World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is an integrated media organization with a portfolio of businesses that create and deliver original content to a worldwide audience. The company distributes its content across a variety of platforms, including weekly television programming, pay-per-view, digital media and publishing.
When WWE brought its pay-per-view television programming to the Web, it needed an enterprise streaming system to deliver live video to an online audience. The digital media group deals in complex content punctuated with fast motion, quick scene changes and bursts of light that is tricky to encode for Web-based viewing. Compressing and delivering this type of video in real time over the Internet requires an encoding platform capable of generating a wide range of outputs simultaneously while maintaining superior video quality.
The shift to the Internet as a video delivery platform offers enormous opportunity while presenting unique challenges in preparing and delivering Web-targeted video content. For an online audience, source material must be compressed to very low bit rates for reliable and efficient delivery on a massive scale. At the same time, distributed video must retain high visual and audio quality to meet or exceed the expectations of viewers accustomed to the premium broadcast experience available with more traditional video platforms.
Quick movement and scene changes, elaborate stage lighting and even pyrotechnics all make WWE action extremely challenging to encode. Fast motion and bursts of lights are generally recognized as encoding tasks with a high degree of difficulty. With complex content, typical H.264 encoders have a hard time delivering acceptable video quality for live event streaming. Compressed video can exhibit loss of detail, blurring, wash out, macroblocks and other artifacts.
An advanced H.264 codec is required as is the ability to fine tune encoding settings. Beyond the ability to adjust parameters such as resolution, frame rate and bit rate, exposed controls that allow for GOP adjustment and insertion of an IDR frame for a scene change are essential. The ability to perform deinterlacing, adaptive quantization, anti-alias scaling and noise reduction are also key functions in generating the highest quality video for adaptive bit rate (ABR) streaming.
In addition to the challenges inherent to delivering high-quality video online, WWE needed to bring its events to viewers live, in real time. Live event streaming is a high-wire act with no margin for error. Fans who have invested a significant amount of money to view premium content expect an uninterrupted viewing experience, and that requires fail-safe technology on the back end.
To simulcast its pay-per-view programming on the Web, WWE deployed Elemental Live into its video production workflow as an alternative to existing encoding options. Elemental Live is a massively parallel video processing system that provides video and audio encoding for live event streaming to online and mobile platforms. Powered by GPUs, the system enables high-quality live video streaming to a Brightcove-supplied Flash player implemented on the WWE website.
The event workflow begins with a live 1080i camera feed sent to the system's HD-SDI input. (See Figure 1.) The signal requires deinterlacing, which is a computationally intensive process employing complex algorithms. Video processing is performed by the system's software, which is optimized to perform functions such as deinterlacing, anti-alias scaling and noise reduction using GPUs. Because these functions can be performed in parallel on the GPU, a single unit provides both the capacity and speed required to deliver multiple simultaneous streams for the live broadcast. The result is a tremendous density advantage compared to CPU-only systems, and it allows WWE to deploy a single encoding platform to replace eight previously installed encoding units.
Once incoming video has been deinterlaced and the required video processing and compression functions are executed, multiformat live outputs are sent to a content delivery network (CDN) for distribution. Elemental Live's one-click CDN integration makes this step easy. The user interface exposes a drop down menu allowing the operator to simply select the desired distributor from a list. WWE opted to serve its programming via Akamai's streaming media service, sending its multibit rate Flash streams worldwide.
In addition to overcoming the speed and performance limitations of existing systems, the system also supplies compressed video with superior quality. Rather than relying on third-party technology, the system employs an H.264 codec developed specifically for the GPU instruction set. Even at very low bit rates, converted video retains the detail, true color and seamless scene changes that make for a broadcast-quality viewing experience.
With Elemental Live, WWE is able to create all the streams needed for an ABR broadcast from one box. A single system provides an eight-to-one density advantage compared with other systems in the media organization's encoding arsenal. The system merges the benefits of a massively parallel hardware platform with the versatility and forward compatibility of intelligent software to give content providers a good price-performance ratio for video compression. Reducing the number of systems required for large-scale transcoding tasks lowers operations cost and overhead, and eases integration challenges.
ABR streaming is quickly becoming a technology requirement for content providers and distributors supplying video to Web-based devices. For its pay-per-view programming, WWE must encode live video into the format required for the Adobe Dynamic adaptive streaming protocol to display the highest possible quality video via the Web. With complete ABR support, the system allows adaptive streams to be delivered seamlessly to Akamai for playback on the WWE website. In addition, the system's flexibility ensures support for future video delivery standards and protocols.
Perhaps most importantly, the live action produced by WWE is brought vividly to life online using Elemental Live, successfully drawing a pay-per-view audience to the Web and extending the reach of WWE events.
Felipe Negron is vice president, WWE Interactive Technology.