With COP 28, the UN’s climate change conference taking place through middle of December this year, the world’s attention is once again focussed on the question of sustainability, and the broadcast industry is no exception, writes John Maxwell Hobbs.
Over the 12 years, the albert organisation has helped the industry operate in a more sustainable fashion, offering production tools, and strategies to help productions reduce their environmental impact in terms of their carbon footprints.
But what of the other links in the broadcast chain? The rapid rise of FAST channels has significantly increased the use of DAI (Dynamic Ad Insertion) which has its own environmental impact.
Valentijn Siebrands, Solutions Architect at M2A Media, believes that we need to take a hard look at the way we are using resources to deliver personalised advertising. “In general, we are trying to automate everything, which is fine,” he said. “But in the end, it costs a lot of power. Not only to run things, but also to produce the computers and the silicon and the data centres in order to make that economy happen. And I’m not saying it’s not needed, I think progress is important for people, always. But we need to talk about this, because the resources that we have on Earth are finite. And sometimes, the answer to ‘why do you do this?’ is ‘Because we can,’ but sometimes the question should be, “but should you?’”
Efficiency in targeted ad delivery
Siebrands proposed a thought experiment about the energy required to deliver a targeted ad to a single user, and what that means as it scales to large audiences. “If you watch a live sports event online, a certain amount of energy is needed to send the broadcast to you,” he said. “It’s completely made up in terms of numbers, but let’s just imagine that it takes one watt-hour in terms of energy consumption to do all the things that are needed for app bidding, ad insertion, and all of the other things. And let’s then imagine, you have a million viewers. So, for that one event, you consume 1 million watt-hours, one megawatt to do your ad bidding and ad insertion and all of these things. And that’s perfectly fine. The data centre guys, the big tech companies, they all say, we have great energy, it’s sustainable, don’t worry about it. But that energy cannot be used by something else.”
He believes that the industry needs to take a hard look at the overall effectiveness of how the process is managed today, and if there are other ways to achieve the same ends. “The thing is,” said Siebrands, “there is bidding happening for every ad break for every viewer. And if you look back at who actually did win all of these auctions, you probably end up in the worst case with only five advertisers. Why did we have to do a million bids, in order to come down to five advertisers who constantly win the bidding? Isn’t it much more sustainable and much easier to do it differently by saying, ‘Okay, this event will be republished from the source with five different tracks for five different brands, and there’s only one auction at the start where the viewer is categorized. It is then session-based. And during the entire live event, you remain on that track, and there is no embedding anymore.”
Siebrands gives the example of how an Indian streaming service took this approach for practical reasons. “The streamer does live OTT for cricket, which is a massive undertaking because they have 200 million live viewers,” he said. “You can imagine that if you do 200 million ad bidding processes you need an enormous amount of compute, which they discovered is not actually available. The streamer determined that the best solution was to take a session-based approach to DAI. “200 million viewers divided among five categories, which is way more efficient,” said Siebrands. “For them, it was about making it possible at all - sustainability was a side effect.”
Simplifying complex systems
The increasing complexity of the systems being used for the individual ad targeting is leading to an escalating use of computing and energy resources.
“In live broadcast the bidding process needs to happen in under something like 200 milliseconds,” said Siebrands. “You can imagine the amount of resources and computers that you need to pull this all together. It’s not expensive because the big tech companies provide the scale that enable you to do things like this. But then again, do we really need it? There are other ways to make the same amount of money, which makes the thing so much more efficient from a sustainability point of view.”
Siebrands explained how this complexity leads to a certain amount of inefficiency. “It’s not only about sustainability”, he said. “It’s also about the enormous complexity of all the things that we try to do. And that’s perfectly fine that people accept the complexity and are willing to invest - it gives people jobs. But in the end, I think it’s better that these people do other things than trying to integrate ad bidding systems, where you already know there will be five advertisers that will win the game. However, looking at the industry, for each auction, for each bidding process, there are parties involved that make money on the bidding process itself. It’s a business model, I get it. But it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. For live video you never know when the break is happening, because it depends on the game. And you never know how many viewers you will actually have, because it also depends on the game. One tweet can potentially bring on a million people, because the game is getting exciting. Usually during the event or a live stream there is reserved capacity, where a certain amount of resource, is constantly available for you. And the compute power that they have is boxed in only for you. When there is no auction happening, it sits there doing nothing. But I do know from a video workflow perspective, when something is live, you scale for the peak. That probably also means that everything in relation to embedding an ad insertion is set up twice at least but only consumed once. So, it’s not that sustainable.”
Siebrands understands the financial drivers behind all this, and the need for broadcasters to generate revenue. “If you look at it from the other angle, DAI is fine to optimise your revenue,” he said. “But are there better ways to actually do the same thing - increase the revenue but, in my opinion, not do the crazy auctioning with a million viewers at the same time, burning a lot of unknown energy resources. And you can do this much more efficiently by saying when someone tunes in, put them in one of the five or 20 categories, and it remains that way during the session.”
The human impact is often overlooked in the sustainability equation, Siebrands believes. “I normally do very complex things with technology, video workflows, and programming. And a lot of what I do is related to code that has a certain function in relation to time - immediate time markers, and audio and lipsync. You can imagine it’s fairly complex.” he said.
“The amount of knowledge that I gathered in the last decades enables me to do this. But if I have someone young coming in, I can almost not explain it. We are adding complexity all the time. And by doing so, we create a legacy. And at some point, we need to allow the need the legacy to just fall over and forget about it. Or we need to simplify, because someone else needs to maintain, someone else needs to take over. The amount of expertise needed to build systems like this is increasing. Maybe Moore’s law is about the price of silicon and power, but the expertise is on the other side, because it enables a lot of things. I think maybe we have to add another angle to the sustainability part, which is less about energy consumption and efficiencies regarding resources. Let’s call it human capital.”
He is optimistic, because he sees this way of thinking beginning to take hold across the industry. “At the DPP Leaders’ Briefing, attendees were saying that that we need to invest in people to help them grow, and especially, to keep them in the industry,” he said. “Because of variations in demographics, the number of available professionals for any profession will go down, especially in Europe. The amount of 25 to 30 year-olds will be roughly half in 10 years. And that ties to what most of the DPP presenters were talking about - the people are actually important.”
“We need to simplify things, said Siebrands. “Because the other sustainability angle that we need to look at is people. We cannot automate everything. And creativity, especially in broadcast, is definitely needed because it’s a creative industry. But we need to reduce the complexity in order for people to be able to do the job. You cannot continue like this.”
Arguably albert may have been the first focussed attempt of the broadcast industry to address its environmental impact, but it is no longer alone. ITV has set out very ambitious targets for its suppliers and itself with the aim of reaching zero waste by 2030, and 100% of its productions to be certified as sustainable. Sky is attempting to take the sustainability message beyond its internal Sky Zero campaign and has launched the £2 million Sky Zero Footprint Fund, an advertising fund designed to help brands to promote their own environmental initiatives. Disney is focusing its efforts not only on the way it does things, but also on the stories it tells. It has won a number of awards for creating programmes with environmental themes, as well as winning 96 Green Seals and 38 Gold Seals for sustainable production from the Environmental Media Association.