Streaming the Olympics: How YouTube and NBC do it

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Jason Gaedtke, director of software engineering for YouTube’s live streaming efforts, doesn’t expect to get much sleep over the next two weeks. YouTube is live streaming the London Olympics for NBC , and Gaedtke is about to go on a time zone-induced around-the-clock work binge, following the events as they unfold in London, communicating with the NBC folks on the East Coast and keeping everything running smoothly in California.

Case in point: When I stopped by YouTube’s offices in San Bruno, Calif., Wednesday afternoon to get the inside scoop on YouTube’s Olympic streaming, I ended up talking with Gaedtke via Google’s Hangouts video-chat platform. His work day had started twelve hours before our meeting, and he simply hadn’t found any time to come to the office yet.

YouTube is streaming the Olympics to 64 countries on behalf of the the IOC.

However, Gaedtke and YouTube product manager Varun Talwar still found some time to share some interesting insights into YouTube’s involvement with the NBC live stream of the Games, as well as live streams they’re delivering on behalf of the IOC to 64 other countries.

Gaedtke told me that YouTube started talking to NBC about a year ago. “They were looking for a live video platform partner,” he said, and the two sides quickly got into business with each other. Since then, a relatively small team has been working on YouTube’s efforts, with a heavy focus on optimizing the video quality. “Some of the live events are very challenging to encode,” explained Gaedtke. Think of the moving water during a swimming contest, for example.

Don’t pay for TV? Here’s how you can watch the Olympics without cable.

The second challenge is to deliver the best possible quality to each and every viewer, regardless of their connection and device of choice. YouTube is utilizing adaptive bitrate streaming for this, and will prepare a total of seven different bitrates to gracefully scale from a audio-optimized stream on mobile devices all the way up to 1080p. The highest-quality stream will come to consumers at just under 5Mbps, with some spikes for those hard-to-compress moments.

The player used on will look familiar to most viewers: YouTube essentially used its own Flash player, but added some extra functionality on top of it. For example, viewers will be able to instantly rewind 10 seconds and jump back and forth to key moments of any competition.

To make this easier, there will be chapter markings for any highlights — a feature that’s enabled through something that Talwar called “storyboarding the competition.” There will also be an option to switch between English and Spanish-language audio commentary, and the site will display live viewer counts for any ongoing competition to show viewers that they’re part of a crowd. “It’s a lot more fun to watch a live stream when you get feedback that it is live,” explained Talwar, who hs been in charge of the live player for this project.

Feedback from end users and broadcasters alike is also one of the reasons why YouTube decided to turn itself into a live video platform provider for the London Games. The input from longtime Olympic broadcaster NBC was especially valuable, explained Gaedtke. “It really kept us honest,” he told me. “It was a very good exercise.”

The same goes for streaming the Olympics to other countries: A partnership with the IOC put YouTube in charge of the online video feeds for 64 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, including India, Singapore, Kenya, Ghana and Malaysia. Google had to review its local peering agreements to prepare for the potentially huge audiences in some of these countries, and conducted extensive traffic modeling exercises. And of course, the company isn’t exactly starting from scratch: “We are using the backbone of a pretty scalable video delivery network,” said Gaedtke.

Going through all of this will also help Google to prepare for a future in which YouTube traffic in general and live streams in particular will play a much bigger role. “We see so many secondary benefits in doing this perfect,” explained Gaedtke. One of them could be that next time around, his team may actually be able to get some sleep.

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