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Pandemic accelerated Cloud adoption among broadcasters: Amagi CEO

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The Indian media and entertainment (M&E) industry has shown remarkable resilience during the pandemic. According to a PWC report, it is expected to reach 4.1 lakh crore by 2025 with a CAGR growth of 10.75 per cent, making it the fastest-growing entertainment and media market globally in terms of consumer and advertising revenue.

IANS spoke to Baskar Subramanian, Co-founder and CEO, Amagi, a next-generation media technology company, to get his insights into how cloud-led technology solutions have challenged the status quo in the industry creating radical changes in content consumption and monetisation patterns globally.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Content is king in the media and entertainment industry. But what has become equally important in recent years is the technology to deliver content and enhance the viewer experience. Tell us about how Amagi adds value to content creators?

Amagi’s solutions are tailored to the needs of every type of broadcaster/content provider – from traditional TV networks to new age (digital-first) content owners.

Using its Cloud-born products and services, Amagi enables content brands to build different types of channels, be it live, linear or on-demand. Furthermore, it distributes content in diverse formats to multiple end-points such as cable, satellite, OTT and Free Ad-Supported Streaming TV (FAST) platforms, using its award-winning channel playout solution, Amagi CLOUDPORT.

Amagi’s FAST network is currently unmatched in the world, with 50+ FAST platform partnerships and 100 other OTT platform partnerships globally.

Amagi’s cloud solutions also allow content creators to significantly enhance the quality of their content by adding multi-layered dynamic graphics and rich video effects. For instance, Amagi supports live sports, news and weather channels with HTML graphics to render real time scores and data.

To ensure that content brands are able to monetize their content without disrupting their audiences’ viewing experience, we have devised mechanisms for dynamic brand insertions and contextual ad placements into the content, wherein, in-stream ad messages, relevant to the video content, are placed right within the video stream.

However, delivering an outstanding viewing experience goes beyond enhancing the video quality and offering new, innovative ways of monetizing content. Content brands also need to understand the pulse of their audience, and tailor content and ad strategies to their preferences.

The Amagi ANALYTICS platform is a powerful tool that equips content providers and platforms with a comprehensive overview of consumer viewing habits, empowering them with the data they need to build successful programming and ad strategies.

Did the Covid pandemic act as a catalyst for traditional media broadcasters to rapidly adopt cloud-based software solutions for creation and distribution of their content?

The pandemic definitely accelerated cloud adoption among broadcasters. The inaccessibility to their on-premise systems, combined with the restrictions on human movement, forced many broadcasters to look at alternatives. Cloud was a natural choice. Having moved their operations to the cloud, they realized its many other inherent advantages.

Some broadcasters had shown early technology leadership by adopting cloud-based broadcast workflows before the onset of the pandemic, and hence ended up reaping the benefits during the lockdown.

Amagi’s work with A+E Networks UK, a leading media network, is a typical example. In Q4 2019, A+E Networks UK initiated a cloud playout transition for the operations of its entire portfolio of 26 channels in Europe.

The transition to cloud enabled A+E Networks UK to access their broadcast operations from any remote location through a simple web UI, and control and manage all aspects of the workflow. This was a boon for them during the Covid-19 isolation measures. All their channel operations continued with no extra risk, while safeguarding the health and safety of personnel allowing them to manage operations from remote locations.

How are you helping your customers in content monetisation in terms of their AVOD (advertising-based video on demand) strategy?

Free Ad Supported Streaming TV (FAST), a subset of Advertising Video-On-Demand (AVOD) offers viewers the simplicity of linear TV-like experience, with ad breaks that are shorter and tailored to their interest, without having to incur any Pay TV expenses. The FAST phenomenon has seen worldwide adoption as more and more viewers prefer the ease and affordability of linear TV over subscription-based streaming.

Using our channel playout solution, Amagi CLOUDPORT, we help content owners build linear channels complete with advanced graphics, programming and ad schedules. 300+ content brands have chosen to engage Amagi’s services to amplify their distribution across FAST. This includes USA TODAY, Fremantle, beIN Sports, Yahoo! Finance, Tastemade, Qwest TV, Shout! Factory, Cinedigm, VICE UK and more.

Amagi also offers an unmatched distribution network – 50+ FAST platform and other 100 OTT platform partnerships – to content brands, helping them reach over 200 million homes around the world. Our FAST platform partners include The Roku Channel, Samsung TV Plus, VIZIO, Plex, Rakuten TV, Peacock, Pluto TV, IMDb TV, Samsung TV Plus, XUMO, STIRR, and more.Furthermore, Amagi’s virtual ad sales service, Amagi ADS PLUS, helps content owners sell their unsold ad inventory on linear streaming channels by creating attractive bundles of unsold inventories, thereby increasing their ad revenues on FAST. Amagi’s long-standing content partner, Cinedigm, was able to increase its ad revenues by 47% by employing Amagi’s ad tech solutions.

Which are the large broadcasters which are now using Amagi in the US and EMEA markets? What is Amagi’s USP for such broadcasters?

NBCUniversal, Fox, PBS, PBS America, ABS-CBN and A+E Networks UK are some of the biggest broadcasters availing Amagi’s services across the US and EMEA today.

For them, Amagi offers a whole host of solutions to ease or enhance every stage of their broadcast operations, using our cloud-native solutions.

This includes using the cloud to virtualize their broadcast operations, manage their content distribution across cable and OTT platforms, manage their live, non-live and on-demand content, and monetise their content.

Unlike other legacy vendors who are simply migrating their services to the cloud, Amagi’s USP is that its products and services have been architected entirely on the cloud, bringing with it an inherent set of capabilities that cloud-migrated legacy applications cannot offer.

For instance, ABS-CBN, a leading entertainment network from the Philippines, were keen to expand their reach further and add flexibility and scalability to their operations. ABS-CBN chose Amagi’s award-winning channel playout solution, Amagi CLOUDPORT.

By leveraging multiple competencies of Amagi on the cloud – spinning up and deliver channels on the go, adding feature-rich graphic templates to live and on-demand content, among others – ABS-CBN was able to do away with a lot of existing legacy infrastructure, which translated into lower costs, fewer overheads, more efficient operations, and the ability to free up resources to focus on other priorities.

Amagi’s flexible engagement model is another value add for large broadcasters. We offer three types of engagement models – Bring Your Own License, Software as a Service and Managed Services – enabling broadcasters to deploy the model that best fits their needs. For example, Amagi has created a differentiated offering for NBCUniversal in USA and UK, based on their custom requirements – Managed Services in the UK and Bring Your Own License in USA.

For this year’s Olympics, you partnered with NBCUniversal to provide an Ultra HD feed for broadcast in the United States for the first time, with everything being controlled on the cloud. Can you tell us more about how you leverage the cloud?

Amagi’s cloud-native technology enabled the playout of 4K live feeds of the Olympics in UHD. This was an impressive feat considering the challenging nature of UHD transmission over the cloud. Amagi’s services to the NBC Sports Group included extensive customization of our solution to suit the requirements of the Olympics broadcast.

The entire event was managed remotely, but in a distributed environment – the games were held in Tokyo, the feeds of the live broadcast were processed from Bangalore, India, and distributed to audiences primarily in the US, with local support from Amagi & NBC Sports Group’s US entities. An event like the Olympics would require on-demand channels to be created specifically for the event. Amagi’s resources were scaled up only for the duration of the event, after which the systems were brought down.

Amagi delivered rich, high-quality UHD video streams using standard, off-the-shelf, cost-effective Central Processing Units, where most other cloud providers would have employed expensive Graphic Processing Units. Further, Amagi also ran its software on two independent infrastructures for US East and US West to ensure that disruptions or catastrophic incidents in any of the regions did not affect the overall broadcast.

With these measures, Amagi was able to demonstrate to the broadcasting industry that cloud is an ideal solution for the needs of complex, large-scale live event transmissions.

What business outcomes did cloud technology enable you to deliver?

The range of services offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) is currently unmatched. Like most cloud-born companies, Amagi has used the AWS public cloud infrastructure from the very beginning for its business operations. At least 50 different AWS services, including its entire Media Suite, have been employed by Amagi. Each service has contributed extensively to our business process performance enhancement. Every stage of our business lifecycle, from onboarding a customer to customer business expansion, has become smoother and quicker. For example, a new customer onboarding process can be completed within mere minutes using AWS services.

In terms of cost reductions, AWS EC2, AWS Lambda and other cloud computing platforms offered by AWS are highly customizable to the customer needs. Each of these services come with different pricing plans that customers can select based on their usage of the services.

The AWS Spot Instance is another cost reduction solution wherein customers can bid for the spare EC2 capacity, which is offered by AWS at a 30-35 per cent reduced price range. This feature has helped Amagi to reduce our expenses considerably (upto 70 per cent): a service we pass on to our customers in turn.

The solutions AWS roll out into the market are always at a mature, ‘ready-to-use’ stage, invalidating the need for further testing and gauging of its dependability. Take the example of the AWS private links, which allows us to securely send video streams to our customer accounts. This feature, when launched in early 2017, needed just about two to three weeks to deploy, enabling secure, smooth transactions between us and our customers.

Further, among all the cloud providers, AWS has the highest geographical coverage. As a media/video tech provider, latency reduction is paramount to our services. By channelling AWS’s reach in our own service offerings, Amagi has been able to reduce latencies to single digits or lower double-digit levels for our customers.

AWS always ensures that they have at least three availability zones when opening their services in a region. It ensures that AWS customers, such as Amagi, can offer multi-region services to their customers, in turn.

For example, Amagi offers smart hitless switching to insure against a major outage in one geographical region, wherein, if the entire redundant input from one region goes down, the end output stays hitless, ensuring uninterrupted broadcast. The backbone for this service comes from the widespread reach and easy accessibility of AWS’s public cloud infrastructure.

AWS offers an exhaustive dashboard to its customers which makes it incredibly easy to keep track of the service usage, billing and payment related workflows per account and per region. It also helps us identify and control service errors or under/over utilised resources easily, making the account management process smooth and efficient.

For risk improvements, we conduct quarterly and half yearly Foundational Technical Reviews (FTR) and security audits with AWS Service Architects to keep our security measures up to date and reduce overall risks.

On a personal front, tell us about some of the most memorable highlights and inflection points of your career?

From the early years of my childhood, I have had a keen interest in entrepreneurship and software development. I have always wanted to use software innovatively to make a mark on the world. While I initially sought to follow an academic career and enrolled myself for an M.Tech in IIT, I realised that I would much rather be out there building technology solutions for business needs. The Microsoft success story was a very big instigator in my life. It gave me the conviction I needed that software has the potential to create a big impact, and completely change the way the world functions.

Years later, when my co-founders and I decided to start our own company, we looked at how software could impact an industry that was in much need of technology transformation. When we founded Amagi in 2008, we were novices in the Media & Entertainment industry, looking at it from the outside in. But that perspective gave us many insights on how technology can play a part in bringing about agility and scalability into an otherwise legacy-driven, hardware intensive business ecosystem.

My co-founders, Srividhya Srinivasan, Srinivasan KA and I, founded Amagi to pioneer cloud-based broadcast and advertising technology solutions. The company originally started in India providing targeted TV advertising solutions. But we quickly pivoted our services to lead cloud adoption and evangelized cloud technologies for broadcast, when we realized the potential cloud offered in terms of flexibility and scalability of broadcast operations.

Amagi successfully introduced a flexible ‘pay-as-you-go’ model for launching and operating 24/7 linear channels by eliminating the need for traditional, hardware-driven, large, expensive physical operations. The company essentially put the entire broadcast operations on the cloud.

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