The Olympic-sized distribution challenge facing sports broadcasters in 2012

Monday, July 09, 2012

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The debate between Satellite or Fibre for broadcasting sports content has been raging for years with compelling pros and cons on each side. One of the most common arguments for the ongoing use of fibre is that it provides a more stable connection for viewers as it is fed directly to the home, suffering less latency
With the winter blues rapidly making way for the summer sun it can only mean one thing - the London Olympics are fast approaching. With the battle for tickets to the events officially over, it now means that sports fans are only able to watch the games on television. With the eyes of the world focussing on London, with an expected 3.6 billion people tuning in every day of the games leading to a cumulative worldwide audience of 40 billion, it is vital that broadcasters prepare for the increased pressures that are going to be placed on their fibre, terrestrial, digital and satellite communications infrastructure.


However, beyond London 2012, there are a number of other issues placing pressures on broadcasters as they seek out the best distribution models and secure the appropriate content distribution rights for the varying platforms that can now be utilised to view video. Whether it is a TV set, laptop, tablet device or mobile phone, broadcasters need to insure a satisfactory level of quality demanded by consumers whilst providing it in a cost effective manner. This all leads to a number of important issues facing the broadcasters. So what should broadcasters be taking into consideration when selecting a satellite solution, which distribution model should they adopt for sports content and how is the industry adapting to meet the changing audience demands?


Quality vs. Cost, Satellite vs. Fibre

When looking to distribute video content, broadcasters will often have only two main issues in mind – the quality of the transmission and whether it is a cost effective solution. There are many different and interlocking factors that play a subsequent role in this decision; should the transmission be over fibre or satellite, in High Definition (HD) or Standard Definition (SD) (in the near future, Three Dimensional (3D) will also become a possibility), and can the chosen method achieve the desired audience reach? But the overall success will always be determined by the level of quality the viewer will receive when watching their favourite sport.

The debate between Satellite or Fibre for broadcasting sports content has been raging for years with compelling pros and cons on each side. One of the most common arguments for the ongoing use of fibre is that it provides a more stable connection for viewers as it is fed directly to the home, suffering less latency. However this is counteracted by the fact the deployment of fibre remains an expensive commodity that is not available over vast areas of the globe. The use of fibre is particularly prevalent in the USA, where it has already been widely adopted and runs from coast to coast. However, for rural areas such as parts of Africa, where there is a huge opportunity for sports broadcasters due to sports content being widely desired by a large and growing segment of the population, access to fibre connectivity is not a feasible option.


With this in mind, broadcasters striving to reach the widest possible audience, need to have redundancy and back-up built into their solutions to counteract the limitations of fibre, thus they are turning to the satellite market for solutions. However, satellite bandwidth is expensive and therefore provides a barrier to being widely adopted as a common form of distribution. Moreover, one of the biggest challenges currently facing broadcasters, particularly in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, is the lack of satellite capacity available. With space in space becoming a commodity, it is placing additional pressures on broadcasters to find providers that have the facilities, such as strategically based Teleports, that can be centrally used to provide the uplink, turnaround and downlink capabilities, which reduce the headaches in managing the content.  In reality, there is still an argument for both options, but in times of large scale sporting events, broadcasters are turning to satellite providers to provide the full range of high quality and resilient global coverage in order to maximise their reach.

Platform Neutral? - Stepping into an unregulated world of sports distribution rights

The sports content distribution market has changed dramatically over the past 2-3 years and has presented broadcasters with a distribution conundrum. The traditional linear model of content distribution, which was standardised in the days of analogue linear television, is having to make way for the rise in mobile and internet based delivery. For example, the current method of distribution of the top domestic leagues as well as international matches and tournaments on behalf of the football leagues/associations/agencies that hold the content, was and is managed on a territory by territory basis. The emergence of mobile and internet platforms cannibalising the traditional content distribution method is a very real threat, particularly the illegal transmissions of pirate websites.  As these mediums have introduced a multitude of new players into the field and hold no geographical boundaries or limits in sharing links and content via the Internet, it means sports rights’ holders are finding their content is being shared further than originally agreed and resulting in a loss of earnings that would normally be received on the successful sale of rights.

So with no precedent having being set in how to manage these new additions, and leaving the illegal pirating of content to be dealt with by legal authorities, sports rights’ holders have basically dealt with an unregulated world by adapting to take into account digital rights and creating bundled packages so that they too can benefit and manage the dozens of legal additional players in the content rights’ process.

As a result of this change, media content rights are now being offered on a ‘platform neutral’ basis. This approach means that successful bidders can also exploit their content distribution rights across all media platforms in their territory including television, Internet and mobile on both a linear and on-demand basis. This is aimed at ensuring maximum exposure whilst simultaenously providing partners with programming flexibility to fully exploit the properties which they invest so heavily in to acquire. With the new threat posed by the EU ruling that domestic content can be consumed via foreign platforms through set-top boxes of operators from different countries (the case of a Southampton Publican showing Premier League matches via a Greek STB), it seems with the platform neutral approach, the issue of linear vs. digital rights is no longer the most burning question for the industry, having been replaced for now at least by the EU ruling. 

In a market where it is common for the regulators to follow in the wake of technological developments, broadcasters now have to pose the questions as to what role social media will play in live sports consumption, particularly when looking at the territorial sale of rights. Whilst steps in the right direction have taken place in recent years, one example being a growing number of rights holders utilising YouTube and even Facebook for displaying live video,  it will be 2-3 years before linear and digital rights are all effectively bundled together, with no exceptions. At that point in time, we could very likely see television sets providing a built-in solution for a social media layer, which will be designed to enhance the linear viewing experience for an audience increasingly immersed in social media and already begin to operate in that space while viewing sports. This will bring IP based transmissions further into the mainstream as both a complementary solution to satellite and fibre, and also as an alternative.  Until then it will be a case of broadcasters needing to manage the process as best they can and deal with irregularities as they occur.

Why HD is continuing to supersede 3D

With sport content being in high demand, and audiences demanding a high quality image so they can watch every minute movement of their team, it is now becoming the de facto standard that all content be delivered in HD. This ability to obtain high definition broadcasts was immediately seen as advantageous to sports broadcasters and could only enhance the viewing experience. Yet despite all of the subsequent hype in the wider market surrounding 3D viewing, this technology has yet to be adopted in mainstream sports broadcasting and hasn’t experienced the same ‘gold rush’ that HD did. For many broadcasters, this is a still a highly restrictive new technology that is not living up to the promise or hype of recent years. Many of the TV sets are unprepared to receive such content, particularly those in emerging markets where a terrestrial or basic digital TV set is still the norm, with viewers needing to adorn special glasses to get the true effect.

There is also the additional consideration that 3D is a huge drain on satellite bandwidth and, as previously explored, this is already under great strain and could cause problems with the quality of the transmission if everyone was to view sports in 3D.

Meeting the changing audience demands

With the Olympics fast approaching, and audiences requiring high quality transmissions so they don’t miss a second of the action, sports broadcasters are having to constantly rethink and evaluate their content distribution set up. Whether it is reaching a new audience base in Africa or just taking into account the fact that many people are now watching sports on their mobile devices, it is apparent that customised satellite solutions are being sought to meet individual demands of the broadcaster. Each region has its own individual quirks and modes of operation, yet the common theme uniting broadcasters is the need to provide the highest possible quality, broadcast in the most cost effective manner. By adopting satellite as the primary means of content transmission, broadcasters can be confident of  reliable and seamless distribution of HD content  ensuring that the 2012 Olympics, Euro 2012, and every other prestigious international sporting event, is accessible to the global population. 

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