Operators who have added the timeshift features to their TV platform are amazed by the uptake rate among their subscribers. Whether it comes under the name of “Replay TV”, “Restart Anytime”, “Catch Up” or a number of its other commercial names, timeshifted viewing is a feature with great crowd appeal. As more subscribers use and enjoy the flexibility that this feature provides, TV operators keep their TV packages competitive by adding timeshifting to more channels, featuring timeshifting as an add-on, or extending the window of time when a viewer is permitted to access previously aired content. As an example, at the time this article was written, Canada’s Shaw Communications featured timeshifting as an add-on to their packages. The Digital Advantage offered 225 channels, the Ultimate Choice included over 295 channels, and Western Life over 390 channels, and a subscriber could add the timeshifted channel bundle (some US and Canadian channels, some HD and others SD) for the price of $6.00 per month, no matter the package.
Sometimes, timeshifting capabilities are bundled with the purchase of a new set-top box, incentivizing subscribers to upgrade their service. Virgin Media in the UK, for example, has enabled Catch-Up TV functions through their recently launched Virgin TV V6 set-top box (which offers a full terabyte of storage). Subscribers can upgrade to this new set-top box for £49.95.
In addition, there are operators who advertise timeshifting as a free, already included feature, available to subscribers at no additional cost.
However it looks on the consumer side of things, timeshifting has various additional costs on the operator’s side. The costs of timeshift TV can be split into two main areas:
The capital costs include the software, servers, and storage that support timeshift TV.
Some middleware platforms like Ericsson’s Mediaroom 2.0 incorporate timeshifting within their platform, while other platforms require the addition of a third-party application for managing all of the functions of a timeshift TV service. Therefore, the software cost for operators lies either in the cost of their established middleware (or in an upgrade to this middleware), or in the addition of a third party application. To offer an example, Stockholm-based company Edgeware offers various manifestations of timeshifting in their Content Delivery Network solutions.
It appears that many TV operators choose to roll out Timeshift TV on a gradual basis, extending the feature and creating upgraded services over time as they add more servers and storage. In a general sense, the streaming capacity of the servers and the uptake of timeshift features by subscribers determine the number of servers needed. More specifically, the number of servers depends on the number of simultaneous subscribers invoking the feature, as well as the bandwidth of the channels. For example, 100 subscribers invoking a “Catch Up” feature on a live channel at 8Mbps requires 800Mbps. There are companies, like aforementioned Edgeware, who have configured TV solutions that intelligently and strategically stream from different servers, depending on specific timeshift use in each case, maximizing on available bandwidth to create optimal bitrates at lower costs.
The cost of timeshift storage depends on several factors:
The type of storage being used - personal or network
PVR and DVR features are older than the more recent arrivals of Catch-Up and Start Over timeshifting. Since many PVR and DVR systems began by using personal storage devices in the set-top box to create copies of content, in recent years with the availability of cloud storage, many operators are undergoing a change in their timeshift storage, recording the shows on cloud/network storage in addition to (or instead of) at-home devices. Cloud storage for timeshift TV provides a degree of dynamic scalability not found in personal storage, as operators rely less on the maintenance and upgrading of at-home devices as they scale their service. It can also be less expensive to maintain, as there are no at-home devices that need replacement and repair. Cloud storage can also simplify the management of content by keeping content copies all in one place, so to speak.
The operator’s specific timeshift TV configuration
Far from standard, timeshifting comes in various forms. In addition to where content is stored, storage costs change significantly based upon how far back in time subscribers can “travel” to watch content. The type of timeshift TV that introduces a Pause capability for momentarily pausing live TV often uses personal set-top box or attached USB storage to record and buffer a relatively short segment of content. The popular DVR and PVR features are both forms of timeshifting; these use either a set-top box, network storage, or a combination of both. Timeshifting is also manifested as a as a Start Over function that lets subscribers restart a live show from the beginning, and as Catch-Up function for watching shows that have already aired. Some Catch-Up features provide access to an entire week’s worth of previously aired content; in these cases, a personal storage device would never have the storage space necessary for the hundreds of hours of content, and so it is stored on network storage and unicast to the subscriber’s device.
The number of channels that can be timeshifted
Simply put, more channels = more storage. A rough example of what these storage requirements might be for a Catch Up TV feature: based upon the estimate that storage is at 4GB per hour per channel, if a subscriber can catch up on 72 hours-worth of TV from a choice of 50 channels, an operator would need 14,400 GB of storage.
Storage costs will vary based upon whether the content is in SD, HD, or Ultra HD format. Often, operators feature a varied collection of timeshift-able channels, with some in HD and others in SD. An example of this can be found in Shaw’s previously mentioned bundles, which include a mixture of SD and HD channels.
Aside from the capital costs of servers, software, and storage, timeshifting requires ongoing operational resources. This is where the landscape of rules, regulations, and rights comes into focus. An operator’s ability to offer the various types of timeshift TV depends on government regulations, as well as content rights and business rules established between the content providers and service providers (of course, in real life the line between content providers and TV service providers is often blurred, but for the purposes of examining the content distribution process, we will consider them as two separate components). Rights and rules assigned to each piece of content need to be correctly entered into the service provider’s Content Management System (CMS) tool for every channel and program. When a program is broadcast in a linear fashion, this process is relatively simple, but when a program is capable of being replayed at any point in time on a number of consumer devices over the duration of a week, rights management grows more complex. With the added flexibility of timeshift TV to fine-tune the delivery of every piece of content comes the responsibility to, well, fine-tune the delivery of every single piece of content.
As an example, in Ericsson’s Mediaroom middleware, operational teams input content rights using the Service Management Tool (SMT). Steps required to complete this tasks are displayed in the following graphic (assumes familiarity with the SMT, familiarity with timeshift configuration tools, and completion of baseline “Restart Anytime” server configuration):
As evidenced by the above explanation, this is a labour intensive operation that requires a dedicated team of engineers who know their way around the SMT.
To go into further detail, we perform a sample calculation of the resources that a Catch-Up feature can require (while the numbers may vary depending on the mix of content providers, the resource load has been confirmed with several operators). This calculation examines a scenario in Ericsson’s Mediaroom where an operator plans to roll out 20 “Restart” channels, moving to 65 shortly afterwards.
The breakdown below illustrates a model where an operator has to take the rights data forms provided by a content provider, search for each corresponding program in Mediaroom’s SMT, and either confirm that rights are assigned properly or modify accordingly. This has to be re-done each time a new rights data form is delivered, and does not take into account any additional effort spent on any schedule changes that occur in the EPG.
– 20 events per channel per day to be inspected and/or adjusted for rights
– Estimate 3 minutes per event via SMT = 1200 minutes, or 20 hours
– 20 hrs/day of required tasks * $15/hr pay rate * 365 days =
Cost for 20 channels: $109,500.00 per year
Cost for 65 channels: $355,875.00 per year
In addition to this cost, something not immediately apparent in the numbers is the risk of human error inherent in repetitive manual tasks. Since these rights and rules are configured in the same Mediaroom portal that controls all live services, the result of an error can affect the delivery of TV.
Timeshifting is a popular feature, and can be packaged, marketed, and configured in various ways. In order to maximize the benefits of offering timeshift features, TV operators have two courses of action: maximize revenue by marketing timeshift TV as part of an attractive consumer upgrade, or adopt solutions that cut the operational costs of offering timeshift TV. An example of one of these solutions can be found in Encore Interactive’s Automated Rights Manager, a solution designed to eliminate operational costs associated with timeshift TV content rights management. A solution that uses machine learning to automatically assign and translate these rights, the ARM solution brings additional security, risk management, and historical tracking and audits.