As Monitoring’s Challenges Multiply, So Do Solutions
Audience expectations have evolved alongside technology, and broadcasters are increasingly dedicated to monitoring quality of service and quality of experience for users.
Viewers will tolerate only so many problems with content, whether it’s delivered over the air or over the top, before they switch channels. Broadcasters rely on monitoring products to keep tabs on the user experience.
While monitoring services are fairly mature and straightforward for content delivered OTA, those for OTT content seek out problems along a complex supply chain. A wide range of vendors have stepped in with multiple solutions to those problems, from grappling with a multiplicity of content delivery networks (CDNs) to employing machine learning to keep up with the scale of streams reaching individual viewers.
Monitoring may be a fast-moving target, but it’s not escaping the range of those employing real-time alerts, redirections away from CDN micro-outages and adaptive monitoring, among a range of other quickly-evolving tools.
Quality of service (QOS) speaks to the technical issues that may arise even if they may not always be apparent to the end user.
“It’s not an issue for the end user if it doesn’t affect what they see,” says Ken Rubin, SVP for the Americas, Actus Digital.
Quality of experience (QOE), on the other hand, is all about the overall user experience while interacting with content. Videos that fail to play, have long buffering times or have unsynched audio and video can all prompt a user to leave unviewed content behind and choose to watch a competitor’s content instead.
Viewing audiences won’t stand for “Uncle Fester moving the rabbit ears” and “watching through snow” like they once might have, says Qligent CEO Brick Ekston. “Their tolerance is lower than people think.”
Ekston says the “QOS contract” is no longer about compliance.
“It’s not just that you’ve dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s and spell checked all the info your delivering,” he says. “The landscape of delivery is 100 times more complicated than it used to be.”
Ed Hauber, who manages business development for Digital Nirvana, says it doesn’t matter to viewers whether they are viewing content OTA or OTT, their standards are high.
“People have an expectation that when they stream on their phone, it should be same high-quality experience as watching on television,” Hauber says. “When that fails, viewers drop off real fast.”
But monitoring the delivery of the stream OTT is much more complicated than monitoring an OTA signal, which the broadcaster has more direct control over.
“The same fundamentals exist in the OTT or digital content delivery world as they do in OTA terrestrial television, but the mechanism of delivery is different,” Hauber says.
OTT content is delivered via networks and third parties, which complicates OTT monitoring.
As Peter Wharton, director of corporate strategy for TAG, puts it, there’s “a spaghetti mess of things to monitor on the OTT side,” including different bit rates, CDNs, requirements and encryptions. “Content companies are more interested in monitoring out to the edge than they were in the old days.”
In short, he says, content creators want data points back from the viewers that indicate the content was successfully delivered.
Andy Hooper, VP product management, B2B at Agile Content, says each CDN complicates the monitoring process.
“From a broadcaster perspective, each CDN is kind of a black box. They don’t know what the structure is internally, what monitoring tools the CDN vendor provides or what’s going on within the CDN,” Hooper says.
CDNs, for example, can have short interruptions, or micro-outages, in their ability to deliver content, Hooper says. These micro-outages may result in blurry pictures or lower quality of service and affect the viewer’s QOE. Often the micro-outages aren’t enough to cause a complaint, he says, but they may be enough to “gradually raise the level of frustration with the service.”
Agile’s StreamPilot manages and redirects streams away from CDN micro-outages, he says.
Hauber says broadcasters need proof of CDN delivery and that the third-party CDN is meeting the service layer agreement (SLA) uptime and delivering a quality the broadcast brand is known for.
But before a content stream even leaves a broadcast facility, the content is encoded.
Comark’s Titan Live encoder can be used to create an OTA broadcast as well as the discrete outputs needed for various streaming services. The encoder’s ability to create broadcast and streaming output means broadcasters don’t need two separate products for those efforts, Tim Hosmer, director of Comark Digital Services, says.
WSBE (PBS) in Providence, R.I., is using Titan Live for both broadcast and streaming output. “They are creating multiple outputs from one input to serve a variety of markets,” Hosmer says.
Some broadcasters used Mediaproxy’s LogServer for the Olympics, during which the main focus was streaming “better product” than in the past, Mediaproxy CEO Erik Otto says.
“They wanted to invest in higher resolution … a wider color palate … and the sound experience,” Otto says.
Recording the Olympics in 8K resolution offers “a glimpse of what the future holds in broadcast,” he says.
4K resolution is already very difficult due to bandwidths and frame rates, he says, so the implications of 8K resolution are “quite significant.”
An Array Of Solutions
Voice Interaction’s Media Monitoring System is a recording and compliance system that analyzes the quality of the stream and gives broadcasters information about where problems are occurring so they can be corrected.
“It gives feedback about the quality of service they are providing, and it gives hints about what is going correctly or not,” Voice Interaction CEO Joao Neto says.
For example, he says, if closed captioning is missing from a stream, Media Monitoring System will point it out, so the broadcaster is aware of where the problem is occurring, he says.
Voice Interaction plans to promote improved monitoring of transport streams at NAB later this year.
Digital Nirvana’s Monitor IQ is a multichannel, multi-input and multiplatform system that monitors and logs the technical parameters around content delivery and whether the overall QOE is up to viewer standards.
OTT Synchro, which Actus Digital plans to show at NAB 2021, simplifies OTT monitoring, Rubin says. It offers the ability to efficiently organize the multiple renditions and probe points so users can easily see where errors are occurring. Actus’ TrackMatch compares content between multiple sources and provides a discrepancy report of differences.
TAG’s monitoring service uses adaptive monitoring to reduce the cost of monitoring at distant points, Wharton says. Real-time alerts, rather than “20 minutes from now or in an email tomorrow” can put eyes and ears on a problem that needs to be addressed, he says.
Through adaptive monitoring, the client doesn’t “lose any of the core value we’re providing” while being able to scale in a way that reduces costs by as much as 80%, Wharton says.
Qligent’s Vision OTT is an extension of its on-prem monitoring service.
“We’re moving away from just compliance monitoring to being more in the supply chain,” Ekston says. “Supply chain monitoring has become kind of a big deal.”
Part of that is spotting problems before they can be noticed, such as at the time of insertion.
“We’re looking for anomalies prior to master control and final encoding,” he says.
Qligent’s Match, a plug-in, provides an auditable layer across the service chain, Ekston says, which helps “make sure everyone’s contributions are what they’re supposed to be” to ensure good QOE. “Match tells you it’s all good across the network, or not.”
Currently, Ekston says, about 70% of the quality problems happen in the last half mile for the consumer, making it more about the local network and reception.
“You’ve got to have a solid grasp of the combination of service, which is who you partner with and how you deliver the content,” Ekston says.
Interra’s Orion content monitoring platform monitors streams at three distinct stages. Checking content at ingest helps prevent problems from propagating later in the delivery chain, Anupama Anantharaman, VP of product management at Interra Systems, says. Second, it checks content as it’s uncompressed and transcoded, and third when content is delivered. “This gets the visibility along the entire chain,” she says.
Orion offers profiles for streams delivery to check different resolutions, frame rates, compression standards and other important variables.
Anantharaman believes machine learning will play a role in monitoring QOS and QOE, and that the role of people will decrease.
A number of broadcasters have “huge operations rooms” with people monitoring content, she says. But it’s impossible for humans to check every single stream, especially as the number of streams increases.
“But with machine learning, slowly that will become unnecessary,” she says. Interra is using machine learning algorithms to detect QOS. “We can nearly eliminate human involvement.”