The multiscreen turnaround

Thursday, March 21, 2013

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The NBC Olympics app became the most-downloaded in Apple app store history, tallied close to two billion page views across all platforms and, at peak times, consumed as much as 35 percent of all bandwidth in the United States.
How the 2012 Olympic Games turned a science project to a vibrant business.

Every Olympic Games features a handful of historic performances, for broadcasters as well as for athletes. Broadcasters will remember the 2012 Olympic Games in London as the first worldwide event in which technology was cost-effectively applied to support a massive streaming media enterprise. Ian Trow, senior director, Emerging Technology and Strategy for Harmonic, believes the London Olympics is proof that multi-platform viewing will supplement broadcast television coverage, rather than cannibalise it.   

“In 2012, the multi-platform London Olympics matured from a science project to a vibrant business,” says Matthew Adams, vice president at Harmonic Inc. and former CTO of NBC Olympics. “At Harmonic we are excited to have helped enable and prove both the business and technical viability of this new paradigm.”

In particular, Adams cites published research indicating that multi-platform viewers watched about 75 percent more coverage than broadcast-only viewers. If fear of eroding the broadcast audience is no longer a concern, experts expect the sports streaming business to boom.

It gives us a glimpse into the future,” says Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC Universal, in a post-Games New York Times interview. Wurtzel also says there’s another accelerant to consider: “All bets will be off as the price of tablets goes down.”

The 2012 Games marked the first Olympics in which NBC streamed every competition, offering more than 3500 hours of live coverage over computers, tablets and a wide variety of mobile devices in addition to traditional live and highly produced prime time coverage over the NBC broadcast television network and four national cable channels. Viewer interest proved high - the NBC Olympics app became the most-downloaded in Apple app store history, tallied close to two billion page views across all platforms and, at peak times, consumed as much as 35 percent of all bandwidth in the United States.

Some of the technology applied to NBC’s Olympics systems was relatively straightforward, albeit on a massive scale. For example, NBC utilised Harmonic and several other vendors to transcode each live feed to multiple mobile device profiles at several different bit rates. Sony’s Media Backbone was used to program and automate some workflows. YouTube was engaged for live streaming. While this “live chain” was impressive in its scale, the real technology breakthrough may have been in the all-IP systems designed to support highlights editing and on-demand viewing — areas in which the broadcaster can make an editorial imprint.

“This is an interesting problem because it’s not just about bandwidth and data pipes. You really have to focus on how to reduce the costs of the human elements of the workflow,” says Harmonic’s Adams, who co-designed NBC’s “highlights factory” with NBC Olympics senior vice president David Mazza and director of post production Darryl Jefferson.

“You need people to select and edit the highlights,” says NBC’s Mazza. “The key to doing it cost-effectively is moving the work to the users, not the users to the work.” NBC’s system produced hundreds of London highlight clips per day from 60 PC logging/editing stations throughout the world - the majority located in New York, where highlight-cutting filled NBC’s Saturday Night Live studio. The system itself represented a close collaboration among Sony, Avid and Harmonic, nurtured through six years of Olympic Games coverage.

Here’s how it worked:

Team effort

Incoming HD content from different venues was recorded by Sony XDCAM XDS-PD1000 devices and transferred along with low-res proxies to a 256-TB Harmonic MediaGrid storage system at the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in London. The MediaGrid system was sized to hold 12,000 hours of 50 Mbps XDCAM HD 4:2:2 material that could be shared across all production areas.

As content was written to the MediaGrid, those full-resolution recordings were replicated and transferred by an IP-acceleration solution, also provided by Harmonic, over a 10G circuit to a 288-TB MediaGrid system at NBC Universal’s 30 Rock facility in New York City. By the conclusion of the Games, 12,000 files had been exchanged between London and New York.

Via Avid’s Interplay MAM, users on both sides of the Atlantic could access proxy versions of content, even if the event was still in progress and the file was still being received. The Interplay MAM also integrated extensive live logs and stats, scoring and timing information embedded as metadata. Editors could access all of this information to make shot lists — essentially, edit decision lists. These shot lists were automatically conformed in one of two ways: in high resolution to a traditional broadcast edit suite or EVS playout server, or in proxy resolution to the same fulfillment system that was turning all of those live feeds into streaming media for multi-platform devices. The highlights files became available to all devices, right alongside the live streaming.

The high-speed system enabled some of these production activities to occur up to 17 times faster than real time, allowing the highlights factory to publish pieces as the event unfolded. It also afforded all of NBC’s networks immediate and simultaneous access to all content. Producers at Telemundo in Florida, for example, could browse and search material and transfer the exact high-res material they needed to their local edit suite, with little more than an hour’s training (and without a thousand phone calls, or sending personnel to the site).

“When we’re able to give our production team unrestricted access to all media, with search tools that help them to find the best shots, we enable them to create segments with high emotional impact,” says Craig Lau, vice president, Information Technology, NBC Olympics. “We’re storytellers at heart, and by facilitating fast, flexible media access, the MediaGrid storage systems get right at the core of what we’re trying to accomplish: telling the stories of the athletes in these Olympic competitions.”

Several other system details offer interesting options for future event coverage. In addition to the MediaGrid systems at the IBC and at 30 Rock, NBC Olympics used 72-TB MediaGrid systems at each of the three largest venues —gymnastics, swimming and track and field. These were fed content offloaded over a 1 Gbps connection from EVS XT server systems. Because EVS IP-Director devices can be directly mounted in the MediaGrid, this extended and pooled the storage capabilities of EVS, allowing NBC to immediately access all venue footage over the course of the 16-day competition.

A dedicated GigE line from 30 Rock to NBC’s new Stamford, Conn., sports facility made it possible to move content between the MediaGrid and an LTO5 tape robot in Stamford. As a result, the network was able to write all newly recorded content onto an archive, as well as make archived footage from previous years available to producers and editors via the Avid MAM.

Each of the MediaGrid storage systems were also integrated with ProMedia Carbon transcoders, enabling NBC to respond quickly when it received non-standard media that needed conversion to the house format.   

For the last three Olympics, Harmonic and NBC have worked very closely to pioneer workflow improvements. “The Olympics is the world’s largest broadcast sports event, and at Harmonic we’re very proud that this is the third consecutive Olympic Games where our technology has been a vital enabler of the solution for NBC,” says Harmonic’s Adams, who has worked on the Olympic Games since 1996. “We’ve built a workflow that leverages the availability of bandwidth and will be broadly attractive to big events everywhere.”

Already, the BBC has used similar techniques for its 2012 London Olympics coverage, NBC is planning similar workflows for its new sports facility, and other broadcasters are studying how to apply these principles to future Olympic Games, Asian Games, and other major world sporting events.

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