Managing Your Content Distribution Strategy: Getting 'Over' OVP & OTT

Bob Brown, VP-Production & Operations, ONE World Sports
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Bob Brown, VP-Production & Operations, ONE World Sports

It was 11:00 pm on July 31, 2013, and ONE World Sports was 30 minutes away from launching a linear HD 24/7 sports network. I’m not quite sure why we decided 11:30 pm was a good time to launch the channel, but here we were. 3-2-1… Congratulations! And then reality sank in, what about tomorrow, and the next day, and the next? Fast forward 2.5 years, and the new reality is that we can launch on a new platform every day. However, there’s a lot we needed to do first.

For small to mid-size businesses, the first distribution decisions need to revolve around your current technical infrastructure and the extent to which you have the ability to host these processes in-house rather than partner with a third party. It is essential to understand the details surrounding video transcoding, hosting, and distribution if you want to maximize your technical spend. Furthermore, you need to establish which personnel on your team will be tasked to manage these workflows. Here in lies probably the most important decision made in these developments: No matter what processes you decide to ‘hand off’ to third parties, you still need highly skilled personnel to aggregate, edit, and publish the content you’re trying to sell.

This previous lesson is something we learned very quickly at ONE World Sports. As an emerging sports media publisher, it was important to keep operating costs at a certain level. We made a decision very quickly that the one area where we cannot cut corners is with the people who are tasked with programming, editing, producing, and finding new and compelling content.

As soon as this content team was established at ONE World Sports, we could then concentrate on building the technical base and choosing a partner to automate ingest, transcode, host, and distribute. There are a number of criteria you can use to evaluate the options you have in front of you, but we’ve found it best to focus on the following: live streaming vs. VOD, scalability, monetization, ease of distribution, and price.

  It is essential to understand the details surrounding video transcoding, hosting, and distribution if you want to maximize your technical spend  

There is one fundamental question you need to ask and understand about your future OVP partner. What is it do they actually do? Is the ‘end to end’ solution they are touting real, or are they leveraging their own partnerships. To be clear, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if the OVP leverages third parties themselves. It’s here where that OVP is likely to get better pricing than you in some areas. For example, if you partner directly with a CDN, you’re likely paying higher transcoding, hosting, and delivery rates than you would with an OVP that has the economies of scale. However, you need to be wary of the ‘end to end’ promise when you get into the weeds of SLA language and the reality of training, troubleshooting, and development. You need a clear understanding of who to speak to when there’s a file transfer issue, or user interface problem, or a problem with files on the content delivery network.

Once you get past this fundamental issue, you can turn your attention to the technical aspects of choosing an OVP partner, or even an OTT solution if that’s preferable. First, you need to determine if there is an emphasis placed on live streaming vs. VOD content management and delivery. A solid OVP will have solutions for transcoding multiple forms of video (ASI, HD-SDI, RTMP, HTTPS, etc.), and a delivery method that will satisfy HLS delivery, adaptive bit rates, and more. In addition, you need to make sure you understand if the OVP can handle token authentication processes, especially if TVE is important to your business.

If VOD is more the priority to your business than live streaming, then asset management, tagging, and file hosting will be vital. In this case, it is also more likely that your delivery points are more varied than in the live streaming environment. It is also here that you need to be sure that you ask the OVP if they can handle digital rights management (DRM).

Next, you can look at the scalability of these solutions. You want to ensure that in any solution you’re not boxed into certain volume, live streaming thresholds, and other digital growth that will prohibit scalability. At the end of the day, your end goal is to distribute more video to more consumers for a longer period of time. Your OVP needs to grow with you in a way that makes sense and does not price you out of the business in the process. Ask questions about multiple live channels, adding account management, and pricing models that scale effectively.

Any partner you work with needs to have a good solution for your content distribution and monetization strategy. If you’re building a SVOD business, the ability to manage your user base, offer clear billing opportunities, and have a seamless end user experience is paramount to success. If your monetization priority is based on syndication and ad-serving capabilities it gets a bit more complex.

It is critical to have a clear syndication strategy and approach when dealing with OVP and OTT solutions. Every distribution partner is going to have a slightly different approach to receiving and displaying your content. One partner might be taking a 24/7 ASI stream, and need SCTI-35 markers for pre-roll and dynamic add insertion capabilities. Another partner may require an RTMP stream as its origin. Other partners might only need short form VOD files, but require sophisticated MRSS feeds with a complex set of Metadata. In all of these cases, it’s important to note what technical capabilities are required to have in-house to create that origin format.

Finally, you must take into account the all-important aspect of pricing. Even the biggest content publishers make strategic technology decisions that have price at its core. HBO scrapped its heralded ‘Maui’ project to partner with MLBAM in part due to the amount of money that was spent in-house to build its own solution. ESPN made a major shift last year to partner with Verizon to distribute all of its ESPN3 content, and you can bet that much of this decision was based on price. As these technologies become easier and more accessible, the pricing should work for you not against you.

The current landscape holds some exciting possibilities, and the speed at which the business models are evolving are forcing OVP and OTT technology partners to develop new solutions at breakneck speed. As a content owner you must first understand your business model, vet the requirements of your distribution partners, and build a solution that your personnel can manage effectively.

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