Store requirement to use the m3u8 file extension as well as to provide a 64K-bitstream for all video apps. Files are generally either 640x360 or 480x360, 24 frames per second, with a 48 GOP size and incremented in 10-second segments. ABC currently serves its Apple iPad content via Akamai’s streaming media service. In the ABC News use case, each input file is formatted to the following five outputs:

  • 700Kbps: 652Kbps video and 48Kbps audio
  • 500Kbps: 452Kbps video and 48Kbps audio
  • 300Kbps: 252Kbps video and 48Kbps audio
  • 150Kbps: 118Kbps video and 32Kbps audio
  • 64Kbps: 36Kbps video and 24Kbps audio (JPEG overlay and audio)

All of the video content available through the free ABC News App for iPad is generated by Elemental Server. The app interface features the iconic ABC News globe populated with different stories including up-to-the-minute news and historical content reaching back several decades. The touch interface maneuvers the 3D globe, or the user can shake it to randomly select a story. The user can dynamically change the video display resolution with a single swipe of the finger and set parameters to filter for preferred topics. The spinning globe contains content from ABC.go.com including stories from Good Morning America, Nightline, 20/20 and This Week. Just a week after launch, the ABC News App became one of the most popular iPad apps in the app store.

Giant Gains for ABC

Elemental Server significantly streamlines content conversion for the iPad with a substantial increase in transcoding efficiency compared to existing solutions. Built-in presets for the iPad eliminate the need for customized encoding settings and save operator time. The performance available with a single Elemental Server system reduces the number of systems required for large-scale transcoding tasks, therefore lowering operations cost and overhead. In addition, the system’s flexibility allows effective conversion of video for the iPad today and ensures support for video delivery standards and protocols such as HTML5 and WebM in the future. The system’s massively parallel architecture can easily handle the processing required to transcode simultaneous inputs and outputs in real time. With Elemental Server, ABC can convert more than 20 640x360 or 480x360 files in real time for on-demand adaptive bitrate streaming.

Elemental Server merges the performance benefits of a massively parallel hardware platform with the versatility and forward compatibility of intelligent software to give video publishers and distributors unmatched price/performance for video compression. By harnessing the power of graphics processors, Elemental Server offers greater density and throughput than other solutions. The system delivers simultaneous, faster-than-real-time conversion of multiple HD and SD video streams across an array of devices including TVs, PCs, tablets, and mobile phones.

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