The 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games might not be as big an event in global terms as the Olympics but they represent a watershed moment in Australian sports broadcasting. Clive Dickens is the COO of Seven West Media and leads the team that is bringing an unprecedented amount of broadcast and streamed sports content across the world. Seven West Media doesn't just have the local broadcast rights - they are also the host broadcaster which means they provide the images used by all the other international broadcasters covering the games. I spoke with Dickens at this week's AWS Summit about how they bring thousands of hours of sport to global audiences watching on everything from a 3.5 inch smartphone to massive screens in homes, pubs and clubs across the world.
Dickens' says the challenge is that his team has to bring as many as 23 different live events, streamed in high definition, at one time.
"During the 11 days of the Commonwealth Games, we'll stream about 1700 hours of live HD sport. Somewhere over three million Australians will stream at least five minutes of that content. At day six of the event, it's on par with the Rio 2016 Olympics. Online, it's the equivalent of an Olympics in Australia. And our broadcast audiences are greater than an Olympics," said Dickens.
The reason, in Dickens' view, is because the Commonwealth Games are full of positive stories. With the host nation's medal tally soaring, there are lots of good news stories and, he said, Australians love to watch winners.
On the technology side, Dickens said things are a lot better than even just two years ago. Mobile data costs are down, with carriers offering better deals. He added that bill shock was a barrier and that is now disappearing for many people.
Dickens said AWS has been a key partner, with Seven West Media working with them for over two years.
"Our journey with AWS started when we acquired encoding and transcoding equipment called Elemental Encoders. This was an Australian company, partly owned by Telstra. We bought this relatively expensive investment and we put it into at our head end in Melbourne to start to beam our first live to air, 24 hour streaming. Then Elemental was acquired by AWS and became AWS Elemental and that cemented the relationship".
Seven West Media also uses the Cloudfront content distribution network (CDN) from AWS in a federated model that employs Akamai and Telstra CDN solutions to ensure video streams are delivered with minimal latency at the highest possible quality in addition to very fast connectivity to those cloud services.
Anyone who has followed the changing nature of broadcast media is acutely aware that viewers are driving a shift towards any time and any device viewing. Dickens said that this is working well for the Commonwealth Games coverage. Channel Seven, the host broadcaster, is providing coverage on two free to air channels but streaming access is boosting viewer numbers significantly.
For example, while beach volleyball and swimming were being broadcast on free-to-air television, there were 16 other events available over streaming platforms.
One of the things Dickens has noted is that the volume of streaming to connected TVs is increasing. The platform Seven West Media has built allows them to know how viewers are using big screen TVs. He said devices such as Chromecast, Apple TV and HDMI connections are all significantly higher than in previous events. So, while access to mobile devices is seen as a major shift, large displays in homes remain very popular.
"Australian consumers are going to become some of the most engaged connected TV streamers in the world. We've probably got Netflix and YouTube to thank for that," said Dickens.
He noted that 52% of their streaming activity was to connected TVs and that is growing.
"It's the big story no one is talking about," said Dickens.
While major sporting events, like the Commonwealth Games, Olympics and Melbourne Cup get lots of coverage, the expansion of streaming presents a new opportunity to sports that, traditionally, have found it hard to garner lots of coverage. For example, during the Commonwealth Games, over 130 hours of badminton is being broadcast.
"On Saturday, when we were featuring swimming and cycling on broadcast, and lawn bowls and netball was our most popular streaming. Netball beat swimming and lawn bowls beat bottom line cycling. Now, the reason it beat it was because the audience that wanted swimming and cycling watched the broadcast. But the bottom line was the netball audience online was bigger than the swimming audience online".
Similarly, Dickens said the growing world of eSports is likely to be an area streaming services will target. With eSports a potential gold medal sport at the 2020 or 2024 Olympics, the opportunities.
This creates a need for broadcasters to "not age with their audiences and to capture new sports," he added. "That's important for us and for our advertisers".
Recent broadcast rights deals for major sports such as AFL and NRL have involved huge amounts of money with streaming rights often seen as secondary but that is changing. At the moment, streaming traffic accounts for about 5% of the viewing audience across all sport - including free to air and cable services such as Fox Sports. But it represents perhaps 10%-15% of the rights costs. But when that tips to more than half the rights costs, which will require reaching 30% to 40% of the viewing minutes, said Dickens, then things will be very different. But that will be several years away according to Dickens.
At the moment, traditional broadcast boasts a significant advantage over streaming platforms. Most of the supporting infrastructure is in place and the costs have been amortised and everyone has the end point equipment. But streaming is still developing and the costs of delivery and quality of service are still evolving.
"Streaming is really good at doing the things broadcast can't do. It gives you choice. It gives you high definition. It give you variety. Television broadcasting across the world is still the central point and will remain so for quite some years to come.