Streaming is often highlighted as a sure-fire way to boost viewer engagement, and with the ability to stream live in the hands of all smartphone users, brands and content owners are increasingly going direct to consumers. But what are the essential tools and services for those seeking to monetise their live content?
Direct to Consumer (DTC) is undoubtedly enjoying a moment, but effective monetisation over the long-term will call for specialist media service partnerships.
In more ways than one, this is a period of profound disruption. In the world of streaming, many long-serving broadcasters and content services are finding new ways to innovate and ensure they reach the widest possible demographic. But also joining the fray are an increasing number of operations – from sports leagues and federations to household brands – who wish to go Direct to Consumers (DTC) and control every facet of their content and its delivery.
With viewership soaring during lockdown, it’s unsurprising that there have been a number of runaway successes such as Disney+, which had amassed 86 million subscribers by December 2020. But there have also been services that have met a more mixed reception: HBO’s initial lack of 4K and HDR content came in for criticism, while short-form content platform Quibi – launched by former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg – folded in December after less than 8 months.
In the case of live sports, it feels like we are only at the start of what could be a very long DTC trajectory. But the last 12 months have certainly underlined some of the primary questions that content providers need to answer – not least, as media strategic consulting firm Altman Solon partner Christian Esser observes, “do they want to maximise customer reach and short-term revenue with partners, or do they want to take a longer-term approach to controlling their own content for larger returns down the road? The past 12 months have seen a strong shift towards that more long-term ‘platform play’, and we will see the degree to which content owners ‘fall back’ to the traditional release and windowing schedules, and who sticks to more of the ‘new normal’.”
Whilst we wait for greater clarity regarding the long-term market outlook, there are plenty of opportunities for technology and service providers to help both established content providers and newer players monetise their content – often across multiple platforms and devices.
Read more of this month’s ‘Engaging Viewers’ themed week articles here.
Streamers and sustainability
Video delivery specialist Unified Streaming is among the innovators in this field, with its software solutions catering to live streaming, video on demand, live to VOD, and insertion. The company’s VP global sales, Simon Westbroek, pinpoints the general rise of AVOD (Advertising Based Video on Demand), but indicates that it must not compromise the quality of the viewing experience.
“Streaming providers are looking to rely on some form of ad-supported models to achieve long-term sustainability, but they must strike a balance between high-quality user experience and integrating advertising into their service,” he says. “AVOD providers can benefit from advanced, targeted advertising, but there are building blocks required to enable this. The most critical is the video stream – content assets need to be highly dynamic in order to cope with the demands placed on modern streaming platforms and to readily adapt to future requirements.”
AVOD efficiency is being enhanced by the move away from Client Side Ad Insertion (CSAI) to Server Side Ad Insertion (SSAI). SSAI models also provide flexibility with the opportunity for a “playlist-based approach that helps streaming providers enable advanced targeting and diversify their services – from ad-based to SVOD and ad-free.”
Playlist technology is central to one of Unified Streaming’s latest developments, which entails a fresh enhancement to the Unified Remix solution that allows content creators to “manage streams on the fly via their own CMS and make the OTT experience more relevant to the end-viewer.” Consequently it’s possible to provide streams that are “curatable to each viewer”, encouraging increased viewer engagement through enhanced playback and opening up fresh monetisation opportunities through personalised advertising.
As Westbroek points out, though, the outlook for viewer-specific advertising has recently become less clear in the European Union, with some voices in the European Parliament calling for greater restrictions on personalised ads. Hence Unified Streaming is presently “working more on the targeted section rather than personalisation for everyone, where you need every detail in order for it to be relevant.”
- Read more: Multiplatform delivery
Curation and generation
Scope for greater curation of content and generation of streams for multiple platforms is also an ongoing priority for Brightcove, whose Brightcove Live solution accepts a single high bit-rate stream and prepares it for multi-platform delivery to all devices over all network conditions. It also uses SSAI to dynamically insert ads for each viewer, with support encompassing all industry ad servers such as Google, Freewheel and SpotX.
David Bornstein, field CTO at Brightcove, charts the “constant evolution” of SSAI during the same period that the ability to do “thousands of concurrent live streams, each of which could be scaled up to tens of thousands of people” is continuously improving. As he notes, “there are lots of ‘under the hood’ developments going on that people don’t necessarily see – such as better codecs – but which make services even better.”
“Streaming providers are looking to rely on some form of ad-supported models to achieve long-term sustainability, but they must strike a balance between high-quality user experience and integrating advertising into their service,” Simon Westbroek
He identifies premium sports as a target of particular activity at present, with a trend towards “pop-up niche channels to carry companion content” to primary event programming, as well as greater interest in “doing something with, and monetising older library content.”
Harmonic has also been well-positioned to observe the continued expansion of live sports streaming. Senior market manager OTT & IPTV Alain Pellen says that Harmonic “has really seen live events – including sports from hockey to car racing – take off for VOS360”, which is the company’s fully-managed, cloud-native live streaming SaaS.
Ad-wise, Harmonic points to the growing appeal of SSAI with DAI (Dynamic Ad Insertion), whereby each ad decision is made in the network and stitched into the content stream before it reaches the viewer’s playback client. SSAI with DAI eliminates the ad request and response process, allowing for “seamless, all-in-one playback.”
The rise of SSAI is also highlighted by Viaccess-Orca VP partnerships and security Pierre-Alexandre Bidard, who indicates that streaming services’ approaches to monetisation will go on evolving as the market matures: “There is very significant investment in content taking place, and services are looking at different ways to maintain and build revenues.”
The outlook in some streaming markets – including North America, Europe and Asia Pacific – is increasingly well-defined, but Bidard hints that the current trend of “segmentation and fragmentation” is likely to be finite. “Users to do not expect to have too many players, so [some consolidation] is to be expected,” he says.
Service provider’s perspective
The pandemic’s curtailing of in-person events has meant a phenomenal spike in often audience-free live streaming events that is unlikely to continue at its present rate once the crisis has ended. But brand owners and rights holders have certainly had the opportunity to learn valuable lessons for the future, as Red Bee Media head of media management and OTT portfolio Steve Russell can attest.
January 2021 saw Red Bee Media deliver the biggest livestream ever in the Netherlands, with the annual Vrienden van Amstel (Friends of Amstel) live music event switching to a digital-only format for the first time in its 23-year-history. Working in conjunction with event agency Tribe Company and media production company FabriQ Media Group, Red Bee Media delivered the event through its managed OTT platform to a dedicated website (www.vriendenstream.nl). With an estimated 1.7 million viewers from 120 countries, the event “underlined the enormous potential” of a brand-led DTC approach in terms of profile and viewer engagement.
Russell – who sees Red Bee Media’s role in the emerging live streaming market as a “sort of middle facilitator” – agrees with the suggestion that brands will continue to experiment with monetisation around DTC services for the foreseeable future. But the overall direction of travel is clear: “There are a lot of opportunities to open up new revenue paths through streaming, and [successful monetisation] will result in improved presentation as brands [are able to fund] bigger productions. It’s all to play for and it will be fascinating to see where it ends up.”