Distributed Live - Squaring the circle

  • With Adrian Pennington

Distributed Live - Squaring the circle

There are multiple challenges facing live content producers and live content distributors today not least the need to do far more for a lot less while keeping production value higher than ever. It’s an issue that has been around for years and although now reaching new extremes the problem of squaring the circle is not insurmountable given the tech innovations available - by Adrian Pennington...

While it may sound obvious, for Ronen Artman, LiveU’s VP of Marketing, the key word is ‘monetisation’. This means, he says, ensuring that live content is produced in a dynamic and engaging way to drive viewership while, on the distribution side, ensuring that an ever-greater amount of relevant content is available on the device of a viewer’s choosing, when they want it, all helps to maximise ROI. 

“The cloud is central to this,” Artman continues, “in combination with remote production and distributed production more widely, removing the shackles of linear workflows, facilitating new ways of working. 

“Efficiency is another key factor, from a cost, time, effort and sustainability standpoint and, in turn, this requires tried-and-tested- solutions for lightweight, ground-to-cloud-to-crowd workflows, which moves the production game on. Removing complexities, and therefore shortening workflows, adds to these efficiencies. The reduced complexity of live video production has led to the advent of more nimble, smaller crews, able to deploy and go live in ever shorter timeframes. When the cloud is combined with remote production, these production efficiencies and the huge overall flexibility created, drive this dynamism.” 

Artman points to LiveU’s IP-Video EcoSystem as leading this change. He says, “As these new workflows gradually become the norm, so live content creation, production and distribution options open up, leading to the covering of events that were previously impossible, either technology or from a cost standpoint. It allows creatives to work in as uninhibited as way as possible to create the content viewers demand.”

From the company’s range of 5G field units - the multi-camera LU800 and the small form factor LU300S - to its cloud-based production and distribution solutions, “LiveU is consistently allowing its customers to operate in previously unimagined ways.” This includes on the distribution side with LiveU Matrix, the company’s cloud video platform. It allows users to share and receive high-quality, low-latency live feeds with, and from, broadcasters and other stakeholders around the globe - inside or outside their organisation. 

“Then there’s LiveU Studio, a 100% cloud-native live video production solution to create and distribute digital content to up to 30 digital platforms simultaneously,” he adds. “LiveU is driving affordable innovation.” 

Live content is now more valuable to traditional broadcasters as it's one of the few areas they can still dominate against streaming services. “This has led to a push for more content and more types of content,” says Ian Fletcher, CTO, Grass Valley. “However, creating this content requires highly flexible, easy-to-use user interfaces that enable production staff to take on roles traditionally done by highly technical staff.”

“We will also integrate live cameras with bonded cellular cameras, which is also a challenge with latency. We do this often for marathon coverage. When you have five hardwired cameras, a helicopter and six bonded cellular vehicles on a looped course, there is time to cut to those hardwired cameras in sequence, and then cut back to the bonded. This solves the latency problem in this example.” Fletcher says Grass Valley has always been at the forefront of addressing these challenges. “We build extensive production switchers used in major events like the Super Bowl. But we also understand that many broadcasters

need to reformat and reutilise such events for local markets. For this, they don't need a full-on switcher but products like Live Producer that allow them to add production value to a world feed.”

On the technical side, latency is a significant challenge. The pandemic has forced many of the world's major sports broadcasters to change their approach to covering major sports events. Instead of having hundreds of staff at these events, they've had to turn to companies like Grass Valley for solutions.

“Grass Valley has stepped up to the plate with our low latency monitoring technology, part of the AMPP platform. This technology allows broadcasters to cover major sports events without the need for a large on-site staff,” Fletcher says. “The challenges faced by live content producers and distributors are significant but not insurmountable. With companies like Grass Valley leading the way with innovative products and solutions, the industry can continue to thrive in these challenging times.”

Johan Boqvist, Product Evangelist, Audio Infrastructure, Lawo calls out the difficulties in managing the complexities of large-scale audio and media infrastructures while adapting to evolving production needs. This encompasses the need to efficiently handle networked media devices, physical inputs/outputs, sources, and destinations, especially in distributed and remote production scenarios. Additionally, he says, the industry faces pressure to reduce carbon emissions and travel times, requiring innovative solutions to optimise resource utilisation.

Lawo addresses these challenges through HOME, a management platform, built on cloud-native computing that simplify device discovery, network admission, and overall management of live production environments. Boqvist explains, “By providing a unified, platform-agnostic, and intuitive user interface, HOME enables operators to maximise the potential of IP with minimal effort. Furthermore, Lawo's HOME Apps leverage containerised, generic-server-based processing apps, allowing for flexible licensing and eliminating the need for bespoke hardware. This approach, based on a cloud-enabled microservices architecture, ensures Lawo-grade processing quality while providing unmatched elasticity through customer-first subscription plans.

“Moreover, Lawo HOME orchestrates not only Lawo devices but also third-party and NMOS IS-04 and IS-05 compliant devices, extending its compatibility and interoperability. Additionally, Lawo HOME manages CPU-based processing Apps on COTS servers, further enhancing its capabilities to meet the evolving needs of live content production and distribution. 

By embracing emerging transport and compression protocols such as NDI, SRT, and JPEG XS, Lawo HOME ensures compatibility and future readiness for broadcasters and content producers, positioning itself as a leader in addressing the challenges of the modern live content industry.”

Slomo.TV points to the lack of resources in sports production- financial, equipment and personnel - as a major constraint while there consumer demand is high. 

“In the past, only a limited number of major broadcasters covered all sporting events, focusing on top-level competitions,” says CTO Igor Vitiorets. “The small and medium size companies due to the high cost of equipment could not fully participate in this market. Today, even large companies are struggling, yet the number of sports competitions and market demand continue to grow.”

Vitiorets says Slomo.TV offers solutions for sports broadcasting with limited resources by for instance, reducing the cost of equipment and increasing its productivity. “A standard server from major manufacturers takes up a lot of space, only works with 10-12 recording channels and requires two operators. Slomo.TV has a wide range of affordable servers for every need - from 4 to 32 channels in a compact unit (1U - 4U),” says Vitiorets. The high performance of our servers and ease of use allow one operator to work with, for example, 14 3G recording channels, thus saving on human and financial resources.”

Remote production is a new feature available for all Slomo.TV systems and allows video specialists to work on the live production of the event from a remote location over a 50-100 Mbps bandwidth internet link. “Ultimately, remote production allows a single specialist to cover multiple sports competitions taking place at different venues on the same day, reducing equipment transport and staff travel costs.”

There’s even a Slomo.TV Academy training system for directors, broadcast producers, cameramen, replay operators, VARs and AVARs. “Here, you can easily put the training of your video production specialists on stream. Live broadcast technicians are rare; it takes both a high level of responsibility and artistic vision to master all the skills required for this narrow specialisation. The Academy gives you access to a large talent pool at a much lower cost than traditional training. Thus, we allow the TV companies to budget their resources while producing more high quality sports content for consumers.”

Martin Dyster, VP Business Development, Telos Alliance share an anecdote about his former boss David (sadly no longer with us) who once described his perfect weekend. “He would wake up early Saturday and head to his favourite armchair where he’d switch on Sky Sports and start watching something from across the world, like Aussie Rules Football. He would then follow the sun with something from further west, typically cricket from India. Then there would be an early EPL or EFL soccer match which would see him past lunch. At around 2pm he’d jump in the car and go to see either Oxford United or Reading FC, before heading home for the evening game on Sky or BT Sport. Sunday was rinse and repeat, except for the in-person game which was rarely on a Sunday. David was ahead of his time. I admired him enormously and aspired to be more like him. My wife disagrees.

“David consumed an enormous amount of sport on TV and could watch almost anything with a decent level of excitement and production value. But with the desire for live sports content at a higher level today than it has ever been, content providers don’t have the budgets that they used to and look to technology and new business models to deliver quality content at lower cost. Remote production is now the norm, and Live Cloud Production is coming sharply into focus for many mid to lower-tier events.

“Telos Alliance made a commitment to virtualise its audio products before the pandemic, but from 2020 when the market turned 180 degrees, we took immediate action. Telos Alliance now offers Cloud-deployable software-based intercom, audio mixing, signal processing, Talkshow / Coord telephony, and signal conversion for radio and TV. We’re delivering the same great products and experiences at lower cost, and with the help of our partners, within budget-friendly SAAS models that can spin up or down and scale quickly when needed.

“Our virtual audio products are helping to bring a wide range of content (not just sports) to ‘Davids’ or ‘Davinas’ around the world, and our continuing commitment to innovation in hardware and software products will help to ensure that no-one will ever lack something to watch or listen to.”

Latency continues to be the main technical challenge for many live event productions. This is especially true when there is an IMAG component with a streaming element. As explained by Kurt Heitmann, CEO, CP Communications and Red House Streaming, there will be latency when that local IMAG component is being streamed back to a control room and then streamed back to the venue.

“When producing a live sporting event, the announcers are not calling the event live. They are calling the event with a delay because of they are following the produced video versus watching it live in the venue. The complexity of balancing announcers on location, streaming back to the control room and streaming that final product back to the location is very challenging to achieve.”

The Red House Streaming business leverages IP, cloud and bonded cellular technologies for live sports production. When using bonded cellular, there are always bandwidth constraints to understand and manage. Heitmann says, “We are not comfortable executing a production on a golf course, for example, without first conducting an onsite cellular survey. That eliminates most of the issue because if there is poor coverage on Hole 14, there is no use running four cameras out there. We can instead revert to a produced package or cut away, and preserve the integrity of the production.

It launched its own streaming network, RHStv, a year ago. Content is produced “without any budget in mind” because the goal is to attract audiences and grow the network.

“Content is often produced directly within the Red House Streaming Production Center, with professional production studios and a high-end broadcast infrastructure and workflow. If your goal is real viewership, the main business challenge is being unrestrained when it comes to budget,” he says.

That leads to another big challenge, which is reducing production costs through programmatic advertising. It is an achievable goal, for streaming channels, but one that takes a lot of time.

“We are now on our way there at RHStv. We had 400,000 unique viewers in our first year. People are paying attention, and our challenge is to continue to grow that audience and continue to invest in the quality of our productions.”

Services provider BCE also identifies the primary challenge as effectively navigating the surge of content while diligently managing costs. Frédéric Fiévez, COO says, “Our imperative is to stay agile, producing content that precisely aligns with viewer demand while ensuring efficient cost management. This necessitates the ability to engage in ephemeral content, events, and shows, offering not only live broadcasts but also the added flexibility of live replay and VOD content.”

To address these challenges, BCE has introduced 'Media-as-a-Service,' a solution that empowers its customers to pay solely for what they use without the burden of upfront investments, all while maintaining broadcast-grade production standards. A key component of this is Holovox, a remote commentary solution. Explains Fiévez, “Beyond its core functionality in commentary production, Holovox enables administrators to oversee comprehensive channel branding for each event and manage videos seamlessly during advert breaks, as well as before and after live broadcasts.”

BCE plan to integrate a live streaming module into the Media-as-a-Service platform. This will provide customers with live streaming capabilities, distributing content via secured streams on public or hybrid clouds. “The adaptive bitrate player, geo-targeting, and geo-blocking features will improve content delivery, while catchup and replay functionalities will cater to diverse viewer preferences. Notably, viewers will have the unique ability to immerse themselves in the content by selecting their preferred camera angles during live sporting events.

“In essence, our commitment is to equip live content producers and distributors with innovative solutions that not only meet the challenges of today's landscape but anticipate and adapt to the evolving demands of tomorrow.”