Live content – especially sports – is still a major driver on broadcast TV. Following this summer’s World Cup, when nearly half the world’s population tuned in, it’s clear the audience appetite for live spectacle is far from dimmed. But there’s more than traditional big-ticket sports to today’s broadcast live sport picture, which is rapidly evolving.
Technological advances in the broadcast of live events have created new opportunities for traditional broadcasters that range from commercially minded targeted advertising to more engagement through second screen apps. Technology, and specifically over-the-top (OTT) TV, has also opened the way for explosive growth in speciality and niche channels. Independent research commissioned by TVT reveals there are close to 700 channels across Europe that are dedicated to sport. When you add in the new wave of OTT offerings, the market seems positively buoyant.
There are, however, clear signs that major event sport is far from the sole driver when it comes to TV audiences and the thirst for live content. NBC’s Sunday Night Football traditionally has been the most watched regular primetime live-event show in the United States. Nonetheless, its numbers have been dropping – falling from 22.5 million viewers on average in 2015 to 18.1 million by 2017, and further decline looks likely. This downward trend has been matched in Europe where the English Premier League is the flagship for Sky, the largest EPL rights holder, which experienced a 14% decline in audiences over the course of 2016-2017 for its live channels – most of which are sports.
The reasons for this shift are not down to production values in big-event sports. Both NBC and Sky deliver engaging content and, in the case of Sky, have embraced a slew of innovation across sports coverage. One of the issues is the changing nature of the audience. Younger audiences who grew up in an era where attending live sports in stadia have drifted away towards other social and gaming activities. In addition, the growth of on-demand, ad-free content has relegated live – especially galling is the American football coverage which typically has 70-plus 30-second ad spots per game.
These trends are forcing a change for broadcasters that are increasingly looking at ways to engage with audiences. Other events that used to be to niche sport broadcast events such as volleyball, curling, surfing and more recently esports are emerging as live TV staples on specialty channels and emerging OTT services. And the way sports are broadcast is changing too with innovations such as rider cams in the Tour de France and for viewers to switch viewpoints as pioneered by the Sky OTT app for its Formula 1 racing coverage.
The rise of pure OTT services like Perform Group’s DAZN, which is currently available in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, and Japan offers a potential insight into how the sport TV landscape is shifting. The service has grabbed rights to most of the big European football leagues and is now encroaching on big US sports as well.
For traditional broadcasters, getting in on the OTT action requires both the desire to do so and a slight shift in technology. Live OB is well understood and an exactingly precise workflow. Delivering live streaming of sports has several hurdles and many of them start with rights holders wanting to extract more revenue for TV and internet rights.
On the technical side, a major issue is latency. A live sports broadcast workflow to terrestrial, satellite or cable is near real time but having the additional step of transcoding and streaming to IP connected devices adds an element of latency for the OTT viewers. Part of this is due to the lack of multicast networks which makes the distribution of simultaneous content to millions of potential viewers incredible wasteful of bandwidth and, as such, there are few examples where it has been done successfully.
Trying to marry a legacy SDI baseband infrastructure with an IP centric experience has also been a difficult relationship until the arrival of the SMPTE 2110 family of standards that has largely codified much of the technology. This has led to many broadcasters and infrastructure providers to begin the move to an all-IP infrastructure that simplifies the process of creating simultaneous broadcasts that can be fed to OTT and traditional broadcast routes using a single architecture.
For TVT Media, this concept was something we began in 2015 when we built Europe’s first fully virtualised, all-IP media centre in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In the most simplistic terms, the entire facility can take in media content from any source, at any quality, transform it to a medium suitable for the service, and either playout or package for Content Delivery Network distribution with all the relevant controls and quality needed. At present, this is around 100 channels and an increasing number are live and sports related.
This all IP approach also marries with the other trend which is the rise of live content that was traditionally too niche to justify the cost model of traditional TV infrastructure. For example, winter sports, esport or lower leagues have struggled to attract enough audience to make a return for broadcasters in respect to spot advertising. With an OTT only approach, providing costs can be kept to a minimum through an all-IP workflow; the door is open to a whole host of live experiences that can finally reach a TV audience.
This approach also has additional benefits in engaging with the millennial audiences that have moved away from traditional stadia experiences such as football. Plus, the all-IP workflow lends itself neatly to value added features such as live pause, rewind, catch-up, multi-camera angles and – potentially the most valuable benefit – highly targeted ad insertion.
Increasingly, innovative broadcasters and other content owners are recognising that a live sports strategy that embraces the widest range of potential audiences and business models is a positive long-term approach. On the technical side, having an all-IP workflow solves many of the hurdles and ultimately gives the viewer a better experience – and, in the end, that’s what any company delivering live TV events today needs to achieve.
By Jean-Louis Lods, Senior Vice President, Strategy and Development, TVT