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Shifting goalposts – Technology has transformed sports broadcasting

Television continues to remain the dominant media platform in India despite the rapid growth of OTT platforms during the pandemic.

Amongst all the genres of content consumed through television, sports has the highest reach. During the first nine months of the year 2022, content related to sports was consumed by approximately 722 million viewers. And very recently, the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 registered over half a billion viewers. The broadcaster, Disney Star, saw a 32-percent growth in television ratings compared to the 2022 iteration of IPL. The IPL continues to be the biggest impact property on Indian television with a reach of 400 million – cutting across demographics. In recent years, we have also seen other sports like kabaddi, wrestling, and football emerge with the audience and advertisers interest matching some of the popular GEC programs like Bigg Boss, The Kapil Sharma Show, etc.

The advertisers’ interest in sports broadcasts has grown strongly with the increasing viewership and demographic reach offered by sports properties. Both traditional and new-age businesses have turned the spotlight on sports broadcasting with this segment recording revenues of approximately Rs 7560 crore in FY22, expected to reach Rs 9830 crore in FY26, growing at a steady CAGR of 7 percent.

The growth trajectory in India is expected to continue with Subscription revenues for sports are likely to be driven by the increase in TV HH penetration, upselling of packs (including sports channels), and organic growth in Pay TV ARPUs.

We have seen some dramatic changes and innovations in sports broadcasting, driven by an explosion in the number of streaming media services, providing on-demand content for fans and the new technologies required to deliver them.

The sports broadcast industry has been steadily introducing technology to meet these viewership changes. Think multiple and automated camera systems, all capturing a slightly different view of the action on the pitch; advanced statistics that provide insight and analysis to enhance the big game experience; and technology for greater interactivity, like augmented reality.

Whilst these innovations have created enormous opportunities for sports federations, leagues and clubs, they have also created new challenges.

Thanks to the diversity and complexity of OTT platform requirements, multi-platform distribution is an ongoing challenge for rights holders and content producers. The need to output in different variants at pre-set data rates and resolutions can cause headaches for media managers and cause a significant bottleneck in workflows.

In addition, adhering to the specifications of each OTT channel is time-consuming. It introduces the prospect of human error, potentially compounding costs at a crucial stage of the production process.

Ensuring exclusivity is a crucial part of the distribution, a fact that attackers are well aware of. Security and secure processes – especially in the delivery network – are critical in protecting contractual obligations, with the result that speed and scalability become key.

Improved technology performs play a key role in enabling scalability. The central premise is to establish repeatable, near-frictionless workflows that can semi-automate the process of ingesting content, optimizing it, and then transmitting it to as many (or as few) OTT platforms as needed.

Tools, such as automated workflow management, enable the various parameters for each platform to be either manually set or entirely automated. This means that vital requirements, such as resolution, frame rate, bitrate, subtitles, metadata, and aspect ratio can be tweaked seamlessly – a process that can take considerable time when done manually. This also removes much of the human error, which makes a real difference when working at speed to distribute content across multiple OTT platforms (as well as a host of other channels).

AI and security key touchstones
Extrapolating further, the use of AI or ML automation can deliver significant benefits, especially in areas such as metadata generation. What were once bleeding-edge technologies – such as logo recognition in live feeds and facial recognition – are now practical in various scenarios and are rapidly gaining traction. These increase the possible automation and offer new monetization opportunities and more granular control over creative content – a win-win-win by any standards.

Security, a central concern for businesses of all types, is especially so in the world of sports, where rights management is the very lifeblood of the business. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the basics are in place – industry-standard HTTPS browser security for all browser applications, proper encryption procedures for assets at rest, and rigorous watermarking procedures. Inevitably this dovetails with proper authentication processes, such as company-wide single sign on, and potentially moves toward zero-trust environments.

The use of drones provide broadcasters with an innovative way of capturing events; the small and light- weight nature of the technology allows the media to get footage of the action like never before.

Drones have the capability to deliver high-quality shots that are suitable for live television, using lightweight broadcast-quality high-definition cameras and real-time HD video downlinks, like many other camera systems. Yet its greatest advantage is in its flexibility, allowing the operator the option to change the location of the shot – providing different angles and closer tracking of the action than individual fixed cameras. It allows for the type of coverage that only drones can provide, moving the shot based on the action rather than the producer to switch cameras displaying the shot, potentially following plays as they happen and using the flexibility of the technology to track the unpredictability that is the nature of sport.

Of course, this comes with a cost, amounting to as much as USD 1 million in equipment to capture drone footage. The use of drones requires FAA approval, and there is a safety aspect too as drones would naturally take over from the wire-supported camera, that can break and injure fans in the stands as well as damage several cars that were traveling at 195 mph, and race leaders as it did in a Spring Cup Series.

The switch to remote production – an experiment barely a year ago – is near-universal and now permanent, and has become a preferred and standard operating model for the broadcasters. BT Sport, one of the world’s most progressive broadcasters, has already begun its transition from delivering the decades-old static (broadcaster-directed) view of a live event to one in which it will offer viewers the chance to immerse themselves in the action with personalized interactive experiences, such as selectable camera angles.

5G opens up opportunity
Venue connectivity will be another key to remote production growth.  With the right end-to-end solution, broadcasters can leverage 5G’s potential to eliminate bottlenecks and squeeze the costs out of resource-intensive live production workflows.

For now, 5G can be deployed as a back-up link to the primary connection, delivering multiple high-quality feeds and replacing the less efficient method of diverse routing over fixed connectivity.

As 5G matures and penetrates the market, it promises to change the media landscape. The potential of more bandwidth at a lower cost opens up a host of opportunities for broadcast industry players who benefit from economies of scale and new market segments.

For example, camera operators can be more flexible and mobile as they can leverage 5G to connect cameras to production facilities without cables. Production teams can arrange pop-up production capabilities that use the 5G network to deliver multiple camera signals back to a central hub. Staff can mix video captured by traditional cameras with those on 5G-enabled smartphones, creating multi-camera experiences and new angles that were not possible before.

Solution portfolios, designed for next-generation media processing and delivery workflows that are 5G-ready, are being made available. Built on open standards, broadcasters can ingest and distribute any live media stream, in any format, securely to multiple destinations across any IP network, with 5G dramatically increasing network capacity to make this process faster and more reliable.

Always on the leading edge, sports have been evolving away from traditional broadcast and will continue to do so as content delivery platforms and audiences evolve.

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