Consumers want access to their favorite sporting events, on-demand and via a variety of devices at high-quality. They have no interest in dealing with the underlying technology and plumbing issues involved with enabling such services. That -- at least within NBC -- is Eric Black's job.
Since 2015, Black has been the CTO of NBC Sports Group Digital, responsible for all websites, applications and services delivered to connected devices across the 15,000 events the broadcaster delivers digitally. He is also the head of Playmaker Media, a separate division within the company that provides video streaming infrastructure and support for third parties streaming high-quality and high-volume video content.
Black's team has been responsible for the delivery of a number of high-profile events including five Olympic Games, two Super Bowls (as well as regular season games), NHL, NBA and NASCAR racing. Playmaker Media also provided the technology and support for the US Presidential debates and 2016 election coverage for NBC News.
More recently, NBC's Playmaker Media announced a partnership with Turner Sports' iStreamPlanet, and together they will be responsible for streaming the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Super Bowl and the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. They also supported the streaming of the recently concluded "March Madness" college basketball games.
Black has a rather full trophy cupboard, with six Emmy awards, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for 9/11 coverage in 2004. Telco Transformation chatted with him following the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona earlier this year.
Telco Transformation: What is Playmaker Media, and how did it come about?
Eric Black: It was built out from purpose-built technology within the NBC Sports group. During the broadcast of several large-scale events, such as the Beijing Olympics and NFL games, we saw that we needed an in-house solution to deliver video streams over the Internet at scale. It was necessary to manage that volume of video streaming.
We needed a solution that was highly efficient, cost-effective and highly scalable. And that [technology platform] has allowed us to provide a high-quality experience to viewers for very large events. We've also forged industry-leading partnerships in order to make this happen, and now deliver 15,000 plus events per year. And this is international as well -- we are delivering NASCAR to 120 countries around the world with the TrackPass subscription service.
[TrackPass is the first digital subscription service aimed at international NASCAR fans, offering live races in 120 countries and territories, with plans to expand further over the course of 2017. NASCAR selected Playmaker Media to provide the underlying technology, not just for video streaming but also payment processing, CRM, website and app development.]
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TT: You mentioned industry leading partners. Can you talk about the partnership with iStreamPlanet?
EB: Yes, of course. So we [NBC Sports Group] announced our partnership with iStreamPlanet at CES earlier this year. It's an exclusive partnership and brings together our combined expertise at delivering some of the biggest events between us and the [underlying technology competencies] in operations, video encoding and other areas.
iStreamPlanet is owned by Turner Sports and has been responsible for delivering the NBA, March Madness (NCAA basketball tournament) and golf; and we're part of NBC Sports, and we've done the NFL, Olympics, NHL and many other events. We've also spent ten years working together for various events, and we worked together for the Rio Olympics.
[A record-breaking 100 million unique viewers streamed 3.5 billion minutes of video over the 19 days of the competition using the technology platforms provided by the two companies.]
TT: How does your role fit between the two organizations?
EB: Well, the nice part about Playmaker Media is that my role there is very complementary to the job at NBC Sports. We are working with a very similar technology stack, and looking at how we deploy our services. So it's the same stack, just rolled out to everyone [i.e., NBC's internal sport services or Playmaker's third-party customers' services.] My role as CTO is not that different whether we support NASCAR or deliver games on a regular basis for NBC. And it's not just about delivery at tentpole events, it's not just volume. We are always looking to deliver a highly efficient delivery stack for all services we support.
We continue to innovate our IP platform, whether it's for our own services at NBC or deploying with a third party. And we have a lot coming up this year -- and then the Superbowl, then the World Cup next year as well.
TT: We are seeing major changes in the consumption of video from a traditional, broadcast delivery system. How can broadcasters handle these changes?
EB: For us, it's about providing the best service to our customer, and making sure our service is delivered at the highest quality. Whether it's linear or digital, we want it to be the same broadcast level experience for the user.
I also think that digital is complementary to broadcast. It has to be high quality, but also complementary to the linear experience. I think they go hand in hand.
TT: Do you see that changing at some point? That broadcast becomes complementary to digital?
EB: You're asking me to make predictions. In the CTO role, I'm not in the prediction business. My role is to make sure we are prepared for today, and ready for tomorrow. We just need to make sure we attract users for NBC Group content, and across all platforms.
TT: What would you say is the most critical element for online delivery?
EB: Well, there's a lot of people doing it ... but probably workflow is the most important. It's not a particular technology, but how everything works together for a good experience. Scale is an issue; it all gets complicated once the volume ramps up. It's understanding what happens then. We have expertise with that, not just for sports but for other large events as well -- elections coverage, presidential debates, etc. What is the workflow around that kind of volume and scale? Understanding that is critical.
TT: Is there a particular technology or market shift in the near future that you are looking out for?
EB: Well, at a high level I think it's an interesting moment we are at in terms of connected devices. We are seeing very exciting penetration rates, at least in the US. As international growth also ramps up, it gets quite interesting to see what will happen. That is something we are focused on right now.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation