BBC Video Factory and iPlayer

Leveraging the Power of Elemental Cloud

The iPlayer service has proven to be incredibly popular with viewers consuming BBC content and has enjoyed unprecedented growth since its release. Such success is not without challenges however, and the BBC began to find it difficult to keep pace with the increasing demand using its original hardware-based video transcoding and delivery platform. So the BBC embarked on building Video Factory; a robust next generation content delivery platform using fully elastic video processing resources provided by Elemental® Cloud. This has enabled the BBC to instantly scale processing resources in line with consumer demand and deliver more content to more devices more quickly.

The BBC iPlayer Success Story

Ever since its first regular television transmission in 1932, the BBC has remained on the forefront of broadcast innovation. Therefore, it was no surprise when in 2006, the BBC announced an entirely new way of watching TV with iPlayer. Initially the iPlayer was web-based and featured eight national channels of catch-up TV content as well as archived material from a vast back catalogue. Though it had yet to offer all the content and features of today’s iPlayer, the application proved an instant hit with viewers.

The iPlayer’s original content delivery platform was designed and built upon hardware-based video processing equipment capable of delivering 600 hours of television programming each week to web browsers and iOS devices. The 2011 launch of a new iPlayer app for iOS and Android devices, followed by an international version, introduced a few months later, further increased demand for BBC content by 129 percent over the previous year. The tablet and smartphone versions of the iPlayer were also a huge success, with over 16 million views generated in a single year.

However, due to the inherent inflexibility of dedicated video processing hardware, the platform was not able to expand content delivery to keep pace with the phenomenal demand. As Phil Cluff of the BBC explained to an audience at Amazon’s re:Invent developer’s conference, “Our old system was pretty monolithic, pretty slow and really couldn’t cope with spikes... This industry changes constantly. You have new delivery techniques, new profiles, new devices to support. You’ve got to be able to get that out there quickly.” So the BBC began to envision how to overhaul its content delivery platform to not only keep pace with demand, but also support new devices, greater volumes of content and a host of new features.

From Ground to Cloud with Elemental

After more than a year of development in 2013, the BBC transitioned to a new content delivery system for the iPlayer called Video Factory. The new system was designed by 18 engineers in BBC Future Media and developed around a set of compartmentalized software modules to reduce risk and ensure broadcast grade resiliency. The iPlayer relies on Video Factory for content storage and uses Elemental for video processing, both on-premise and in the cloud. Describing the decision to select Elemental, Cluff told his audience, “We chose [our transcoder supplier] based on broadcaster friendly features, in our case we ended up on Elemental Cloud.”

By adopting a hybrid ground-to-cloud based approach, BBC Video Factory is more capable and prepared to handle demand spikes. This is especially critical when several premium events, such as a live music concert alongside a major sporting event, occur on the same day. Elemental video processing in the ground-based backend of Video Factory is used for creating a baseline of content including mezzanine files. Elemental Cloud then creates ABR (adaptive bitrate) video streams and manages fluctuating demand. The immediate scaling of resources made available by Elemental Cloud allows Video Factory to effortlessly handle enormous and often unpredictable spikes in demand generated by iPlayer.

For example, as Kiran Patel, Senior Product Manager for Video Factory and Video Services for BBC Future Media wrote in his blog: “At 7pm, when all the national and regional news bulletins finish on BBC ONE, we have 18 live programmes ending at the same time. We can increase the size of our transcode farm at this time to make sure all 18 are delivered without delay. Then reduce the size again after the peak so we are not paying for resources that we are not using. Without a cloud-based solution, we would either have to have programmes waiting in a queue and delay availability or we’d have to buy enough hardware to cope with the peak and have it sitting idle for the majority of time.”

Video Factory: A Live-to-VOD Powerhouse

Another of the BBC’s main objectives in designing Video Factory was to shorten the turnaround from broadcast to delivery of live programs via iPlayer. With the original iPlayer delivery system, processing a live broadcast into on-demand content would take about nine hours after broadcast, which was simply inadequate. As Marina Kalkanis, head of Core Services at BBC Future Media explained in her blog, “We get complaints when programmes take too long to become available. Live progammes are particularly challenging for us because we have to do all the online processing after the broadcast completes. This is even more challenging when many live programmes all broadcast at the same time. The 6:30 regional news bulletins are a perfect example of this. 16 live broadcasts that all end at the same time.”

By switching to Elemental Cloud with its software-defined video architecture, the BBC was able to greatly speed up the processing of video content and initially reduce delivery from nine hours to 20 minutes. After successfully automating its live-to-VOD workflow a year later, transcoding speeds have increased even further. The 30 minute One O'clock News program can now be transcoded at a speed of up to ten times the real-time duration to deliver a VOD asset in as little as three minutes.

The process begins with 24 hour captures of high quality mezzanine files for each channel (1 Gbps for SD and 3 Gbps for HD), which are broken into individual chunks and encoded into 30 Mbps MPEG-2 files in real-time. Once a broadcast ends, the mezzanine chunks are sent to Elemental Cloud where processing systems are created on the fly for parallel transcoding into multiple H.264 ABR video streams and then packaged for multiple device types.

As Cluff explained, “We always wanted to be able to scale up as many transcode resources as we needed for what programmes were on air at any time.” Using Elemental video processing, Video Factory now creates over 16TB of mezzanine video and more than two hundred thousand ABR video streaming chunks per day in support of more than a thousand devices including PCs, smart phones, tablets, smart TVs, and set-top boxes.

BBC Video Factory Workflow

The Ongoing Success of iPlayer

Since the launch of Video Factory, the iPlayer continues to enjoy exponential growth in demand for its services. The BBC now processes more than twice the amount of content at 36.5 billion minutes per year; most of which is available immediately after broadcast for up to 30 days. Live-to-VOD content from 18 standard definition and six high definition channels is made available through online streaming or file downloads.

Video Factory is also helping achieve the BBC’s vision of the iPlayer acting as not only a catch-up TV service, but also a front door to all of its broadcasting services. The BBC iPlayer receives over seven million requests per day, representing about 2 percent of overall BBC consumption. We can expect this figure to increase as viewer habits rapidly follow the advent of new multiscreen services and solutions.

To date, the iPlayer has become the UK’s largest and most popular VOD service. With the flexibility and scalability of Video Factory, relying on Elemental for video processing both on the ground and in the cloud, the BBC continues to push the envelope of innovation and serve as a model for other broadcasters around the world.

  • Founded in 1922, the BBC is a public service broadcaster serving the United Kingdom, a market of over 60 million viewers, with digital television and radio content.
  • The BBC is the world’s largest broadcaster employing over 22,000 people.
  • The BBC is primarily funded by an annual TV license of £145.50 per UK household.
  • The BBC also generates revenues through commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide and sales of news content.
  • BBC content such as Downton Abbey, Top Gear, and Doctor Who is exported around the world for rebroadcast on other national networks.
  • The BBC iPlayer was launched in 2006. An international version for the iPad was launched in 2011.

iPlayer and Live Sports

BBC data demonstrates how important live sports are online. Two events in particular drove online live requests to the iPlayer in June, 2014: group play in the World Cup and Wimbledon. This moved live requests up from the usual 11 or 12 percent to 14 percent. The highest number of live TV requests recorded by iPlayer was in August 2012 during the London Olympics, reaching an all-time high of 32 percent. Tablets and smartphones now dominate requests for video from iPlayer. Between the two of them, they account for 53 percent of all online TV requests. Clearly, big sporting events are beginning to drive streaming consumption online.

  • 50K hours of TV content
  • 100K VOD clips
  • 500+ hours of content added every week
  • Over 20 million app downloads