Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Internet Video Heading For A Traffic Jam

Stuck on the M1 in traffic, rows of cars to my left, to my right, in front of me and behind me, bumper to bumper and going nowhere, a Virgin Rail train sped past on its electric line at 125Mps. It was a salutory metaphor for the latest aberrant evolutionary step in video technology. Forget VHS over Betamax, the issue is HLS over RTMP.

Now, at a time when the BBC seems to be struggling in delivering its streams and Netflix went black for three hours, the technology underpining IPTV isnow not a nice to have in place of broadcast, cable or satellite, it's an essential technical component of TV delivery,mbe oming more important by the day.

The trouble is, everyone has bet the future on the jammed motorway, not the railway. 

To understand this I'm goin to have to explain a bit about the technology.

In the early days of the internet, video files were large and connections were poor. Getting one to fit onto the other was a problem. The internet works by breaking data into packets and then transferring these individually using something called hypertext transfer protocol - you'll recognize this as the http at the beginning of web addresses. Http is a protocol that slices up the file at the nding end (the server) and reassembles it at the receiving end (client or browser). This works well for stuff that's not time sensitive and it's why images generally take longer to appear than text on a web page.

But it doesn't work well for video. 

So, a bunch of guys who broke away from Microsoft created Real Time Streaming Protocol and the educational interactive software developer Macromedia simultaneously developed Real Time Messaging Protocol, both of which developed a more 'broadcast' orientated way of delivering content. There were issues, such as the use of special ports which could be blocked by firewalls, but these two protocols were rapidly adopted in technology such as Real Networks and Adobe Flash and for many years became standard for streaming live over the internet.

Amongst the many advantages of these protocols are latency (the delay in getting the picture to you is low), efficiency, reliability and security. Quickly added to this was incumbency, and as Flash became a standard multimedia component for web browsing, RTMP seemed to have won the day.

The downside is that they were both proprietary, so a licence was payable for every use. Worse still, Apple did not own either protocol, so the company sought an alternative.

They struck upon the wheeze of using an audio playlist format (.m3u8) to segment the video file and then to have it transported as multiple small broadcast video files (MPEG-2.TS) over http and then it is reassembled in the browser. With the advent of the iPhone and iPad this became the only way of delivering live video to these devices and the cast was set.

It should be added that HLS does have the advantage of supporting the ubiquitous, but, oh, proprietary again, H.264 codec.

As with VHS, the inferior technology has, in many ways, won the day for commercial not technical reasons.

As I write most major content delivery networks (CDNs) are quietly dropping RTMP in favour of HLS since this can leverage non-proprietary technology (ie plain old file caching) for delivering video and does not require paying a fortune to the likes of Adobe (who acquired Macromedia).

Perhaps ironically, HLS is still not set as an approved standard in any way, and the CDNs are anyway paying licences to companies such as Wowza, who provide the transcoding and segmenting capabilities

RIP RTMP and RTSP. Thank you for your decades of loyal service. I can't help thinking that you were Concorde in an EasyJet world.


Monday, September 26, 2016

How To Cord Cut

As TV moves from broadcast to IP delivery, a lot has been written about chord cutting. I thought that it might be interesting to document my journey as an early user in the UK. I hope you find it interesting and useful. 

Two years ago I moved house with my wife from a one bedroom flat in London with fully loaded Virgin Media (with all the Sky options) to a large house in Reading outside the reach of their cable network (only just - the rest of Reading is fully cabled) and even obscured from a good terrestrial Freeview signal by a tall residential block.

The only option, then, was Sky, which I had swore I would never subscribe to again for reasons too numerous to go into here (but largely involving supplying a 10Kbps connection whilst charging for a 4Mbps at our other home in Wales and for subsidising Premiership footballers' ridiculous salaries).

So, I became a cord cutter. Sorry, a Cord Cutter. And this is my story.

After a couple of dud routers and a lot of angry calls, I managed to get a stable and decent connection from BT. There are some issues with it: for example the DNS resolution is very slow and the network is obviously running a lot of monitoring (including I'd guess for 'security' purposes),  but overall it's pretty good and the streaming has largely been good.

Next came the rebuilding of my usual services without a broadcast TV signal.

I knew that I need the minimum of the following: BBC, ITV, Channel 4, some Sky channels and access to rugby.

Nice to haves included Channel 5, UKTV and Vevo. I really don't watch any YouTube.

In addition there were the options of the online streaming services from Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Rugby is spread thinly over BBC regions, S4C, BT and Sky, who offer an online service called Now TV.

So, the requirements list became: BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV, Vevo, Netflix, Amazon, S4C and Now TV.

Our house has a lot of screens. At the last count 5 flat screen TVs, some very old; five iPads (some very old!) and around six Macs and PCs. A typical tech family in the 21st century! (Incidentally, this places a lot of strain on a domestic wifi network with its limited number of channels, so you'll often find channel clashes and performance issues demanding a router reboot.)

So, how to marry the content with the screens ?

Selecting The Tech

I researched every option. 

The Now TV box does not offer Amazon and the Amazon Fire stick does not offer Now TV, presumably for short sighted competitive reasons. 

Smart TVs are even more confusing. Each offers a different mix, with none offering a comprehensive set. For the record, Samsung seems to currently offer the widest range of apps.

So there was only one option, the Roku stick (or box). This wonderful little piece of technology connects to a HDMI port and gets power from mains or a USB port on the same TV.

It provides me with all of the content I require apart from BT Sport and UKTV. We now have four of these devices, which cost around £30 and are a total bargain (ironically the company is part owned by Sky and they make the less well provisioned Now TV boxes). The also steam Spotify via the soundbar on the TV.

Thanks to a free BT Sport subscription that comes with our BT service, the challenge was then to get this off the apps provided by BT on small screens onto our large screens. The solution was to buy a Chromecast, a slightly weird dongle from Google that enables certain videos to be shown on a big screen using wifi. It's clunky and not very useful for anything else - most iPad TV apps don't seem to support Chromecast.

UKTV remains elusive, although many of its channels are available on Now TV.

I do wish BT and UKTV would develop Smart TV apps. They must have their reasons for not doing so, which are obviously nothing to do with being convenient to their (potential) viewers.

One footnote is that it is useful to have a TV with at least five HDMI and three USB ports if you chord cut. HDMI: Roku, Chromecast, DVD, soundbar, spare (for PC, for example); USB: Roku and Chromecast power, and you may also want to add a HD for your media.

The Savings

So, let's look at the cost.

Netflix is £7.49 a month, Amazon Prime (£79 a year with additional benefits) and Now TV's Entertainment Package (£6.99 a month). Of course you also need a BBC licence at £145.50 and a broadband connection at around £35 a month, which I presume we all need these days.

I then pay on demand for certain sports events on the excellent Now TV service, usually a day pass for £6.99 to watch a couple of rugby games.

I calculate that I used to pay £80 for TV in London, without Amazon and much of Now TV, and now I pay around £30 a month.

Extend this to the additional £80 we pay for our second home in Wales, where we can reuse the same subscriptions online, and we save well over a hundred pounds a month.


The biggest shortcoming is the inability to record anything. This isn't a problem for all the content available as VoD after it's screened, but for reasons I still don't comprehend, very little sports content is made available VoD, so, if you miss the match, it's gone forever.

The need to swap cables and move tech can sometimes be a pain.

Oh, and explaining how it all works to you better half, who is used to one TV interface and remote can result in arguments. 

You have to deal with apps, all with loads of different and confusing (and usually useless) interfaces. There is no homogeneity or consistency.

As a viewer the most frustrating thing is that nothing is done for the viewer. It's all done to preserve the interests of each content owner to the detriment of all.

Viewing Habits

We have always been avid viewers of box sets, from the time we met and would watch endless episodes of Friends in Amelia's flat in Paris to our third pass through the West Wing ouvre, so binge watching is preferred behaviour for us and cord cutting has reinforced this.

However, I do think that there is still scope for better curated content outside the tired 24 hour schedule.

The Services Rated

BBC iPlayer

Has been a trailblazer, but the app does have shortcomings.

PROS: live and on demand, multiple channels, comprehensive content, needs expensive licence
CONS: four week window for most content - so few box sets, regular streaming issues, low quality pictures, confusing access to non-recent content, poor discovery tools, bad series management

ITV Player

Has had a very poor relationship with online, despite being a very early adopter. They offer an ad free service for a subscription, which is fair enough if you can find programmes that you want to watch.

PROS: live and on demand, multiple channels
CONS: difficult to find programmes, no discover tools at all, lots and lots of ads, very user unfriendly, lack of box sets, poor quality streaming; impossible series management; technology often fails (usually due to ad play in problems); no way to find content by genre

Channel 4

A strange omission for the UK's second PBS is no live stream.

PROS: great range of catch up services and box sets, including the brilliant Walter dubbed series, good programme discovery
CONS: no live simulcast, advertising, 

Now TV

PROS: excellent services with tons and tons of top content and box sets; PPV for sport and movies; good quality, reliable tech; good series management
CONS: additional cost for PPV

Amazon Prime

PROS: good content, some original; good quality; good discovery, good series management, no ads
CONS: confusing interface for what's free and what's PPV, inconsistent user interfaces across screens


PROS: great quality; some good content; good series management, no ads
CONS: lack of consistent top notch content; difficult to find anything to watch; weird, confusing interface

The Downside

So, if I was forced to ditch a service, well ITV is a bit of a disaster, so that's easy, but Netflix really isn't  up to Amazon, iPlayer or Now TV by some distance: the content is pretty poor. Likewise, BT Sport is just too annoying to bother with for a bit of sport.

The Upside

I miss recording sports events, but otherwise, saving over a hundred quid a month says it all. Companies like Sky and Virgin operate on a good user experience and ridiculous prices and you don't need to play - or pay - their game any more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Channel 4 Changes Direction

It seems apparent that Channel 4 has decided that it prefers becoming a commercial entity in London rather than being sent to Manchester or Birmingham as a public broadcster.

The channel, paying £25m for a programme format, sans presenter, in a bidding war with the UK's other PBS shows how out of control it is.

Channel 4 has always been a rather wonderful freak show that could only exist in the creative hotpot that is the UK. It has played a hugely important role in fostering creativity and programme making and has always been in the vanguard of TV innovation.

But paying £25m for the UK's most popular TV programme, a baking competition of all things, is insane. (As an aside I can just imagine someone in the past recent taking this format to C4; the laughter would still be resounding..l)

In the world of Netflix and You Tube, where UK TV is becoming a marginal activity, Channel 4 seems an anachronism - albeit less so than the riddiclous and still hugely self important BBC.

TV distribution (aka broadcasting) is now a big boys game which only the Americas can afford. There is a chink for an international play around top UK programme making, but 350 million people are always going to trump 60 million.

So, can Channel 4 take its brand international? It certainty has shown no innovation online (it doesn't even simulcast).  But it has done well with curation of international box sets and, of course, in its commissioning.

However, I'm not sure that anyone involved in Channel 4 really understands what they have done or what will happen to them next. Did they really deliberately overplay their hand ?

Twitter Does Video ? Please...

So, a company dedicated to sending messages in 140 spaces now wants to "do video". Twitter is a laughable company living up to its name. Just a bunch of Twits.

There is huge value in Twitter around instant news, short disclosures, weather, travel. But instead of concentrating and honing this, they decide to go after video.

Video doesn't take a few bytes, it takes thousands of millions of bytes. It is an antithesis to everything this company is supposed to stand for.

Twitter has totally lost its way in trying to become Facebook and urgently needs new management and vision.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Increasing Importance Of Metadata

When I went for my first job interview the only real test I was given was to write a title on the side of a 35mm film can to see if I could do so legibly. As someone who had just graduated with honours degrees in film&tv and educational broadcasting I was insulted.

Now, over thirty years on, I realise how important a lesson I learnt that day and how important metadata was, and still is, in the film and TV industry. Indeed, being able to write on the side of a film can doesn't cut it any more.

Only a decade ago, I went to a meeting with one of Europe's largest broadcasters to talk about digitisation of their library, only to find that their master broadcast tapes were all logged in a school exercise book, often in pencil, with little more than the title, series, episode and transmission date.

Of course, metadata has come a long way in the recent past and its importance is increasing immeasurably in the information age.

Once upon a time all the information you needed was available from a cinema billboard. Today you need to worry about everything from the container format and codec for the video file to the rights position of contributing artists. As metadata requirements have ballooned, the problem of data input has increased.

Let's face it, someone has to enter all that data in the first place - and keep it up to date and it is becoming a burgeoning problem.

So, what can be done ? 

Well the obvious first step is to decide how and where the metadata should be stored. 

An effective way of doing this is to set up a project container where key information and all subsequent information and assets can be stored. The problem with many such systems is that they are either informal and unstructured (think of a folder on Box or Dropbox) and lack specific functions required by the film and TV industry, or that they are too restricted. For example, many asset management systems are very poor at managing elements such as royalties and rights.

To address this we have developed a core system called Assetry that combines both asset and rights metadata and can also plug into existing systems such as scheduling and OTT systems. 

A key challenge was to make the system as automated as possible whilst dealing with both technical and descriptive metadata. Technical metadata, for example, is automatically stripped from master files and scene and voice recognition software can also be integrated to automate rushes processing.

But this does not negate the need for human involvement totally. 

Production information and also contractual information need inputting by humans (at least for the time being). This is why it is essential to build the metadata capturing process into the production process from start to end, or from when an idea is conceived to when the programming is sold and distributed.

The cloud is producing fantastic tools to make life easier and cheaper for film and TV producers, but, thankfully, the need for sentient humans is unlikely to go away any time soon. However, a centralised cloud based metadata platform does open up the ability to offshore or crowdsource logging and streamline the distribution of metadata and assets.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

How NOT To Be Like Warner Bros and Track Your Rights

Image result for warner bros

If ever there was a story that shows how complex rights have become to manage in the internet era, it's the revelation that Warner Bros has requested a take down on its own website. In other words they have asked Google and others to blacklist it because it is carrying pirated content. To be fair to Warner Bros, we hear similar stories about other rights holders on a regular basis.

More than anything, this shows how complex rights have become to manage, and it doesn't just affect large multinationals, it's relevant to most companies across a wide range of sectors. Anyone who uses images, video, illustrations, quotations, code or music in any of their sales or marketing activities, for example.

Close to home, for example, we regularly undertake an audit of the components, shareware and paid for software we use in building our platform. At the last count it was fifty two different licences that need tracking. Some are open source today, but who says that they will be tomorrow ? The terms and conditions lie behind a tickbox - the kind that we all glibly agree to without considering the consequences.

The possible consequences are dire. Marketing and ad agencies can loose clients, financial and pharma companies may not be compliant and broadcasters could be in breach of contracts.

The situation is such that last year Rights Tracker was approached by one of the world's largest companies to help their in house legal team keep track of the rights their company was acquiring across the globe.

In response, and using our core Assetry platform, we developed a new platform for managing acquired rights. Not only does it enable licensing terms to be recorded and tracked, but, if available in digital form, the actual assets can also be stored.

The result is that it is easy to run searches and produce reports detailing the actual rights position at any time. As well as making sure that companies don't get themselves into the pickle that Warner Bros are in, users can also save money by re-using existing assets and licences rather than paying for new ones.

The team at Rights Tracker is about to roll our a beta program for the new product, so get in touch if you'd like to track your assets, licences and rights.

That's all folks!

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Are Apps Dying ?

Apps have been IT for the past few years. Everyone needed an app for everything. But recently I've been seeing a recalcitrance. UK DIY co Homebase dropped their app and sent users to their website. Accounting unicorn Xero's app is a joke (they clearly don't care). The increasing attitude seems to be, 'we will make our website responsive, use this'.

And it's true that there's hardly anything that you now can't do in a web or hybrid app, and you may well skirt the dogma of the Apple Store and, to a lesser degree, the Android Store.

This is really, really bad news for Apple who make billions from this channel, but the trouble is, with millions of apps, only a couple of hundred (usually games) get noticed, so investing in developing apps is pointless. Just send users to your mobile friendly website...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Trouble With Transmission

As a youngster I remember climbing the mountain behind our house and being part of a relay trying to get a signal, via various boosters and a very long aerial line, from the nearest transmission towers, which were seven and twelve miles away.

You see, the problem with TV broadcast signals is that they require 'line of sight' and operate at reasonably high frequencies, so the signals can't get around corners.

In the Western fringes of Snowdonia we grew up listening and watching RTE, the Irish broadcaster, and not BBC as a result.

Today I'm in Reading in the heart of the industrialised South East of England, the so called UK Sicilon Valley, just a few hundred yards from the headquarters of Microsoft and Oracle and my broadband has died.

Once a year over a hundred thousand people descend on Reading for a rock festival. The problem at the moment is that they are all millennials, so wouldn't dream of worrying about line of sight for their TV signal.

My issue is that, in the largest town in England, I cannot get a signal from a broadcast tower, due to a seven storey residential tower block to the south east of our riverside house. As a result, I am also a cord cutter, like the millennials. And now I cannot get a decent broadband feed.

The other problem with traditional broadcasting - digital or analogue - is that it involves equipment which looks like the molten carcass of an ancient monster. TV aerials are ridiculous contraptions. The broadcast towers equally so.

All of this leads me to wonder why the technology developed by the defunct Aereo could not be combined with software that detects video streams in a device with an automatic rollover between the broadcast and IPTV?

In other words, why can't a computer detect when a broadcast signal makes more sense and allows a device to connect accordingly?

Around ten yeras ago I proposed a similar system that rolled over between cable and internet to my clients at Virgin Media and they still haven't really cottoned on.

The trouble with technology is that everyone ploughs their own technical furrows and fields and forgets to look left or right at how they could share, improve and work better.

But, hybrid transmission is an idea whose time has come...

Escaping The YouTube Trap

Let's face it, YouTube provides a great service for video producers and program makers - a free uploading and hosting service for all your videos with a ready global audience.

So why are more and more TV and video professionals turning away from the service ?

Well, the reasons are manifold.

Some will read the fine print and realize that they are compromising productions that they may have spent a great deal of money producing.

Others will realize that they are espousing valuable money making opportunities.

More and more are realizing that YouTube is a horribly cluttered environment that may have its role, but it is not a solution for online video management.

As other social networks such as Facebook become equally important for video,  then there's a need to look beyond YouTube.

Also, as more and more video professionals look to manage their productions and services in the cloud, YouTube is clearly not a platform to use for this.

As YouTube gets closer and closer to being a broadcaster, there is a clear conflict in giving content to them for free (or for the promise of ever reducing ad revenues).

But what if you already have a load of content on YouTube ? Well, Rights Tracker has just introduced an easy way for you to transfer this content to your own professional managed account on Assetry Screen, where you will have secure control over all of your content.

All you have to do is enter a YouTube URL and the system will do the rest for you! Better still, you can add any valid video URL and the system will ingest and prepare your video for you.

It's never been easier to cut the YouTube cord and move your cloud video strategy to the next level.