When iN DEMAND CTO John Vartanian first joined the company in 1995, job No. 1 was to expand what was a four-channel Pay-Per-View offering to five.
The project took six months — in part because digital hadn’t really happened yet. “Back then, ‘bicycling tapes’ involved actual bicycles and tapes,” Vartanian quipped of video-on-demand’s early days.
The pace quickened. Ten years ago, it took a week to add a new title into the iN DEMAND VOD libraries; in today’s accelerating times, it takes 30 minutes. That’s good, because the company prepares and distributes 360,000 hours of VOD content every year, including 10,000 live sports events.
iN DEMAND’s technologists and partners characterize the pace of change in video — as elsewhere in digital life — as faster in the last five years, than in the 25 years prior.
“It’s still snowballing,” said Braxton Jarratt, CEO of Clearleap, about the volume of treatments necessary for each video asset to get from iN DEMAND’s 230 different content creators to its 270 distribution affiliates. “Everybody dreams of the day there’s one big file, per asset, transcoded on the fly — but there are still 50 versions of what everyone wanted to be the version.”
That’s because these days, “content prep” involves encoding video assets every which way to serve all the screens that can display them, from smartphones to big-screen TVs.
The challenges of this kind of scale include a sea of metadata that needs to be affixed to each title, and the FCC-required closed captioning of most content. Then there’s the encryption and digital rights management, and monitoring for quality control. Content management systems, unified workflows, adaptive bit rate encoding — all are core technological components critical to iN DEMAND’s mission to provide national scale to live and on-demand video delivery.
Even the pace of the contract negotiations that are deepening iN DEMAND’s libraries is changing, Jarratt noted. “Deals are getting done faster, and the expectations about going live are intense — the door opens, and it’s, ‘OK! We’ve got a library of 5,000 titles, and we want them live in two weeks.’ ”
THE HYBRID SATELLITE/IP SHIFT
That’s why Vartanian and his team recognized that the company’s reliance on satellites for distribution needed a terrestrial companion, to slipstream into the Internet protocol-based landscape. So, in late 2013, they bifurcated their live, linear and out-of-market sports assets from their on-demand fare — keeping satellite-based delivery for live material and business continuity services, and using a fiber-based tapestry to link VOD content into the content distribution networks (CDNs) of its affiliates, and to its own cloud-based encoding and storage resources.
“It’s a combination of several different technologies,” including Clearleap’s IP-based distribution system, as well as file-transfer mechanisms and direct fiber connections to content partners and affiliates, Vartanian said.
“We’re replacing much of what had been manual workflows — for reception and cataloging of files, encoding, quality control, distribution — with automated workflows,” iN DEMAND Vice President of Technology David Ludder said. “It’s become essential for us, given the quantities of content we move.”
Even as the pace of technological change accelerates, the goal remains the same, Ludder said: To get as much content out, delivered once, correctly. “So, though the technology changes — our need to make sure the content is correct, and meets the needs of our affiliates and their different platforms — always comes first.”
That includes the next potential wave of new content — 4K, the next chapter in high-definition programming. Getting ready involves evaluating the HEVC (high-efficiency video codec) compressors that will make those very big video assets distributable, while identifying ways to competitively arm its affiliates to harness other characteristics of UltraHD, such as high dynamic range (HDR).
“We’re starting to look at that,” Vartanian said.
Another perennially large challenge for the iN DEMAND tech team is metadata management. “Metadata changes frequently, and needs to be made customizable to our affiliates,” iN DEMAND Director of VOD Technology R.J. Vilardi said. “It’s an area that’s constantly growing, constantly getting more complex — most people would rather somebody else deal with it. Like us.”
THE VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
Technologists across the industry pin the company’s successes to its core technology team, led by Vartanian.
“John is a pioneer and a leader in video distribution and content delivery, and helped us to evolve from analog, to digital, to IP,” said Tony Werner, CTO of Comcast. “He’s a cornerstone of this industry — he consistently moves the state of the art forward.”
“They’re the best I’ve ever worked with,” Clearleap’s Jarratt said of the iN DEMAND engineering team. “A lot of people hit roadblocks when they’re experienced in traditional broadcast engineering, and have to cut over to the brave, new Internet world — not in this case. They’re pros.”
Music Choice, which moves 1,000 or more videos through the iN DEMAND tapestry to affiliate headends every week, said that its partnership with the company lets the music-content provider focus on its core business. “Their intimate knowledge of the equipment and systems that reside at the nation’s headends allows us to extract ourselves away from mountains of details,” Mikel McCrackan, Vice President of Engineering and Operations, said.
“We used to pitch [titles] directly to a lot of operators, as well as going through iN DEMAND,” Music Choice Director of Product Development Erica Librach said. “They’ve organized it and managed it so well, we’re now transitioning to move everything through them.”
IN DEMAND’s TECH PAYLOADS
A look at how iN DEMAND’s content volume and delivery methods have grown since a decade ago:
2005: 4,500 Games (SD)
2014: 10,000 Games (90% HD)
Transactional Movies-On-Demand Assets Per Year
Video Encoding Formats
2014: More than 10
VOD Delivery Speed
2005: 8 Mbps
2014: More than 1 Gbps
Active VOD inventory
2005: 3 Terabytes
2014: 2.3 Petabytes
2005: Videotape (Digibeta)
2014: More than 12 digital formats
SOURCE: iN DEMAND