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Disney/ABC Breaks GroundWith Digital App Approach | @GeorgeWinslow
There is little doubt that delivering more programming to more platforms will be a major topic at the first NYC Television Week Oct. 28-30, presented by B&C, Multichannel News, NextTV and the National Association of Broadcasters. But as all the major television players respond to burgeoning consumer demand for more video on more devices, the process of selecting the right technologies for delivering that content continues to raise many vexing questions.

In part this reflects the fact that many thorny program rights issues need to be resolved before industry-wide initiatives like TV Everywhere can move beyond the limited content and restricted access that has plagued current offerings.

But it also highlights the myriad difficulties of creating an infrastructure that can easily be expanded in the future to respond to rapidly changing business, tech and consumer habits. It’s an equation that Disney/ ABC is at the forefront of solving.

“Today there are limitations in the way it is being done that require a lot of work-arounds” or expensive dedicated hardware, says Albert Cheng, executive VP and chief product officer for digital media at the Disney/ABC Television Group. “People are getting something out into the market, but the design and architecture of what they’ve built makes it difficult to optimize them for the future of digital or TV.”

To avoid that problem, Disney/ABC took a very different tack in launching its Watch ABC app, which currently provides 24-hour live feeds of ABC broadcast network, syndicated and local programs from its eight owned TV stations and will ultimately offer live feeds from all of the network’s affiliate stations to subscribers of multichannel pay TV services that have cut TV Everywhere deals.

Automation in the Cloud

“One of the underlying guiding principles was that we couldn’t create something that was a one-off with the kind of unique manual workflow that has been so typical of many broadcast operations,” says Vince Roberts, executive VP, global operations and CTO, Disney/ ABC Television Group, one of several executives who provided B&C with the first extensive look “under the hood” at the technology powering the offering.

The resulting infrastructure for Watch ABC is a case study not only in the kinds of technologies programmers are exploring to better deliver content to multiple platforms; it also illustrates the need for new ways of creating and managing broadcast infrastructure.

This was particularly important given the complexity of the offering. For the launch of the app last May, the programmer had to develop systems that could, among other features, authenticate users; determine their location; combine content from ABC, ESPN and the local stations into the Watch ABC App feeds; deliver only the content and ads that had been cleared for digital; ensure that the system would be compatible for Nielsen’s upcoming tablet and mobile ratings; optimize the video streams for specific devices and the available bandwidth; strip out the broadcast ads so they could be replaced on the fly by spots specifically targeted to the demos and devices of individual users; and find easy ways to integrate the app with the technical infrastructure at many pay TV operations and local affiliate stations.

“It is certainly the most complicated software project my team has ever faced,” says Roberts.

Agile Development

The final product was forged under a very tight schedule of a few quick months using the popular Silicon Valley “agile software development” that emphasizes collaboration between business and tech teams to quickly address new business needs. It relies heavily on cloud-based architectures to handle some of the most complex operations.

In its current iteration, the system uses the Prometheus software developed by Disney/ABC tech teams to manage and collect all the data and assets needed to put together feeds. FreeWheel provides the dynamic ads insertion technologies; Adobe Pass is being used for authenticated subs; and Uplynk is playing a crucial role in offering a number of innovative cloud-based services for producing the streams.

“It is a platform that will give us flexibility and the ability to scale with new digital and enhanced TV opportunities,” Roberts explains.

Unlike traditional broadcast feeds that are put together with expensive master controls and delivered to mass audiences over the air or via multichannel providers, “we have literally flipped that on its head to create something that is very personalized and targeted,” Cheng says. “We have identified who the viewer is on the other end, and we pulled together a customized video feed that literally gets put together in real time for the viewer.”

Disney decided to develop Prometheus in-house after looking at a number of products from technology vendors. "We couldn't find anything on the market that was going to address the breadth of what we needed to do, especially considering the rights-clearance issues and the need to replace content and ads [as well as] all the things like closed-captioning," Roberts says.

The development process for the Prometheus software started in September 2012 and was completed by February 2013, taking some 60,000 hours of work, Roberts explains.

The decision to use an "agile development" process widely used in Silicon Valley for the software was particularly important because it allowed the company to speed the creation of Prometheus and to very closely tie its features to their rapidly evolving business needs, says Lindsay A. Caputo, executive director, technology planning at the Disney/ABC Television Group.

"It really did help us be agile in the sense that Chris [Elm, senior manager, application services at the Disney/ABC Television Group, and his team] were releasing new versions every three weeks," Caputo says. "We were taking real-time feedback from the business and legal teams and really evolving the product in an organic fashion. That allowed us to deliver a product that really meets our business needs," which were frequently changing.

"I would be going to Chris regularly with some modification or suggestions to deal with a business need that we hadn't uncovered before," she adds.

This flexibility was particularly important for the entire infrastructure, Cheng says, because business needs for digital distribution continue to change. "We needed to have an architecture and approach that would acknowledge the various intricate business relationships we have with various parties-everything from operators and broadcast affiliates to ad inventory and programming. We knew that none of the rights and business issues would be solved overnight because this involved a lot of negotiations with multiple parties so we had to have a technology platform that was flexible enough to handle all these different relationships."

The Prometheus software gathers data from a variety of broadcast systems, including automation, traffic, satellite network control and custom human interfaces from the ABC network, the local station and the cable channels, such as ESPN, that would be providing sports, explains Elm.

With that information, it creates a schedule with a frame-accurate description of the timing of the content and commercials with the necessary metadata. It also highlights the commercials and content that need to be replaced as well as the content that isn't available in the broadcast infrastructure.

Homes All Over the Map
The Prometheus software resides in various places, with some components in the cloud, some at the station and some in their Burbank broadcast facilities.

Once all the information needed to assemble a feed is put together, Prometheus then directs the ingestion of content by Uplynk.

Skarpi Hedinsson, senior VP of technology video platforms at the Disney/ABC Television Group Digital Media, adds that they had worked with the principles of Uplynk for a number of years and that they had been pioneers in adaptive bit-rate streaming and other cloud-based technologies.

"One of the decisions we made early on was to move as much of the complexity into the cloud and use it to centralize the process of how we manipulate the signal," Hedinsson says. "Once we take the broadcast signal Vince [Roberts' team has created] we can hand it over to a cloud processing solution that can manipulate the signal, prepare it, secure it and ultimately deliver it to local markets in a fairly cost-effective way."

Uplynk will prepare the content for delivery to different devices and operating systems. It also prepares a signal for the user's available bandwidth. "They are really masters of signal manipulation," Hiednsson says.

In addition, Uplynk recognizes how many ads need to be replaced and communicates with the FreeWheel ad decisioning solution. It will tell FreeWheel the basic information, such as how many ads are needed and for what show, and FreeWheel will use that information to send back ads that are targeted to the user's demographic characteristics and device.

Disney/ABC also uses several geolocation services to make sure the users as accessing only content that is available in a particular DMA, explains J.R. Grant, VP of video products and technology, Disney/ABC Television Group Digital Media.

Grant adds that they have also been working closely with Nielsen so that the whole platform will be able to handle measurement of smartphones and tablets when Nielsen launches those cross-platform ratings next year.

"The overall ecosystem that we've been creating in the last five years has allowed us to move more processes into the cloud and create an ecosystem that provides scale," Grant says. As a result, "even the launch of a new broadcast network isn't as daunting because we have made such significant investments that allow us to move very quickly."

Roberts notes that such developments are part of a major change in the way they are approaching broadcast infrastructures. "This helps us to continue to abstract and virtualize a lot of the broadcast infrastructure into the cloud," he says. "Watch ABC is a great example of how we are using the cloud to be able to scale these products."

Over time, this will give them much more flexibility to adapt to new business needs and to dramatically expand their operations without facing huge capital expenditures.

"We are moving to a brand new tool environment that gives us much more flexibility than the old iron broadcast environments that just can't scale the way this can scale," he says.

The Metadata Mantra
The development also highlights the importance of metadata and standards.

Roberts says that they have been focusing on developing systems for handling metadata for a number of years because it is the key to digital content distribution. "Football is a great example because you have different games that go to different stations and different locations and the only way to manage that is through metadata," he says. "Metadata is really our mantra. We have a whole team under Lindsey [Caputo] that is focusing only on metadata because it is the currency of the digital space."

Whenever possible, the teams used open software or standards to reduce the cost of licensing other software, Elm says.

Standards were also important in connecting the various parts of the infrastructure. At the eight ABC owned stations, for example, they used BXF to tie together Prometheus with the WideOrbit traffic system.

In the future this will also allowed them to relatively easily connect Prometheus and the other broadcast infrastructure to hundreds of affiliate stations. "We deliver a small rack of hardware to the station," Roberts says. "They plug it in and the next thing you know we have a stream running."