In the Era of Streaming and NextGen TV, NBC Aims To Preserve Sonic Integrity Across Broadcast and Peacock Properties

Bandwidth values are standardized at minimum 384 kbps for surround, 192 kbps for stereo

As streaming becomes a much larger factor in sports media, NBC Sports has worked to standardize the bandwidth values it assigns for audio across all NBC and Peacock properties, SVG has learned. These will be at a minimum of 384 kbps for surround and 192 kbps for stereo.

The tectonic shift from broadcast to streaming has been especially stark and swift in the sports sphere. Deloitte Global predicts that, this year, streamers will spend more than $6 billion on exclusive major sports rights in the largest global markets, underpinned by such deals as Apple’s $2.5 billion for the sole rights to stream every U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS) game over the next 10 years via Apple TV and Amazon’s multibillion-dollar rights acquisitions of the NFL’s Thursday-night games in the U.S., the Premier League in the UK, and the NBA in Brazil.

The migration to OTT has also been accelerated by disruptions to the business of broadcast sports. For example, Bally’s-owned Diamond Sports Group is racing to formulate a Chapter 11 exit plan before professional basketball and hockey resumes, and content owners like Disney-owned ESPN engage in carriage-fee carnage with cable and satellite distributors, as those channels watch cord-cutting accelerate.

Renewed Focus on Sound

NBC Sports and Olympics’ Karl Malone: “It won’t be long before live sports and entertainment events streamed in Dolby Atmos will become commonplace, offering the air and realism of the event.”

However, in the midst of this fast-changing landscape, the quality of sound for all that sports content may have been taking a backseat. Just as the quality of music streaming had to play catch-up to the business machinations of a music industry shifting from downloads to streaming over the past 15 years and artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and David Crosby tried (and, to an extent, succeeded) to shame pack leader Spotify into improving its audio quality, the sound of sports is getting more attention now that the media sector occupies more online bandwidth.

That was on the mind of Karl Malone, senior director, audio engineering, NBC Sports and Olympics, and his colleagues over the past year. With 22 million paid Peacock streaming-service subscribers signed up in just over two years, NextGen TV stations lighting up, and the volume of sports and movie content on NBC’s digital platforms expanding, Malone contends, “The priority to have the best picture and sound quality imaginable has never been more important.” He cites the recent move to 5.1-surround sound for all SLEs (Single Live Events) on Peacock, starting with the Women’s World Cup this July.

Urgency Toward Optimum Bandwidth

“The aim is to preserve the same quality picture and sound sent directly from the NBC remote-production truck or studio for audiences to enjoy,” he explains. “Competing with this, however, is the constant struggle to keep distribution paths bitrate-efficient while not compromising quality. Digital compression reduces the amount of bandwidth required to pass signals, and, when not managed correctly, video and audio artifacts may spoil the experience.

“Audio suffers from limited bandwidth, resulting in a discernible loss of clarity and detail,” Malone continues. “So we chose ample bandwidth for 5.1 audio so we could maintain high-quality sound. We are uniformly standardizing values across all NBC and Peacock properties at a minimum of 384 kbps for surround and 192 kbps for stereo. Consistency across the board just makes things easier and ensures distribution-path quality. If any artifacts or fidelity issues pop up, we can rule out bit-reduction as the cause.”

In addition, many streaming platforms are using adaptive streaming technologies that adjust the quality of both audio and video based on the viewer’s internet-connection bandwidth and device capabilities. This ensures a smoother playback experience, automatically matching the correct bitstream to the device and setting the highest possible quality.

In line with these advances, NBC has been working to ensure that the vMVPDs — YouTube TV, Fubu, and others — carrying content pass it at the NBC specification of 384 kbps for surround and 192 kbps for stereo.

Media Outlets Are in the Midst of an Audio-Quality Evolution

When many streaming services launched around 2015, the immediate focus was on just getting content to mobile devices, and, at the time, stereo audio was adequate for that purpose. However, as streaming platforms have evolved and gained popularity, expectations of audio and video quality have increased, especially when audiences stream content to their home entertainment systems.

Malone notes that the broadening palette of choices for streaming series, movies, and other content has led home viewers to try a variety of audio systems, often with advanced options ranging from high-end soundbars to discrete multichannel home-theater components. More recently, providers have been adopting advanced audio formats to take advantage of the upgraded home systems by offering a higher-quality experience for subscribers.

Inside NBC’s Peacock Digital Network Operations Center

“Many streaming services have started offering content with Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital+, DTS, and even Dolby Atmos on their video-on-demand services,” he says, to accommodate and leverage better home audio systems. “These formats provide a more immersive audio experience with multiple channels, including center, front, and rear speakers. It won’t be long before live sports and entertainment events streamed in Dolby Atmos will become commonplace, providing audio content in the overhead height channels, offering the air and realism of the event.”

In addition to improving audio quality, streaming services are also focusing on delivering higher-resolution video content, such as 4K and HDR. These technologies enhance the overall viewing experience by providing sharper images and better contrast.

Other Streaming Refinements

Malone also notes recent NBC NextGen accessibility demonstrations that leveraged the power of Dolby AC-4 sound by presenting audio description (AD) for the blind and visually impaired in full 5.1.4 immersive surround sound for football. Using the technology, an isolated audio describer is placed on top of the ducked, full immersive surround-sound main soundtrack, creating a listening experience far exceeding today’s HDTV dual-mono AD. “Immersive surround sound is the ultimate companion for these superior pictures,” he says.

“This improvement addresses a time when NBC audio-mix engineers were creating wonderfully immersive 5.1 mixes of qualifying and practice events for motor races that faced a stereo-only distribution limitation on Day 1 and 2 but final-day features races were presented in full 5.1 discrete surround,” says Malone. “Now NBC is driving to provide audio soundtracks at the highest quality and fidelity for all events. Streaming services are adapting to the changing viewing habits of their audiences. They are investing in technologies and content formats that provide an enhanced audio and video experience, especially for those who enjoy their content on large screens in multichannel home theaters. As technology continues to advance, we can look forward to more improvements overall and even more-advanced audio features.”


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