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1 September 2022

Watermarking price war looms as Harmonic stacks VO on top of Nagra

Harmonic has thrown a curveball by quietly saying it will showcase watermarking integrations from both Viaccess-Orca and Nagra at IBC 2022, just one week after announcing what appeared to be an exclusive watermarking-encoder deal with the Kudelski company.

Shortly after Faultline spotted the US encoding firm dropping the ball with a one-liner in its pre-IBC highlights earlier this week, we were told to wait for an official announcement, which was eventually issued just hours before we went to press.

The significance is that we believe this is the first instance of two rival watermarking technologies being integrated by the same video encoding provider, and likely not the last.

Presumably, it then comes down to customer choice about whether to insert watermarks from either VO or Nagra via Harmonic’s VOS360 cloud SaaS platform, or possibly even both, for different types of content.

But even this isn’t a clear divide, content-for-content, as both Nagra’s pre-integrated watermarking and VO’s pre-integrated watermarking are specifically built for detecting pirated live sports streams at source.

If, then, this a matter of Harmonic VOS360 clients choosing one of either Nagra or VO (or another watermarking provider like Synamedia’s ContentArmor), then surely it just boils down to whichever watermarking technology is cheaper to integrate on a pay-per-use basis. The potential ramifications here are triggering a price war with suppliers aggressively undercutting each other when pre-integrated into encoders.

Well, that might be the entire point, to forcibly bring down the price of watermarking technologies which have for too long been a premium technology encircling a velvet rope around only the most expensive of UHD titles.

Bringing down prices is precisely why both Nagra and VO have embraced pay-per-use business models for watermark-encoder integrations – to eliminate licensing, maintenance, and services fees from the pricing equation and therefore accelerate adoption of watermarking technology. The issue here is that customers can quickly get used to a certain champagne lifestyle, and could eventually expect to receive watermarking free of charge from their encoding provider.

Harmonic did not respond to our pricing queries.

While the VO-Harmonic announcement is almost identical to last week’s with Nagra, the difference is with how VO describes its watermarking as dynamic, to reflect the way its algorithms adapt dynamically to increasingly canny tactics by content pirates to circumvent watermarks in video streams. The server-side software can be used on the fly, with blind identification that eliminates the need for metadata and enables content providers to automatically detect the chunk size of the original stream.

The result is that millions of devices can be scanned simultaneously to instantly pinpoint pirates.

We first highlighted the watercoder partnership trend in early 2021 with Ateme and VO, followed only last week by Harmonic and Nagra, but in fact these tie-ups were triggered by Synamedia’s acquisition of ContentArmor in August 2021. As an encoder supplier itself, this deal gave Synamedia the capabilities to embed its own watermarks into its own encoders free of charge, possibly only charging for additional anti-piracy services once activated, as with VO’s approach.

Naturally, VO told us at the time that collaboration with Ateme had nothing to do with Synamedia buying ContentArmor, telling us that the partnership had been in the pipeline for several months. The team simply wanted to keep a tight lid on the project until it had reached the integration phase, before communicating it to the world, and VO would echo something similar following the latest integration with Harmonic.

That said, Synamedia is gearing up to demonstrate live sports streaming at scale at IBC 2022, using its new Fluid EdgeCDN to implement edge-embedded watermarking from EverGuard. This claims to detect and disrupt streaming piracy many times faster than rival offerings.

To summarize, we are seeing demand to protect live sports and UHD content with pre-integrated watermarking at a lower price than it would be not pre-integrated into encoders.

Meanwhile, Nagra has also been active ahead of IBC, announcing a customer win for its NexGuard watermarking technology at United Cloud, the innovation center arm of European operator United Group. Server-side watermarking technology is being deployed in United Cloud’s private cloud and integrated with its in-house Gladiator anti-piracy platform, for protection of all types of content assets, enabling it to shut down pirates at source.

United Cloud has been wooed by the imperceptibility of Nagra’s watermarks, as well as the speed of leak detection and ease of client-side integration in its device footprint.

In other related Harmonic news (until the company responds to our queries), the compression and cable heavyweight has added support for Google Cloud to the VOS360 platform, opening up additional cloud infrastructure options to its media and entertainment customer base.

Heralded for speeding up creation of linear channels and delivery of sports events, VOS360 provides operators with control over content ingest, scheduling, playout, branding, encoding, monetization and creation of channel variants. Processing and delivering all this in the cloud brings massive scalability, agility and resiliency benefits to operator and streaming customers, not to mention access to a growing ecosystem of cloud-native, flexible, and agile media supply chains.

This builds on existing support for AWS and Microsoft Azure. As well as emphasizing the multi-cloud trend, as operators and D2C streamers look to avoid cloud vendor lock-in, it also seems to follow a micro-trend of video technology suppliers supporting AWS first, then Azure, followed by Google Cloud.

Harmonic is known to make a splash with pre-IBC announcements, so it doesn’t stop there. At the show itself, Harmonic will be demoing advances in live “flawless” live sports streaming, targeted advertising at scale, best-in-class VoD and linear streaming, and next-gen broadcast service delivery.

Its demos on streamlined targeted advertising for live broadcasting, VoD and FAST involves another integration with VO, in a reminder of the French firm’s product diversity, as well as with French ad tech firm Equativ, which recently took a majority stake in video personalization vendor Nowtilus.

Additional highlights from the Harmonic stand will include the XOS Advanced Media Processor and Spectrum X Advanced Media Server, which will demonstrate media processing and distribution with a new generation of software-based edge devices, as well as expanded video-over-IP possibilities with NDI for production and playout workflows.

We will be on the look-out for Harmonic rivals taking a similar edge-based approach to IBC, with MediaKind and Synamedia already two notable names.

DVB-TA (Targeted Advertising) support is also arriving in Harmonic’s video processing portfolio to unlock new revenue opportunities for European broadcasters.

Coming full circle to where we started (almost like we planned it), the targeted advertising specification from the European broadcast standards body added watermarking support in early 2021, demonstrating among other things how operators can use DVB-TA to activate customers that have non-participating operator equipment blocking the path of targeted advertising.