There may be no better indication of how important over-the-top delivery of TV content has become to the television industry than yesterday’s numbers from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The network announced Aug. 4 that visitors to NBCOlympics.com and users of the NBC Sports app streamed 10.5 million minutes of live coverage Thursday, a day before the official opening of the games. That’s an increase of 84% from the same day at the 2012 London Olympics, according to a network press release.
There also may be no better indication of the unfolding transition from baseband video to IP and the cloud than this year’s Olympics.
As NBCU did with the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, the broadcast network is relying on Microsoft Azure Media Services cloud encoding and transcoding to serve live IP streams of events from Rio to various digital devices like smartphones, tablets and computers. That’s a massive undertaking.
“From a numbers perspective, we will be providing 4,500 hours of Olympics coverage, and when you factor in the number of users, we will be serving millions of hours of viewing on a daily basis during the games,” says Sudheer Sirivara, GM of Azure Media Services.
That represent an explosion in digital stream delivery when compared to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, says Sirivara.
“During Sochi, the largest event was the U.S.-Russia semi-final hockey game where we exceeded a million concurrent viewers,” he says. “On average, we were doing about 600,000 hours a day of coverage during the Sochi Olympics. We expect the coverage to be orders of magnitude higher for Rio.”
Several factors will contribute to increased demand, he says. First, there are about three times as many events covered during the Summer vs. the Winter games. Second, the time zones of viewers in the United States more closely line up with those where the event is happening than they did in Sochi. Third, NBCU plans to make more digital streams available from Rio, possibly exceeding 100 live HD streams, he says.
Finally, streaming sticks, like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick, are a factor. Sirivara expects the devices will drive demand for a big-screen over-the-top viewing experience, especially because viewers will be able to watch those streams in 1080p HD.
To make all of this happen, Sirivara’s team is ready with two geographically redundant datacenters, one in Virginia and the other in California, where more than 20,000 Cores will deliver the processing power needed for such a massive undertaking.
Live satellite streams from Rio will be received at NBCU’s Stamford, Conn., ingest facility and from there be delivered to both Azure Media Services datacenters.
Once in the cloud, the Cores will drive encoding and live transcoding of all feeds, which are dynamically packaged to be used in various streaming protocols, such as HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) or Flash, on the device requesting the stream, says Sirivara.
Adobe is working with Microsoft and NBCU on the Rio Olympics, as it did for the Sochi Olympics, by providing the monetization aspect of the project. It is supplying its Primetime Player framework, which support playback on multiple devices, to enable dynamic ad insertion.
(Editor’s note: Adobe confirmed its participation in the project but declined to be interviewed at this time. NBCU also declined to be interviewed.)
Finally, the streams are delivered to content delivery networks around the country for delivery of streams to viewers on their digital devices, he says.
Amazingly, all of gets done in the blink of an eye, so the latency from the time Azure Media Services takes in a stream from Stamford till it is delivered to a CDN is a few seconds, says Sirivara. Buffering in the playback device, such as an iOS device, may take 20 to 30 seconds, he adds.
While Sirivara’s recitation of how all of this is happening seemed a little matter of fact during the interview, he in no way is taking for granted that it all will just work.
“The key thing is the number of moving parts that will be in place, having the ability to make sure we never drop the stream, especially when you have millions of users watching the 100 meter dash, which only lasts only have 10 seconds,” he says.
“We want to make sure we aren’t losing those for whatever reason. So having a sufficient level of planning — A, B, C, D backups — to be able to support that level of availability is a key goal we had for Sochi and we are expanding upon for Rio.”