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The Forecast for 2016 Is Mostly Cloudy With a Chance of Streaming

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As we near the end of 2015, two major trends are bringing the streaming industry closer and closer to a cloud-centric model for delivery: First, the acceleration of cord cutting as audiences shift to over-the-top (OTT) viewing, and, second, the need to provide a more “channelized” OTT environment. The latter has as much to do with live-linear content as it does with the on-demand media consumption that’s been the mainstay of OTT offerings to date.

We’ve seen hints of these trends everywhere, from Streaming Media/Unisphere surveys and subsequent analyses to the moves made to consolidate hardware-based media encoders and transcoders into cloud-based video service offerings.

For instance, in the analysis I did for a recent Streaming Media/Unisphere survey, sponsored by Level 3, it became clear that live-linear OTT is rapidly becoming a necessity if OTT providers hope to steal viewers away from traditional cable and satellite services, let alone compete against other OTT service offerings.

“Offering both VOD and live-linear channels will be critical for OTT providers to entice new prospects and gain market share,” I wrote in the report “Over-the-Top Video Delivery: Challenges and Opportunities for Global OTT Service Providers.” “For existing OTT providers, offering a VOD service may not be enough to maintain, much less grow, market share.”

Rather than waiting until the 2016 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook to give a weather report on this fast-moving front of cloud-based acquisition and delivery, we’re bringing our readers a snapshot of the trends we see in today’s increasingly cloudy forecast.

Together these trends mark a sea change in the way content is acquired, processed, and delivered to both niche and mainstream audiences. In this article, we highlight trends in advanced acquisition, content preparation, advertising insertion, and multiplatform delivery.

Advanced Acquisition

Whether it’s live-linear content or file-based assets, some acquisition—or contribution, as it’s called in broadcast— workflows have shifted to favor cloud-based processes.

One of the biggest reasons for this is a change in the acquisition gear, from cameras to encoders. These days, with a growing number of cameras offering direct IP streaming, the job of “acquisition” falls more to the media server than it does to a traditional encoder. Still, when it comes to broadcast production, the overall number of IP cameras is very small compared to traditional cameras, and even IP cameras are converted back to serial digital (SDI) or HDMI if they are part of a multi-camera setup.

The encoder itself, though, has reached a tipping point, if recent encoder company acquisitions are any indication. From big players (Elemental, Envivio) to smaller niche encoders, the acquisition rounds point to a trend of consolidating these encoders into an overall cloud-based acquisition strategy.

Even in an industry firmly entrenched in H.264 encoding and delivery, this move toward cloud-based acquisition—using the encoder as a dedicated, if less expensive, end point tied directly to a cloud-based media service—opens the door to the use of other codecs, including H.265/ HEVC and other proprietary solutions as an acquisition-only format.

Elemental led the charge for HEVC to be used as an acquisition/contribution format, and that position probably did not hurt the company’s own finances. Today there are only a few field-based HEVC encoders on the market— including VITEC’s MGW Ace, which we cover in a review in this issue—but even proprietary and nonstandard codecs can be used as a way to slim down the thickest pipe in the overall workflow.

In other words, if there’s a way to shave 50 percent or more off the front-end, high-resolution, high-frame rate acquisition of content from a remote location to the media server, we should. The format or codec used in the acquisition process doesn’t matter to the end viewer, as long as the media server can decode it—set it up for either transcoding or translating, or both, and then package it up for end-user delivery.

Content Preparation

We see this set of trends falling into two categories: transcoding and repackaging, as well as online content editing.

As mentioned above, there is a trend to consider non-standards-based codecs for acquisition. But once the content reaches the media server, a cloud-based delivery solution will need to prepare that content for delivery in standards-based forms.

In some instances, if a standards-based codec such as H.264 is used, and the content is encoded at the same resolution (e.g., 1920x1080, 1280x720, etc) as the intended end-user delivery resolution, the only thing needed would be to lower the bitrate. This is called transrating. In other instances, changing the entire video from one codec to another would require transcoding. Cloud-based content preparation can be optimized for either, given the sheer amount of processing power that can be thrown at a compression problem in an Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure instance.

BEYOND TRANSCODING

The additional processing power in a cloud-based content preparation workflow allows for visually optimizing the content itself for easier or better quality delivery. As Andy Beach pointed out in his recent article, “Video Optimization and Your Business,” there are two primary reasons to focus on optimization: improving the user experience and saving on the cost of delivery itself.

“By lowering the bitrate of the video streams, a company improves the key metrics of end user experience—faster stream start, fewer rebuffering events, and higher-quality video available on the user’s current bandwidth,” Beach wrote. “By lowering bitrates, a company [also] enables a significant reduction in delivery (CDN) costs to content providers and over-the-top service providers as well as lower overall storage costs.”

The biggest issue for this kind of optimization is the need to either integrate directly into an encoder, as one of the solutions Beach covered allows, or to include specialized hardware within the cloud-based workflow, meaning a need to replicate that hardware to every data center used within the cloud. In the case of live linear acquisition, this would mean specialized hardware for every channel in every data center that makes up the particular cloud delivery service your company uses to meet its business goals.

ONLINE EDITING

While not as mature as cloud-based delivery, or even advanced acquisition, the use of online editing tools deserves as least an honorable mention as a trend. Companies such as Aframe continue to expand their cloud-based video editing suites, and Adobe continues to plug away at the Adobe Anywhere concept of virtualized video editing.

“Adobe Anywhere operates across standard networks and requires no proprietary hardware,” the company states, adding that “its collaborative capabilities are embedded directly in specific versions of Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Prelude CC, so team members don’t have to learn new video tools.”

In the case of Adobe Anywhere, the first moves are being made in the enterprise, with administrative tools used for security purposes but leveraging enterprise cloud storage as the primary repository of bins and media assets to be used in the editing process. Still, the trend toward online, collaborative editing workflows is unmistakable and should reshape the concept of a traditional post house in 2016 and beyond.

Advertising Insertion

Advertisements have been a common means of paying for content delivery throughout the streaming industry’s 17-year history.

What began as sponsorships and pre-roll advertising has now morphed into some very complex interstitial advertising insertion workflows, mimicking traditional broadcast advertising patterns. In some cases, cloud-based advertising solutions used for live-linear OTT can even track the broadcast and commercial break flags of traditional broadcasts, and use those markers to dynamically insert ads fine-tuned to a specific audience.

To do so, though, one major aspect of advertising insertion has to change: the reliance on client-side advertising insertion (CSAI) for dynamic ads.

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