Broadcasters finally embrace OTT tech, even if audience is still in the driver's seat

Samantha Bookman, FierceOnlineVideoThe halls were alive with the sound of drones this year at NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters' annual fete in Las Vegas. What do drones have to do with online video?

On the surface, not much. Yes, you can add a camera to a drone and perhaps live-stream the image that it captures as the small unit buzzes over the landscape nearby. But in terms of technology, they're just cool, or frightening if you're Overly Paranoid Rob Lowe.

What they represent to the business of content creation and distribution--the business that broadcasters support and promote--is the kind of innovative thinking happening around the edges of this established, steadfast industry.

For the first time, broadcasters gave the world an open acknowledgement that new technologies and new business models were no longer just fringe showcase items but things that they need to adopt, incorporate--heck, even embrace. That includes over-the-top video. Quite a change from years past, when OTT tech was relegated to a small section of one of the upper halls here.

On Monday, NAB President Gordon Smith laid out the case for integrating "next-generation" technologies, including OTT video, into broadcast strategy. Part of that directive revolves around the pending auction of 600 MHz of broadcast spectrum, but another big part of it is that IP video products and services are available at the scale large organizations like NBCUniversal need, are competitively priced, and are already becoming part of their production and playout setups.

With the broadcast industry jumping fully on board the ferry toward online video service, OTT providers have responded accordingly.

Where the drones weren't flying, the buzz heard around this year's over-the-top-friendly NAB was around cloud services: From production to playout, from transcoding to transport, from all the components needed to deliver a video stream from one end of the network to the other, there was a vendor for each. And their technology, all of them said, was ready to scale to meet the demands of broadcasters' large viewing audiences.

Perhaps most interesting in that arena was the chatter around dynamic ad insertion (DAI). It's the first and best solution to monetize OTT video for any provider who isn't going to add a subscription component to their service. But it was clear that DAI providers are kind of flying by the seat of their pants right now, highlighting their technologies at the show while actively developing them. Case in point is Akamai and Adobe Primetime's collaboration on server-side DAI, which will "stitch" ads into streamed content at the CDN instead of at initial encoding. Their offering may indeed be a way to lighten the processing load at the playout level, shifting ad insertion and ad management to another part of the network. But it's currently in beta.

One could say the majority of next-generation technologies are still in beta when it comes to scale, because the size of the OTT viewing audience, even in the next six months, just isn't known. Analysts are predicting a moderate shift by viewers to OTT this year. But there's certainly anticipation, or worry, that the shift will be bigger than anticipated. How well certain parts of the IP video ecosystem handle that shift remains to be seen.

But those were high-level considerations. As with last year, NAB still showcased a number of smaller startups in locations like the Sprockits pavilion, its Futures Lab and NMX. Particularly at Sprockits, and in some pre-show events, many of these companies are offering niche solutions to nattering problems like the audience measurement puzzle, social media engagement, and the user experience.

Unruly, Yottio and Scorestream were three of the five winners of the Sprockits' first-ever awards at NAB and reflected the concerns the industry has around monetizing online technologies. Unruly's product, for example, is a programmatic platform for "social video" advertising, allowing advertisers to inject their inventory into newsfeeds and content streams. Yottio enables direct viewer engagement via video, moving beyond text-based social media feedback.

Scorestream, meantime, continued the gee-whiz component of social media engagement: an app that allows sports fans to interact during games by sharing photos, scores and highlights. Doesn't sound like much, but audience-driven interaction is a big component of the OTT experience. Take Rabble.TV, an enthusiastic startup that wasn't part of Sprockits but did get a day in the sun at pre-show events. It's also viewer-driven, allowing users to stream their own voiceovers during live games. I can't adequately explain it in the confines of this column, but, like Scorestream, your kids are gonna love it.

Like much of the innovation in the online video space over the past decade, the audience is continuing to drive most of the business decisions made by companies old and new. That fact is more than a little scary to incumbent broadcasters, pay-TV providers and others who for decades brought innovation to their viewers. But it seems they've come around to the concept that, thanks to the versatility of IP video technologies, they can allow their audiences to participate directly in the entertainment experience while retaining control of their content--and maybe even making money while doing it.--Sam