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29 August 2019

Disney+ tempting fate with overload immunity claims

With Disney prematurely boasting how its forthcoming OTT video service is ready for anything the world can throw at it, you can almost guarantee that launch day will be a disaster. HBO’s well-documented Game of Thrones streaming woes have been referenced by Disney as an important lesson, from which the company’s robust BAMTech foundations can learn from to supposedly make Disney+ immune to overload. A poisoned chalice if ever we heard one.

Don’t get us wrong, BAMTech is a formidable company with advanced technology, but Disney is naive to believe it can deliver a perfect video streaming experience every time. BAMTech cannot influence congestion on a particular internet service provider’s network; nor can BAMTech solve bad apple or sticky client problems within a home’s WiFi network; nor can BAMTech guarantee reliability on a legacy device. You get the point. But what BAMTech does have in its locker is knowing specifically what caused those infamous Game of Thrones blackouts considering it was BAMTech technology powering the HBO Now platform at the time.

This bragging session came from the lion’s mouth, Michael Paull, current President of the Disney streaming unit and formerly CEO of BAMTech, speaking to The Verge at the company’s D23 biennial fan convention.

“We’re thinking very much about overload. Fortunately, we’ve had the experience with Game of Thrones, we’ve had the experience of ESPN+ with the big pay-per-view events that we’re doing with UFC exclusively on our platform. We’re getting big bursts. We’ve built capabilities to sustain that, both in terms of processing the transactions that all come in – in a very, very short period of time – as well as the streams. We’re reading – we’re spending a lot of time planning for this launch,” said Paull.

Disney claims BAMTech’s platform has proved to be reliably stable during peak live streaming consumption on the ESPN+ service, and the technology easily handled the volume of over 0.5 million people signing up during a single 24-hour period. It could be significant though that Paull made this public statement prior to Disney announcing it would offer 4K HDR content with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos formats, at no additional cost.

CEO Bob Iger has also talked up BAMTech’s ability to handle a substantial number of simultaneous transactions, citing instances before a major recent UFC fight in which BAMTech was taking in or making just under 15,000 transactions a minute – lauding how the stability of the platform is critical at these moments. In theory then, powering an SVoD platform should be a walk in the park compared to handling hundreds of thousands of simultaneous live streams, but still Disney could be left stunned by the sheer volume of initial sign ups. The Verge reports that the Disney+ D23 booth was slammed with fans clambering to grab a discounted bundle of three years of Disney+ for $140, a $23 saving.

There’s no doubt Disney is pulling out all the stops, having incurred a hefty operating loss of $553 million in the second quarter filing, while full year 2018 results showed losses of over $1 billion associated with the ownership of Hulu and BAMTech, which Disney splurged $2.5 billion on in 2017.

Disney has since rebranded BAMTech as Disney Streaming Service (DSS) – serving up all back-end technical components for Disney’s multiple streaming businesses. BAMTech is known for being the brains behind ESPN+, while Disney says its video monitoring software has been developed in-house as part of the (DSS) division, with a dedicated Media Delivery team responsible for video quality control – applying in-house algorithms for assessing video quality.

The DSS Media Delivery unit also says it handles the entire video encoding supply chain from acquisition to delivery. Although we have come across a company called Diversified, a supplier of video performance technology including transcoding and distribution, which claims to have built media network infrastructure for Disney. Details are minimal but the deployment, if indeed still intact, appears to have been for broadcast and specifically post-production rather than OTT video.

There will likely be some crossover with Hulu given Disney’s almost full ownership of the third-placed US SVoD service and the fact Hulu will be offered in discounted package together with Disney+ and ESPN+.  We imagine DSS has already begun video monitoring responsibilities for Hulu although, like Disney, Hulu has developed its own in-house monitoring techniques based on open source tools.

Some on the ground at the D23 event, treated to a sneak-preview of Disney+, said the UI was distinctly similar to Netflix, so for all Disney’s focus on building a solid technical back-end, the company is clearly not fussed about reinventing the SVoD front-end wheel.