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Live Streaming Summit Preview: Google Takes on Live Video Challenges

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The Live Streaming Summit at Streaming Media West will bring together several of the industry's leading minds to talk about the problems and possibilities facing live video's future. Kip Schauer, global head of media and entertainment for Google Cloud, is one of the conference speakers, and he graciously offered to answer a few questions as we all prepare for the big day.

Streaming Media: Live sports, news, and event streaming is booming, but it feels like we’re not there yet. What problems need to be overcome?

Kip Schauer: The challenges with live sports streaming really boil down to three categories: latency, video quality, and production capabilities. We still can’t really reliably deliver an HD ABR signal to every device and every home that wants it because we aren’t quite able to tune digital ABR transcoding to ensure the best possible picture for each user. Meanwhile, sports are so active with motion and there is such a desire to emulate the live and in person experience from the audience that between audience expectations and the pure technical challenges of handling all the intense motion and rapidly changing camera angles, we still have a ways to go to get there from a bandwidth and transcode optimization standpoint even in an on-demand scenario where buffering is possible. When we throw the expectation of near-zero latency in the mix, the challenges get even more difficult because there is no room to recover or pre-buffer content without incurring video latency. So we still need the industry to get better at optimizing live video and we need to see a proliferation of more consistent bandwidth options and, to an extent, faster, more powerful devices that are optimized for video decoding, as well. Once you throw ad monetization and these added expectations together, again latency suffers. In short, we have challenges in video distribution technology and infrastructure, in production tools and options, and in advertising business models that are all in flux and in need of refinement to really make live sports work.

What challenges do producers face when trying to reach live viewers on multiple devices?

These really boil down to two areas, one of which I discussed above regarding optimizing video delivery transcoding based on device capability and bandwidth constraints. The goal there being delivering exactly the right chunk of digital video at the right time on every device at a granular level to produce an optimal and continuous experience on every device. There are so many variables there that the experience really needs to be personalized to nearly every user or at least much more adaptable. Machine learning is going to help us close that gap.

The second area is about format and expectations by device. Most live sports production is not thinking about a 9:16 aspect ratio production for phones. Is that the right decision? How would that happen? Would it be worth it? What tools are in place to do that reasonably and to measure its impact? How should video players and devices and transcode profiles deal with switching between a vertical view and landscape view on a mobile device? These are all business, production, and technical challenges to overcome. In addition, what other interactive options are going to become the new normal when it comes to consumption on devices and what kinds of new data integrations? All of this, of course, has to happen at low latency and with a great quality of experience in addition to everything else we need to solve for basic delivery to an increasingly changing landscape of devices.

Last week we covered a survey saying that many people with pay TV subscriptions don’t want to cut the cord because they don’t want to lose access to live local and sports programming. Does OTT have a knowledge gap in that people don’t understand their options?

I think licensing deals and limitations in options are still playing a role, but there is definitely a gap in consumer confidence in OTT options. It takes time for brands to build a reputation for providing excellent, high-quality experiences for live sports and local programming. More and more local broadcasters are bringing offerings to bear here, but still 90 percent or more of their revenue is driven by linear television distribution in the form of re-transmission agreements and traditional television advertising. 

No one in the OTT space has yet emerged as a reliable household name for providing any of that programming in a way that is well understood or unlikely to change radically over the next two to three years. That’s the inherent challenge in both building brand reputation as either an OTT vMVPD like PlutoTV or even an established online company like Yahoo or Twitter or Twitch. No one is sure what the rights will be longer term, how well the experience will evolve, how big the audience will be, or what to market and no one’s coverage is comprehensive. It’s difficult to teach people what they can rely on until a lot of this shakes out, but in the meantime, there is a lot of audience to be had and a lot of content to make available in this space, especially via AVOD services that don’t require a commitment. It’s going to require more consumer education, marketing, and closing the quality of experience gaps we’ve talked about and changing the way licensing deals work in order to really have cord-cutting take off.

Today, traditional MVPD providers like DirecTV from AT&T probably have the most potential to close the gap quickly with their stand-alone OTT services because they already have some consumer confidence and a lock on much of the local programming they need. YouTube TV and Apple TV are both starting to close these gaps some, but aren’t working directly with the target audience already necessarily. 

What technology is best poised to bring live video latency down to a reasonable level?

There are multiple encoding and transcoding options now that have the potential to deliver extremely low-latency delivery. The AV1 codec embedded in either HLS or MPEG/DASH for live steaming is being driven by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Netflix through the Open Media Alliance, (https://aomedia.org) and is improving lossless compression and allowing for faster transmission of live video signals. In addition, the shift of traditional on-premises encoding and transcoding to the cloud and the emergence of high-throughput, low latency dedicated interconnect access means that we can increasingly move signals directly into the cloud for on-demand, burstable, cost-effective parallel processing including ABR transcoding and even near real-time post production and content insertion.

The ability to have all live signals become cloud-native, open, and secure via watermarking and encryption opens the door for nearly infinite use of computing resources to ensure a low-latency, quality experience. Once all live signals are going straight to the cloud and any piece of software from any company can securely provide value-added services virtually, almost any kind of low-latency production becomes possible. 

How important is marketing to a live event’s success, and how can people best promote a live online event?

Marketing is a critical aspect of making a live event successful, but making marketing successful requires four separate activities. 

  1. Establishing a brand with a reputation for distributing live events. If you don’t have one, partner with one at first and then build a brand reputation over time or build on the partnership.
  2. Establish a niche for the brand around a certain type of content. Have a narrative around why certain events are best experienced with your brand and why each experience will be unique. Sometimes your online event won’t be the only option for your audience, so there should be some value proposition.
  3. If you are talking about live sporting events, in venue promotion of the brand and the events is a critical component of marketing. Making fans feel like they can reasonably substitute your experience for the live venue experience or giving them some way to feel connected to the venue is important.
  4. Promote the event during events that lead up to your event or that have a similar audience. A person in the act of engaging in a like experience and enjoying it is far more likely to respond well to marketing a similar experience later. Social media advertising is reasonably effective, as is traditional television advertising, but if you have a single sporting event to promote, getting to your audience at a time when they are most receptive to your message is critically important to making your event successful. Driving brand and event awareness happens here, and then the more ambient marketing will serve to remind people that the event is coming.

Without a truly effective marketing campaign or a consistent, established audience for a reliable schedule of events (which is much harder to build and requires lots of marketing) it’s going to be hard to have successful events. Brands that build a reliable reputation over several years and continually tune their marketing message and tactics, and improve their reputation are going to have the most success. Getting a learning loop in place that is data-driven and that integrates all aspects of the marketing approach into event production is crucial to long term success. 

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