Distributing content in challenging times

In today’s highly competitive — and economically challenging — environment, broadcast content distributors have to be more creative in how they manage their bandwidth and send content to their suppliers and on to consumers. They also are seeking more control over how and when spots are used, thereby generating the maximum amount of revenue.

The systems they are deploying or have deployed are much more intelligent, with a long list of automatic features to help their businesses grow and maintain profitability. It’s all about a new generation of multilevel software and tighter control over network components (encoders, servers, IRD receivers, etc.).

While advertisers are interested in targeted campaigns that can be directly marketed to specific regions, cities and even households, the networks are working to do so with the smallest amount of bandwidth necessary. This frees up space for either more channels or less transmission costs.

There’s no doubt cable and satellite companies as well as terrestrial broadcast networks, which all need to move files between facilities and earth stations, are facing challenging times. Advertisers are reducing their budgets while continuing to look for any way to maximize their campaigns’ return on investment. To do this operators are modifying existing one-way infrastructures with new types of software while others are building out new ones with fully interactive, two-way communication.

However, this is happening slowly as, in the current tough economic climate, most networks are delaying capital expenditures unless they can be assured of a fast ROI. That, of course, is tough for any vendor in the broadcast space to guarantee.

The value for content distributors comes in that using sophisticated store-and-forward techniques (where content is pushed to the headend only when needed), a network can give clients only the markets they want while reducing waste. This has become popular with broadcasters because, although it might reach the largest amount of viewers, many feel that the traditional “broadcast” model (even single cable channels) is no longer the best way to maximize a campaign and reach the right people.

Store-and-forward delivery
These store-and-forward systems are being deployed over satellite and sometimes use an Internet Protocol (IP) backchannel to verify program delivery, what is stored on the server at the headend and its usage. The use of IP is most common among those operators developing new network distribution infrastructures. For most of the largest media companies, which have existing investments in transponders, the satellite is still the most cost-effective way to move content around.

Conserving space on the transponder means deploying some form of compression. The current trend is toward MPEG-4 because it provides many times the space efficiency of traditional MPEG-2. However, for cable and broadcast networks, this presents its own challenges in getting content to consumers who have MPEG-2 set-top boxes in the home. Operators are currently sending video as a compressed MPEG-4 file via DVB-S2 modulation to the edge of a network (the headend), where it is transcoded to MPEG-2 at the edge, before going on to the home.

“By combing MPEG-4 compression and DVB-S2, operators can double the efficiency of their networks, sending either more programs or using half the bandwidth,” said Ned Mountain, president and COO of Wegener. “That’s the real name of the game. Saving costs while continuing to deliver high quality content is what every one is seeking to accomplish.”

Tighter network control
Store-and-forward solutions can help improve bandwidth efficiency among network operators by allowing broadcasters to send HD content as compressed files. They enable operators to leverage satellite transponder space while pushing content to the headend, thereby letting the operator decide what the consumer has access to and for how long. The technology also allows network operators to mix file-based content with live content for events like sports. Special promotional text and graphics can also be laid over video content, completely automatically.

The technology is also being used for so-called “hybrid” networks, which make extensive use of both satellite and IP infrastructures for the same content. A global network might want to use satellite delivery domestically, but IP in overseas regions where satellite coverage is not available. There a secure transmission via the Internet is used. The difference is two-way IP versus one-way satellite transmission.

MPEG-2 is here to stay
“Most cable and broadcast networks will have to deal with MPEG-2 for years to come” Mountain said. “They understand that with the proliferation of existing boxes in the home, they have to get that final product in MPEG-2 for consumption. There’s various ways to do this, and new ones are emerging all the time, but it’s a fact of life in content distribution.”

Operators can also create “virtual channels” that are operated without human intervention, cycling content from a hard drive located in a hub facility. The network control system tells the server what content to playout and in what sequence. In this example, all of the content does not need to be sent in real time every day, so again, bandwidth and cost is conserved. These are becoming more popular as staff is reduced and more channels need to be filled.