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How to Build Live Linear OTT Channels in the Cloud

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In this article we’ll look at serverless linear playout—that is, how to build linear channels in the cloud. When I think about the costs associated with delivering live linear streaming television, I’m reminded of an episode of the Adult Swim show Rick & Morty, in which Rick creates a set-top box that gets access to TV channels from not only every single cable provider in this universe, but every single cable provider in the entire multiverse. This means literally billions upon billions of TV channels. We’re not quite at that level, but our current live linear landscape is increasingly glutted with channels, many of which are narrowly thematic, pre-shot, pre-canned programming that's put on a schedule and then played out to consumers increasingly over the internet.

Figure 1 (below) represents some research done by Channel 10 in Australia, owned by CBS in the States. Essentially, they segmented their audiences into four different buckets: Cord Forevers, Cord Shavers, Cord Cutters, and Cord Nevers. Cord Forevers are generally people that are a bit older and continue to watch the linear television through a set-top box and a cable provider. Cord Shavers have cable and watch only SVOD and BVOD services through that set-top box. Cord Cutters--a term most of us are very familiar with that term--are viewers that have cut back on their cable set-top box and are using OTT services almost exclusively. Finally, we have Cord Nevers, younger kids that have grown up with Twitch and YouTube and don't really understand what television is in the traditional sense at all.

Cord forevers cord cutters cord nevers

Figure 1. The 4 primary demographics of TV/set-top content consumers

The key takeaway is that whatever segment you’re in, linear television is still in the top two experiences across all segments, which shows that there is still quite a large appetite both now and into the future for linear experiences when viewers are watching TV. Another indicator is the Apple TV app or Android TV app shown in Figure 2 (below) that mimics an Electronic Program Guide (EPG), which I find quite an interesting clash of new non-linear devices and traditional linear approaches to consuming live broadcast content.

TV guide app

Figure 2. A TV Guide app for Android or iOS

Of course, there’s no reason a viewer couldn’t go watch Home and Away, which had just finished airing at the time this screen was captured. But what ends up being the case--according to all of the commercial broadcasters that I’ve spoken to--is that viewers spend more time watching the linear live stream of scheduled programming, than they do with content that’s already aired. Never mind that watching content after it has aired is a better experience or that they can watch it in high quality, whenever. Even for many cord-cutters, the primary experience of watching TV is just sitting down and watching whatever is on.

Components of Cloud Playout

So let’s say we wanted to do something like this exclusively in the cloud. Let’s say we wanted to go from one linear TV channel to hundreds.

Figure 3 (below) illustrates how complexity is inherent to playout and headend broadcast infrastructure. It’s so convoluted that as to make it almost hard to believe it really works. But building this sort of infrastructure is very common, especially for broadcasters who do channel origination globally, or even just across the European continent (as illustrated in Figure 3), which consists of many different countries and satellite DTH providers.

Cross-continental live linear playout

Figure 3. The dizzying mess of live linear playout across a continent 

If you want to make a TV channel in the cloud, the simplest way is to take the architecture that exists right now on many premises and shift that into the cloud. This approach offers cost savings, agility, and the ability to expand very quickly into new regions and also downsize and upsize your capacity when needed.

Figure 4 (below) overlays the AWS services that go into the mix. The icons that look like computer chips are essentially partner services you’d acquired via the AWS Partner store or things that you would bring yourself. So it isn’t a complete end-to-end solution that you can go to AWS and just buy out of the box; you have put together a few different services and make that into a complete architecture from beginning to end.

TV channel in the cloud 

Figure 4. Components of a TV channel in the cloud 

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