Are MSNBC's Online Videos Getting a Once over?

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At last year's Streaming Media West conference, I had a chance to catch up with David Morel, who has worked for a number of content delivery networks (CDNs) and streaming platform providers in his career. Morel is a strategist and a fixer of complex problems so when he's excited about something, I listen carefully and am often not disappointed. This meeting was no an exception, as he took the chance to talk about Unicorn Once, Unicorn Media's new media manipulation technology and the problems it solves.

"Did you know that HLS works best in five-second segments on some devices," he asked, "but in others it makes more sense to use the ten-second segment approach? We've figured out which devices do better in particular playout scenarios," Morel said.

Having spent a few weeks in mid-2011 doing playout testing on a number of Android devices, as part of a set of reports commissioned by Adobe, Morel's comment about different approaches for different devices piqued my interest, especially since his timing was spot on: a pressing concern had just arisen about Android playout, as during Streaming Media West 2011, Adobe announced development of Flash Player for Mobile was being discontinued.

At the same time, Google was announcing support for Apple HTTP Live Streaming in its newest Android operating system, Android 4.0 or Ice Cream Sandwich. In addition, MPEG DASH was winding its way through ratification for fragmented MP4 (fMP4) HTTP delivery, leaving the overall mobile video delivery market in a state of flux as to whether to stick with Flash Player or move to other solutions.

When I asked Morel how many devices they were working on, his answer floored me: it turns out that Unicorn had figured out the best playout profiles for a variety of iOS, Android, and other mobile devices, plus a number of set-top boxes and smart TVs.

Morel claimed that Unicorn can provide up to 4400 customized strings that covered over 500 different devices (and here I was happy I'd been able to test 14 and present my findings at Streaming Media Europe) but he also was quick to point out that no more than 100 mobile devices account for about 99 percent of all video content consumed in the marketplace today, and that globally no more than 500 devices are used except for very fringe cases. This matches up with my testing, where we determined about 400 different device permutations were needed to adequately cover the existing Android devices in mid-2011.

With the customized strings in hand, Morel said, Unicorn was able to create Unicorn Once to customize the experience for almost any user of any video-equipped mobile device.

"We are able to generate the appropriate format from a single high-quality file at the time of request, which is where the Once name comes in," Morel said. "Give us a file once and we'll make sure it's delivered to the user's device in the best possible format. And we'll do it via a single URL."

Just doing real-time conversion would be interesting enough, but Unicorn Media had its sights set on a higher prize: the ability to add multiple interstitials (read, commercials) into long-form content, with each user receiving a customized mix of interstitials based on the currently available advertising inventory.

MSNBC iPhone 1"We generate the unique content for a unique end user at the time of request, instantaneously, with a full feature-length film with 20 commercials taking about one second to push through our Dynamic Permutation Layer or DPL," said Morel. "We don't do it through transcoding, but through direct file manipulation, effectively stitching together a seamless single piece of content with all the interstitials integrated directly in to the single piece of content."

It all sounded a bit too good to be true, so like all good skeptics, I put the Once technology conversation aside for a few months. Last week I followed up again, asking Morel to elaborate with a customer example. Morel mentioned AccuWeather and another customer, Screen Media.

"For our customer, Screen Media, that has a library of premium long-form content, we do up to 28 interstitials for delivery to a Roku set-top box," Morel said. "We've been told by Roku that no one else is doing that many interstitials, and certainly no one is doing it with delivery of different commercials to each unique user."

Morel noted that Unicorn isn't really stitching content together, although there are some devices that expect a playlist of content. Because Unicorn can "directly manipulate several pieces of video content into one seamless file" via their DPL, the ability to instantly change up advertising inventory is feasible.

MSNBC iPhone 2"The moment a new commercial is available in inventory, we can begin serving it as part of our rotation," he said, adding that a live version of the technology is also in beta release.

Today, while clicking on a video on MSNBC regarding the South Carolina Republican primary, I noticed the URL that briefly appeared was prefixed by once.unicornmedia.com.

The two images here show the page just before clicking the video link and just after clicking it.

Is MSNBC about to announce that it has become the newest Unicorn Media customer? If so, what will be the impact of a news organization being able to monetize live streams online in the same way that it monetizes breaking news (by adding in commercial breaks)?

Unicorn won't confirm whether or not the MSNBC.com iPhone delivery is a beta test or a full-blown move away from bigger name CDN partners to the Unicorn Once technology (served through a Unicorn partner CDN, since Unicorn itself is not technically a CDN provider). It appears, however, at least a portion of MSNBC's current videos are being served via Unicorn Once.

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