Hulu’s Aim: Modernizing the TV Experience

Hulu is now a couple of weeks into the public beta launch of its new live TV service, which ties in the company’s premium subscription video-on-demand service; a new, personalized user experience; and a cloud DVR.

A major challenge faced by Hulu was to seamlessly integrate its legacy SVOD business with the new multichannel live-TV offering, rather than simply bolting it on.

“There was nothing easy about this project at all,” Tian Lim, Hulu’s chief technology officer, acknowledged.

Going in, Lim had plenty of experience to draw on with respect to the technology and operational challenges that go with creating a virtual multichannel video programming distributor (vMVPD), as he was with Sony when it began to piece together what is now known as PlayStation Vue.

On the surface, it’s easier to build an vMVPD at present than it was three or four years ago, as the technologies and products to underpin it are now readily available, Lim said.

“However, we at Hulu have a vibrant SVOD business that we’ve been running and operating for many years and we’re trying to weave in live seamlessly with that existing SVOD business,” he said. “None of these vendors were quite architected to make that possible.”

Hulu, he said, could have worked with a small set of vendors to tack on the new live TV service. “But that’s not what we wanted,” Lim explained. “We were pretty focused on modernizing the TV experience.”

To truly modernize that experience, a significant challenge lay in the metadata, and how to interface the metadata universe of Hulu’s SVOD service with that of the live TV offering.

“That was remarkably hard in ways that we just didn’t expect,” he said. “Making all of that metadata match up with our old SVOD metadata was exceedingly hard.”

To solve it, Hulu put on a “full-court press” to combine automated approaches with a heavy dose of manual intervention, as well as the creation of tools that helped to match up the SVOD and live TV worlds.

Hulu also discovered that programmers tend to implement metadata differently. Some do follow SCTE 224 (Event Scheduling and Notification Interface), a standard for schedule and rights metadata, as well as for data associated with blackouts and geographical restrictions for programming, but some have adopted the standard slightly differently. Yet some have their own APIs that Hulu had to integrate with, and others still send that information in via spreadsheets with color-coded cells.

“It’s basically not automated,” Lim said, noting that there are also some technical inconsistencies for dynamic ad insertion as the industry continues to move toward SCTE 35 standard markers.

“This has been a big learning exercise for us,” he said. “We’re going to try to get more involved to help people standardize on it more consistently.”

Lim also explained why Hulu opted to go with H.264 encoding for its live streams, rather than with H.265/HEVC, a more efficient codec that Hulu’s already using for its on-demand 4K and virtual reality content.

The big issue is that Hulu must support a massive footprint of devices that doesn’t support HEVC. Lim said it would be technically possible to go with double live encoders — one for H.264 and one for H.265 — but that the move would likewise multiply origin and cloud DVR storage requirements. Additionally the quality gains for video at resolutions below 1080p, which includes a lot of live TV content, aren’t as dramatic with HEVC as they are with higher-resolution content, so those tradeoffs made sense in more ways than one, he said.

Hulu also made some special design decisions to help its product scale as more subscribers signed up for the new beta offering. While Hulu’s SVOD service has been mostly self-hosted via two U.S. data centers, Hulu put most of the live aspects of the service in the cloud, running on multiple data centers and content delivery networks from Amazon Web Services (CloudFront) and Akamai.

Lim also confirmed that, for live ingestion, Hulu is working with iStreamPlanet (now part of Turner) and BAMTech, the Walt Disney Co.-backed technology services and video streaming spin-off of MLB Advanced Media.

And while Hulu has always focused on quality of experience with its SVOD service, live presented a “new and different beast for us,” Lim said, noting that Hulu is getting a grip on that by optimizing its client software and working with Conviva to sharpen its visibility of what’s occurring on the network so it can make informed adjustments.

Lim also dropped a couple of hints about what’s on Hulu’s roadmap, beyond the planned support for other devices such as Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices and Samsung smart TVs.

Among those items are improvements and enhancements for the service’s personalization algorithm. Hulu’s been personalizing its SVOD service for a while, but doing it for live is different because it’s more contextual, and needs to account for elements such as the viewer’s location and the time of day.

Hulu is also having discussions about how to integrate notifications, which work especially well around live sporting events, and new features for its cloud DVR that give the viewer more control on what’s recorded and how long it’s retained.

“While we’re proud of the product that we put out [for the beta], the number of things we cut to make launch was extremely long as well,” Lim said. “We have lots and lots of stuff lined up.”