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SME '17: Hulu Explains Challenges of Merging Live TV and SVOD

During its newfront presentation two weeks ago, Hulu unveiled its long-awaited live service, which offers subscribers over 50 live channels and the company's on-demand library for $40 per month. On the surface, it looked like a simple blending of VOD and live services. Under the hood, though, it was anything but simple.

In a standing-room only opening day keynote at Streaming Media East 2017, Tian Lim, Hulu's chief technology officer, showed how his team was able to blend live and SVOD. It wasn't always easy, and the technologies behind it were far from perfect.

"We really believe we have an opportunity to redefine television again," Lim said, noting that Hulu wasn't simply trying to recreate the broadcast experience but create something new. This is TV built around the viewer, he said. The user interface (UI) does away with the standard electronic program guide (EPG) and instead relies on viewer personalization and discovery. Most TV services look the same because they have a UI that's been slapped on top of content rights requirements. Hulu wanted to offer something more elegant. Content comes with a variety of different rights issues, but Lim's team wanted to insulate the viewers from that.

In creating a live service, Hulu faced its own unique obstacles. It has millions of subscribers and uses its own custom content management system. It also uses a custom ad server, custom players, and custom reporting. If that wasn't enough, it deviates from standard metadata.

Metadata integration was a big part of Lim's keynote, and he called it an extremely painful process. Hulu gets content from a large variety of sources, each of which has metadata idiosyncrasies that needed to be resolved.

The SCTE 35 ad insertion standard works for broadcast, Lim said, but isn't robust enough for automated systems. In fact, last week Hulu disabled SCTE 35 on some channels because "it was just too broken," Lim said. One provider, for example, only provided ad starts. The standard needs to be more heavily adopted and made more robust for OTT delivery. As is, it's impossible for Hulu to use it to use it with its ad avails system.

Lim said the industry needs richer metadata and a common ID space for all kinds of content. The need for richer metadata art is a special problem for Hulu, which relies on visuals to entice viewers. Some programs had no art and some lacked portrait art. Hulu needed to create its own application to create art for sports matchups. Lim wants the industry to take art more seriously so companies can perform A/B testing and optimize art on a per-user basis.

Lim also wants to see more flexibility in ad breaks, offering variations from standard broadcast ad pods. "We all know that too many ads, it just sucks," he said. What's needed is experimentation that can create more engaged viewers, higher CPM rates, and reduced ad loads.

For its live service, Hulu put all content ingest, repackaging, DVR controls, and origin serving in the cloud. While that freed Hulu from having to create a data center and build bandwidth, leading to a faster time to market, the company needed to learn a lot about creating a large deployment with Amazon Web Services.

While the backend is complicated and going early has its challenges, creating a simple and effective user interface was the primary goal.

"We love TV, movies, and sports, and I hope it comes through when you browse our UI," Lim said.

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