Case Study: European Commission Masters Streaming Media
Nearly 50% of the 462 million citizens of the European Union (EU) have Internet access. Clearly, this is an important means of communicating with the population about issues which concern them directly or indirectly. There are dozens of Web sites that people can surf when they are conducting research on a specific topic concerning the EU. But this only supports the needs of people actively looking for information. Executive and legislative bodies also need to proactively communicate their messages to citizens via traditional media outlets. By providing video information in streaming media to those in the press including newspapers and magazines as well as television—the European Commission is complementing its existing satellite broadcast programming with an easy-to-use, high-quality, alternative delivery channel.
Getting the Message to the Media
The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. Its dedicated Audiovisual Services group based in Brussels, Belgium, supplies 24-hour programming on its satellite broadcast. Launched in 1995, Europe by Satellite (EbS) targets the media industry and offers television and radio stations with photography, video, and audio in over 20 languages.
In parallel with the popular EbS service, the Audiovisual Services group also provides a Web portal. Launched in 2002, the online service offers a wide array of video and audio content. More than 10,000 registered members of the media, press agencies, lecturers, and interpreters are registered with the portal.
Currently, the live streams receive 450 hits per day a number that jumps to more than 800 when there are important developments such as discussion of adding a new country to the EU. On-demand streaming content gets an average of 700 hits per day, with a peak of approximately 1,200 hits around particularly newsworthy assets. Content is available in the original language in which the media was captured, as well as translated into English, German, and French.
Conforming and Experimenting
When Audiovisual Services engineers were developing the Web-based streaming media engine and Web site, they elected to set up RealNetworks Helix servers because Real’s video player is available for all operating systems the site supports (all content is encoded in Real’s SureStream format, and RealPlayer 8 is the minimum requirement for watching content on the portal). "Our content, both live and on-demand, is all available in Real format at 100Kbps," says Jean-Pierre Assalone, Audiovisual Services’ webmaster. "However," he hastens to point out, "we expect to be increasing data rate options because we recognize that most agencies and news bureaus have a much higher bandwidth available to them." A data rate of 256Kbps for most content is currently the target for the future.
Like any producer in this field, Assalone must strike a balance between reaching a maximum number of agencies and staying at the leading edge of the field. Technology in the Audiovisual Services production center is always evolving. "We are continuously working with our technology providers and partners to provide the best services," says Assalone. There is a search engine and navigation on the Web site as well as the ability for the media outlets to download raw footage of video in MPEG-2 format.
Cost is another element that must be addressed. Since this service is provided at no cost to users, the costs must be covered by the EU general fund budget. In addition to having to store multiple data rates and formats, higher quality streaming assets (streamed at bandwidths greater than 100Kbps) will run up network charges. Currently, all the EC photos, audio and video content are on centralized servers, hosted in a data center in Luxembourg. Providing access to content form the EbS portal requires bandwidth around the servers. To address this bottleneck, Assalone and his team members are exploring peer-to-peer distribution technologies.
Customization Brings New Challenges
Content customization is another challenge facing the EC’s streaming media group. Assalone and the Audiovisual Services team are frequently asked to prepare special audio and video segments based on portions of a full-length program or asset. Currently many of the commissioners themselves also request customized content for their own communications purposes, with their constituents and on their portals. Just meeting these requests is a full-time job.
In addition, news coverage is changing to accommodate the needs of the expanding number of EU citizens who are connected to the Internet. Audiovisual Services receives numerous requests from online news agencies reporting about the EC or new developments across the European Union that seek to have the right to host some of the EsB’s streaming content on their own servers beyond the seven-day period for which Audiovisual Services currently keeps its assets available.
"As we move forward, we can see that our target audience is eager to use our content in streaming formats," says Assalone. "Keeping up with the rapidly expanding needs of the EC and its information outlets is a challenge we are continuously addressing."