The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is the United Kingdom’s public broadcaster. Established in 1922, the BBC is the oldest national broadcaster and largest media company in the world. Today 96% of British adults use its TV, radio or online service every week, and they do so for 18.5 hours each week.
Introduction to BBC iPlayer
When the BBC introduced its iPlayer in 2006, the streaming catch-up service broke new ground. Each week, it delivered 600 hours of TV programs, giving Brits the once seemingly impossible opportunity to travel back in time and recover their lost viewing pleasures. The audience boomed and by 2013, the iPlayer attracted seven million views each day across 1,000 devices and platforms via PC, mobile, tablet and TV. Dealing with a year-on-year growing audience and using an infrastructure with limited growth capacity that could not handle spikes in demand easily, BBC decided to build a new workflow for iPlayer. The goals were to make the new workflow better than the old in every way BBC could. This would mean: adding more resiliency, more scalability, faster delivery and make it more cost efficient. This is Video Factory – a completely in-house from the ground up re-build of the ingest, transcode and delivery workflows for iPlayer – making use of a public cloud platform. A cloud platform would help BBC to manage more live broadcasts in parallel, for example the 6:30 regional news bulletins all end at the same time and there are 16 of them. Cloud computing offers BBC the flexibility to scale on demand, when needed and only pay for what has been used.
How BBC Video Factory uses Unified Origin
Responding to the need for the update, in September 2013, the BBC stopped using the monolithic outdated production service and moved its iPlayer to the cloud, thus launching Video Factory. This system allows live broadcasts to be captured, sent to the cloud for transcoding and packaged on demand. For this crucial last step in the delivery process, Unified Streaming provided the BBC with Unified Origin. Unified Origin is a single solution that prepares all content for all formats. It seamlessly integrates into any existing workflow and content management systems. Advanced options for additional audio and/or DRM are handled via a straightforward command-line. The small footprint of Unified Origin and very efficient use of resources makes the software a perfect candidate for using in a cloud based solution.
Once Video Factory took over the production of all its iPlayer content, BBC saw improvements. “Using elastic computing and doing our video transcoding in the cloud meant we had none of the bottlenecks that impacted the old system,” wrote Kiran Patel, executive product manager for Video Factory and video services for BBC Future Media, in a July 2014 blog post. He also praised the new system’s ability to “remove all limits in content production,” which allowed the BBC to have “doubled the total number of hours of video available on BBC iPlayer” and to have “increased the number of HD hours by almost 700%.” The other major benefit, he wrote, was that Video Factory could keep content available to viewers for 30 days.
Fast-forward to July 2015, Patel reports that he and his colleagues have further fine-tuned Video Factory and “decided to make big changes.” To optimize video quality and reuse of assets between devices, BBC’s R&D and media services teams have newly designed 14 video profiles and five audio profiles that can be combined to create adaptive bitrate (ABR) sets for all supported devices. They have also decided to make the HD stream an adaptive set. Patel praises the decision to switch to chunked video formats – HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) and HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) – which are now used not only for live streaming but for all new content. Video Factory’s distribution model has undergone a transformation, too. What were once 23 separate files are now merged into a single multi-tracked media file that serves as a reference to create all necessary media variants to support combinations of ABR sets and distribution protocol. The transcode workflow was similarly streamlined: from creating and publishing separate assets, through transcoding all video and audio components, to creating and publishing a single asset.
Continued collaboration with Unified Streaming
“The reason we can store a single file and still serve out so many variants from that file is the addition of a dynamic packaging and caching layer,” blogged Patel, referring to the solution provided by Unified Streaming. The BBC executive product manager went on to note that: “Collaboration between BBC R&D and Media Services, as well as with our packaging software provider (Unified Streaming) and the engineering teams that build the BBC’s TV and Mobile products and the Media Player team, means we can soon start offering streams as DASH on supported connected TV devices, some mobiles and as an opt-in on desktops via HTML5.” Unified Streaming remains committed to providing the best service for cloud-compatible broadcasting, such as that used by BBC. Video Factory has revolutionized the digital viewing experience for BBC audiences, and the broadcaster says this is just the beginning. As Danny Cohen, director of BBC Television, promises: “From new programming exclusive to BBC iPlayer, to new online and pop-up channels around special interests or major events, BBC iPlayer will be bursting with more content than ever.”
- Unified Origin proved to be a stabile, reliable and scalable streaming solution providing all video and audio streams for iPlayer
- Deploying Unified Origin in a public cloud worked out very well making use of the light weight “http only” architecture of Unified Origin and it’s efficient use of resources.
- Supporting new devices and introducing new formats is very easy using dynamic packaging which doesn’t require changing the source content or catalogue.