by Richard Brandon, CMO, Edgeware
Game of Thrones (GOT) and The Handmaid’s Tale have been keeping audiences on the edge of their seats – and not just because of the fight for the Iron Throne or the battle to escape Gilead. When GOT aired its season seven premiere, both HBO Go in the US and Foxtel in Australia crashed. Those who lost the fight with their OTT services did what disgruntled viewers do best in 2017 – shared their frustrations on Twitter.
Not long before Game of Thrones trended up a twitter storm, The Handmaid’s Tale was the center of attention when the violent dystopian drama was constantly interrupted on all networks throughout the globe with ironic and untimely adverts ranging from IUDs to pregnancy tests – all in a show about women being property of the state and forced into surrogacy. Viewers watching Australia’s SBS IP-delivered service also complained of ads popping up mid-sentence, with no appropriate segue.
If the content distributors of these shows can’t guarantee a high quality of experience (QOE) for programs with as much popularity, anticipation and intense drama as The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones, it begs the question – is today’s TV killing itself? At what point to do these content distribution crashes and annoying adverts start driving people towards piracy?
Congestion on the roads to Westeros
In the fight against content theft, it was Game of Thrones’ own popularity that helped contribute to its own downfall. The season seven premiere alone was viewed more than 16 million times through legal channels – six million of which were delivered over the internet. Distribution networks’ servers weren’t able to sustain this demand however, with many crashing across the globe – including in the US and Australia. On top of these 16 million legal views, the episode was also reported by piracy analyst company MUSO to have been viewed 90 million times illegally. This figure includes illegal streams, torrents and downloads. Piracy shouldn’t be viewed as the more reliable option.
If you look at how this content is delivered, streaming traffic needs to be thought about like road traffic. Just because there’s no traffic outside your house, that doesn’t mean the roads on the way to your office aren’t congested. As you go deeper into the network, the aggregated level of TV traffic builds and builds. And this traffic is only going to keep building as online video consumption increases, especially with the rising popularity of 4K.
Gorillas in the market prevent potential delivery disasters by turning to private TV content delivery networks (TV CDNs) to help keep up with their growing number of users. Netflix alone built 1600 hardware servers into their distribution networks. A TV CDN helps a content distributor to deliver content consistently, even when there are sudden spikes in requests for programs. The system keeps a copy of popular shows in the catalogue and delivers it to users from there with each server being able to distribute to a smaller number of people locally, rather than sharing their content through the main network in an attempt to deliver to potentially millions of viewers at once.
This localized approach frees up the roads, allowing users to access their content faster, with no speed bumps along the way.
Protecting content from the pirates of the internet
A private TV CDN – such as Edgeware’s solution – delivers very high-quality content at scale. Keeping copies of popular shows on servers located close to the viewer saves huge amounts of network bandwidth and reduces the risk of buffering by bypassing potential network congestion.
The very nature of a CDN is to copy content – opening it up to potential piracy on the seas of the internet. To guard content through delivery, there are several ways content owners can protect their assets, both using the bit-streaming nature of online video to their advantage. One of the more popular ways is in the form of manifest-based watermarking.
Manifest-based watermarking is essentially creating a unique stream made up of sections. The client (a set-top-box, tablet or PC) requests one three-second segment after another during playback. Each segment has two versions – A and B – and as they’re delivered to the client, a unique combination of the program is created. The listing of these segments is held in a manifest that the client understands and one that can be identified if pirated.
While this manifest-based approach creates a unique code that does survive a CDN, challenges remain. The CDN not only needs to store twice as much content, but the long watermarking latency and erasability could see pirates downloading different versions of the show and mixing them up – meaning this technique has security limitations.
A better approach, and one that’s implemented into Edgeware’s TV CDN technology, is to embed a code into the video itself by modifying some of the frames’ pixels in a way that’s unnoticeable to audiences. A stream-based watermarking system identifies a specific number of pixels inside the frame, and changes them slightly – for example from black to very dark grey.
This code is added and included as special metadata and sent in-band with the content. The second part of the process manipulates the blocks within the actual bit stream to create a unique code for each streamed version of the video – allowing content owners to track down exactly who and where the content was leaked. This process works for both IPTV and OTT services, even in 4K resolution or new formats like VR.
A personalized tale
The transformation of the US into Gilead shouldn’t mean a cold and impersonalised viewing experience for audiences. On top of allowing viewers better delivery and the ability to forensically track pirates, private TV CDNs help content owners to control and create personalised advertisements.
With a TV CDN, content providers can personalize viewing experiences with digital ad insertion as well as monitor and analyze all aspects of their TV services. Detailed analytics provide valuable viewer information including behaviour details, real-time data sources – like which client was used – network application and integrated third-party CDN data.
Viewing analytics can be correlated with network performance for valuable insight, enabling content providers to understand who’s watching, what they’re watching, how their watching it, and the quality that it is being delivered. It allows media owners to take back the power and control their audience’s content experiences.
Choosing the right path
To help content owners and broadcasters decide if they need to make the transition to a private TV CDN, and deliver the best quality to viewers, Edgware commissioned analyst firm Frost & Sullivan to research the specifics behind when, building a private CDN is the right option for them. The study found that as soon as content distributors began to deliver an average of an hour of service a day to 100,000 people, they need to consider a private TV CDN. And when it comes to programs like Game of Thrones, that 100,000 is but a drop in the ocean each year.
You can read the full Frost & Sullivan whitepaper here.
Richard Brandon has more than 30 years’ experience in the networking and TV technology industries, working with both operators and equipment vendors. Before becoming CMO at Edgeware, Richard held the positions of VP of Worldwide Marketing at Juniper Networks, CMO at Intune Networks and at MLL Telecom, and marketing roles at Cisco Systems. Richard spent much of his earlier career in British Telecom, working on new service development. He has spoken at forums such as NAB, IBC, the Broadband World Forum and at the European Parliament, and is a jury member at the UK Film Festival.