Technology

Managing The Madness

3/19/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Catering to hoops-crazy fans expecting to
catch all the March Madness action they possibly can —
live on their PCs or mobile devices — takes more than a
five-man team.

In fact, Turner Sports has enlisted a dedicated staff of
32 to manage the distribution of online and mobile video
feeds and other content for the NCAA’s 2012 Division I
Men’s Basketball Championship tournament.

The crew is ensconced at the programmer’s
March Madness Live Operations Center in Atlanta.
Over the course of the tourney, from the
opening rounds last week to the title game on
April 2, they’re poised to make sure any technical
issues that crop up are addressed immediately.

The March Madness team monitors everything
from Internet congestion to user complaints
on Twitter, with remote assistance
from Turner Broadcasting System’s systemsengineering
group.

“With the live monitoring we are employing,
we can see performance data across several
axes,” Michael Adamson, vice president of
new products for Turner Sports, said. “We know how passionate
and loyal fans are with March Madness.”

Turner Sports is delivering live streaming-video coverage
of all 67 games of the men’s basketball tournament.
The games on Turner networks are available online at
NCAA.com to users of participating pay TV affi liates, in
a “TV Everywhere” authentication model, while games
aired on CBS are free at CBSSports.com.

Largely, Turner Sports built on the approach it took last
year, when it first partnered with the NCAA to handle all
the digital hosting and delivery. “In many ways, we’re doing
exactly what we did last year,” Adamson said.

PAID APPS CHECK IN

What’s new in 2012: The NCAA March Madness Live apps
for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android devices will cost
fans $3.99 to watch as many of the games as they want on
their mobile devices.

As such, Turner Sports
has established a separate customer-service operation
with live operators to respond to email and phone inquiries.
Customers also can follow a live Twitter feed for updates
and information on any outages if they occur.

“We are not taking this for granted with the establishment
of the purchase tier,” Adamson said.

To meet expected demand across all platforms, Turner
has engineered the March Madness infrastructure to accommodate
a peak load “in the hundreds of thousands”
of concurrent viewers, Adamson said, declining to provide
a specific number.

Turner delivered an aggregate of 13.7 million total hours
of streaming video last year’s March Madness, and the expectations
are that 2012 will be even higher.

“Before, people used to just snack on video. Now they’re
engaging much longer,” Bill Wheaton, senior vice president
and general manager of the Media Division at Akamai
Technologies, said. The content delivery network
services provider is a March Madness partner for Turner.

Added Wheaton, “It’s great news for the advertisers
and the content owners — they’re getting to scale
where they are making real money.”

Also new this year, Turner Sports is using
analytics from Conviva, a provider of online
performance-monitoring systems,
as part of its overall suite to keep tabs
on video performance in real time.

Conviva’s system uses a clientside
software agent that sends
up to 30 different metrics —
every second — back to a bank
of servers, so that Turner
Sports can spot red flags immediately
if video streams
start to degrade.

“With our system, you
have the ability to see what
every viewer is experiencing
in real time,” Conviva CEO
Darren Feher said.

By providing an uninterrupted,
higher-quality video
experience, content owners
can increase viewing times
two to three times on the
roughly 25% of streams that
typically experience playback issues,
according to Feher: “We say, ‘Look, put this in and
people will watch longer.’ ”

The live and on-demand video for NCAA.com and mobile
devices originates from Turner’s centralized services,
which also serve CNN.com and the company’s entertainment
properties including TNT and TBS. Those video
streams and other content are handed off to various
CDNs, such as Akamai and Limelight Networks, which in
turn deliver it to Internet service providers like Comcast,
Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon Communications.

“We pride ourselves at Turner for having some of the
best delivery in the industry,” Scott Boyarsky, vice president
of technology for the company’s audience multiplatform
technologies group, said.

BANDWIDTH GAMEPLAN

But that also means that a breaking-news event might
cause traffic to surge on CNN.com — and result in capacity
shortfalls. “We have to be conscious of everything else
that’s happening,” Adamson said. “We have contingency
plans if there are large news outbreaks.”

Also leading up to the 2012 tournament, Turner reevaluated
the bit rates it needed to deliver HD video to
broadband customers, and concluded that H.264 video
at 1.85 Megabits per second was right in the sweet spot.

“We really wanted to improve the experience for the
Wi-Fi or broadband customers,” Adamson said. “We
looked at several different bit rates that were higher [than
1.85 Mbps] and it was very easy to decide on this particular
recipe. For the first time, we don’t need to go higher
to go better.”

The tradeoff is bandwidth cost versus performance and
quality, Boyarsky noted. “It’s easy to throw out a 3 Megabit
[per second] profile,” he said. “But we found to our delight
we could take it down and deliver a level of quality that
someone watching on a 24-inch computer screen would
be blown away by.”

DRIVE TO THE DIGITAL HOOP

Turner Sports is counting on this year’s NCAA
March Madness tournament to be even bigger
than in 2011, when the division delivered:

13.7 million total hours of streaming video online and
via iPad and iPhone apps

52 million visits across the March Madness On Demand
broadband and mobile platforms

67.5 minutes per daily unique visitor on average of
broadband streaming

16.6 minutes per daily unique visitor on average
streaming MMOD on mobile apps

SOURCE: Turner Sports