Sunday Night Football Extra on NBC Sports

NBC Streams Sunday Night Football in HD to Millions of Fans Through Interactive Player

NBC HD Player

With the 2009 NFL season, NBC Universal wanted to attract and engage football fans with an online, interactive program that complemented its live broadcast of Sunday Night Football. NBC engaged several technology partners to build the experience around Microsoft Silverlight 3 and Internet Information Services (IIS) Smooth Streaming, which adapts the quality of a video stream for each user in real time. NBC created a unique experience that let the audience watch games in HD on the Web while enjoying unprecedented access to five synchronized camera angles, intuitive DVR controls coupled with markers from a game’s key plays, real-time statistics from the NFL, and live interaction with commentators. Sunday Night Football Extra successfully streamed 1 million hours of video to approximately 2.2 million unique visitors, complete with innovative monetization opportunities for the company.

Situation

For the past several years, NFL Sunday Night Football has held a prominent position in the pantheon of NBC television programming, anchoring the network’s Sunday evening broadcast schedule a critical time slot for advertising. Since 2006, when the company acquired the broadcasting rights for the event from ESPN, the franchise has attracted an average of 16 million viewers nationwide per week. In 2009, Sunday Night Football dominated prime-time ratings, consistently ranking first in its time slot.

Beginning in 2007, the network decided to also provide live coverage of the game online, in concert with the on-air broadcast, branding the experience as Sunday Night Football Extra. “The goal has always been to offer a compelling two-screen opportunity so that fans can enjoy a thoroughly interactive and satisfying viewing experience,” says Perkins Miller, Senior Vice President of Digital Media at NBC Sports.

Goals for the 2009 Sunday Night Football Extra experience included:

Improving video delivery quality 
During the first two years of its coverage of Sunday Night Football, NBC offered the simultaneous webcast of the game through a video player built on Adobe Flash technology. Because of the inability in previous iterations of the technology to dynamically adapt the bit rate of the video stream, viewers with lower bandwidth or slower computer processors frequently experienced long periods of video buffering, stuttering, and degraded picture quality.

Ensuring scalability 
NBC needed to ensure that the technology worked with the content delivery network so that it could scale to support large audiences.

Providing a more interactive experience 
NBC wanted to provide fans with an experience that was more than “just the video” of the broadcast. The company wanted to offer expanded digital video recorder (DVR) controls, including instant replay and slow motion, while incorporating social media elements, such as live chat and Twitter updates from commentators on the field.

Increasing monetization 
NBC executives had a particular focus on increasing the flexibility and sophistication of the advertising model employed during Sunday Night Football Extra. In particular, the network wanted the ability to dynamically deliver ads rather than simply serving static ad content. In addition, the network wanted to be able to respond to analytics with targeted ads during the program.

“The NBC brand is synonymous with unmatched quality,” says Miller. “We challenged ourselves to raise the bar even higher to exceed expectations for the presentation of one of our marquee events.”

To add to the complexity of the project, NBC needed the completely revamped Sunday Night Football Extra player to be fully operational in less than three months.

Solution

NBC selected Microsoft Silverlight and Internet Information Services (IIS) Smooth Streaming technology running on Windows Server 2008 to help it execute on this high-profile initiative. Says Miller, “We evaluated many different technologies for delivering high-quality experiences online, and none of the solutions we looked at offered the video quality, scalability, and business value that Microsoft Silverlight and Smooth Streaming consistently delivered.”

IIS Smooth Streaming, a feature of IIS Media Services, is HTTP based adaptive streaming, which is a hybrid media delivery method. It acts like streaming but is based on HTTP progressive download. The HTTP downloads are performed in a series of small fragments, enabling the media to be easily and cost-effectively cached along the edge of the network and closer to clients.

These file fragments are created virtually upon client request, but the actual video is stored on disk as a single, full-length file per encoded bit rate. Providing multiple encoded bit rates of the same media source also lets Silverlight clients seamlessly and dynamically switch between bit rates in response to network conditions and CPU utilization.

The NBC team worked closely with Microsoft business and technical leaders and a number of independent network infrastructure, content distribution, and application development firms to create the complete program.

Player Development
The NBC project management team tapped Point Richmond, California based Vertigo, an award-winning design and development firm, to build the Sunday Night Football Extra client application based on Silverlight 3. The Vertigo team used Microsoft Visual Studio Team System as its core development environment to create the player in just three months with a team of four developers, two designers, and two testers. To keep the design and development process efficient while still delivering advanced elements, the team took advantage of features such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator importing capabilities found in the Microsoft Expression Blend 3 interactive design tool.

By using the MVVM pattern in combination with Expression Blend and other key features of Silverlight, such as Binding and Behaviors, Vertigo was able to create a dynamic designer-developer workflow, enabling delivery of a feature-rich application within a short time frame.

Support for Rich Features
Using the IIS Smooth Streaming Player Development Kit (PDK), the Vertigo team set out to deliver the ultimate fan experience by creating a Silverlight-based player that incorporated the following rich features:

  • Multiple, fully synchronized video windows, reflecting five distinct camera angles and video feeds, with full-screen high-definition (HD) video available through the main camera angle. To support seamless viewing of the five video feeds, Vertigo used an API to filter each stream so that the main screen was at full bit rate (3.5 Mbps) and the smaller screens were played at a low bit rate (50 Kbps, with no buffering).
  • Full support for DVR playback, including intuitive controls for activating instant replay, slow motion, rewind, and fast forward.
  • In-stream integration of NFL Game Statistic and Information System (GSIS) data, including player and team statistics across a range of offensive and defensive categories. NFL officials located at the venue manually entered key-play data, which was then encoded and pushed to the player, eliminating the need for Vertigo to build in functionality for the player to pull that data.
  • Key-plays timeline synchronized with the live video feeds offering real-time highlights footage.

“Smooth Streaming was the key to delivering HD quality video over the Web to as many people as possible while still providing good-quality video to users with lower bandwidth,” says Mike Moser, Senior Architect at Vertigo. “And because Smooth Streaming dynamically detects local changes in connectivity, we could always make sure that users were getting the best-quality experience without any buffering issues.”

In addition to these features, Vertigo used APIs through the Smooth Streaming Media Element control in Silverlight to enable dynamic rendering of diverse ad content based on adaptable business rules. The Vertigo team incorporated the live ad insertion capabilities offered through Smooth Streaming Media Element to enable the following ad opportunities:

  • Video midroll and companion ads, which were dynamically inserted into the video player during the game.
  • Video midroll and companion ads, which were dynamically inserted into the video player during the game.
  • Sponsorship of both the highlights and sideline interviews.
  • Banner ads during video playback.

The Smooth Streaming Media Element is at the core of the Silverlight Media Framework, which enables developers to quickly deploy a robust, scalable, customizable media player for IIS Smooth Streaming delivery.


Sunday Night Football Extra Production Solution Facts
Time frame 3 months
Tools and technologies • IIS 7
• Silverlight Media Framework
• Silverlight Rough Cut Editor
Encoder • 10 Inlet Spinnaker 7000 encoders
• 2 operators to manage the encoders during production
Average number of users per game 140,000
GSIS timeline tool • 4 developers
• 60 days
Silverlight Rough Cut Editor integration 3 weeks

Seamless Delivery of Source Content
Las Vegas based iStreamPlanet used APIs in the IIS Smooth Streaming PDK to add support for synchronizing multiple camera angles. To synchronize all of the video feeds, the team muxed (multiplexed) the standard-definition (SD) feeds into a single ASI feed, which iStreamPlanet uplinked to an AMC-6 satellite and downlinked at its distribution facility in Las Vegas. The feeds were then demuxed into individual feeds, fed into 10 Inlet Spinnaker 7000 Smooth Streaming encoders, and pushed to the Microsoft Edge Computer Network facility and then to the content distribution network. All video feeds are contained in a single manifest, along with tracks for audio and text. “The API we used for syncing all of the data in the fragmented .mp4 files made it possible to land all of the feeds on the same timeline without running lots of background processes,” says Mio Babic, CEO of iStreamPlanet.

However, the team still needed to deliver a way to create highlight clips, indicate when specific ads should be aired, and push GSIS data to the player. To fulfill these goals, the team did the following:

  • Key-play data inclusion. iStreamPlanet created an application to receive, parse, and deliver the key-play data directly to the Silverlight player. To coordinate the game’s video and audio feeds with the statistics and other data, iStreamPlanet used RESTful APIs to extract the manifest start time code and then synchronize the video feed with extracted key-play data.
  • Live ad insertion. iStreamPlanet created a tool that gave ad operators from NBC the ability to choose a preconfigured ad pod and select a precise timeline marker for delivery. The tool synchronizes the ad track with the other feeds in the .mp4 file and inserts the ad content at the designated time.
  • Highlight video-clip insertion. iStreamPlanet created RESTful APIs to integrate the content management system with the Silverlight Rough Cut Editor, which the production editor uses to create video-clip highlights of the big plays.

Optimal Use of Content Distribution Network Infrastructure
Another important consideration in ensuring the success of Sunday Night Football Extra was the ability to support thousands of simultaneous streams and broadcast-sized audiences online. The NBC project team turned to Akamai to provide the network infrastructure resources to support the webcast. With Smooth Streaming, NBC was able take full advantage of Akamai’s highly distributed HTTP based content delivery network of 56,000 servers to maximize scalability. Moreover, the alignment of IIS Smooth Streaming technology with the standard configuration of the network enabled more robust edge caching to drive faster, more reliable delivery of content to viewers.


Sunday Night Football Extra Fast Facts
Total number of football games 17
Average viewing time 29 minutes
Amount of video streamed Apprximately 1 million hours
Total number of unique visitors 2.2 million (over 17 games)
Total peak concurrent users 38,500
Video support • One 720p HD main broadcast feed
• Four 480p SD alternate camera angles
Tools and technologies • IIS 7
• IIS Media Services
• Silverlight Rough Cut Editor

Real-Time Performance Monitoring
To enable real-time performance tracking of the video delivery infrastructure, California-based Conviva integrated its Pulse management console with the player application. This gave NBC the opportunity to monitor video quality, viewer engagement, distribution resource performance, and operational diagnostics throughout the live event to quickly troubleshoot concerns.

Benefits

The NBC project team managed the development and implementation of the Sunday Night Football Extra HD video player and launched the program in just three months. By the end of the 2009 season, Sunday Night Football Extra had successfully streamed 1 million hours of video to approximately 2.2 million unique visitors and provided a unique complement to the traditional broadcast. In addition, the network was able to capitalize on innovative monetization opportunities through a highly flexible ad model that was responsive to the different ways in which viewers interacted with the video player. This capability enabled the NBC sales team to create and promote unique sponsorship tailored to customer needs.

“When we kicked off this project, our chief goal was to offer a unique, compelling online experience that matched the quality of our world-class, on-air broadcast,” says Miller. “IIS Smooth Streaming with Silverlight was the key to delivering the best-quality video to the largest number of viewers.”

High-Quality, Differentiated Viewing Experience
With the adaptive-streaming capabilities offered through IIS 7 and Silverlight, NBC met and exceeded its major objectives for Sunday Night Football Extra. “The technology made it possible to deliver premium features like multiple camera angles and real-time integration of statistical data,” notes Miller. “This interactive experience keeps viewers engaged longer.” Over the course of 17 games, NBC attracted 2.2 million unique viewers to the program and recorded an average viewing time of 29 minutes.

Proven Scalability 
Because IIS Smooth Streaming is designed to make the most efficient use of HTTP, it can rapidly scale across Akamai’s HTTP based content delivery network without requiring Akamai to adjust its network configuration. This efficiency supported the transmission of larger packets across the network up to 3.5 Mbps for HD streams while delivering optimum service quality and availability. Even during a particularly large spike in viewership in week 10 of the season, when the peak number of viewers doubled, NBC was able to deliver an uninterrupted viewing experience to Sunday Night Football fans.

“The Akamai HD Network is designed to support broadcast-sized audiences. Consequently, it never broke a sweat throughout the entire season,” says Joshua Simpson, Technical Project Manager at Akamai. “Because IIS Smooth Streaming takes advantage of cacheable HTTP, we were able to make the best use of our edge delivery network to drive faster distribution of the content and minimize response times.”

Rapid Development of the Player Application
With the ability of Silverlight to speed development through familiar markup and controls based on XML, combined with integrated productivity tools such as Expression Blend and Visual Studio, the designers and developers at Vertigo were able to work better together and push the limits of interactive innovation. By using the flexible file import tools in Expression Blend 3 and reusable drag-and-drop behaviors in Silverlight, the team from Vertigo was able to deliver a functional prototype of the player in one week. The eight-person team created a functional prototype within the first week and completed the project in just three months.

“Silverlight and Expression Blend gave us the tools we needed to quickly prototype our best design ideas and then make sure those experiences carried through to the final iteration,” says Moser. “This enabled us to deliver a highly polished, feature-rich product in a short period of time.”

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