Broadband: Ready for Primetime - Broadcasting & Cable

Broadband: Ready for Primetime

Tech vendors, programmers push next-generation online video forward
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As the popularity of online video explodes, broadcast and cable programmers are seeking to deliver more content while providing a higher-quality viewing experience. That requires improvements in both production and delivery systems, just as the advent of high-definition television did 10 years ago.

Transcoding and workflow management software is making it easier for programmers to cost-effectively repurpose content for the Web, and low-cost streaming systems are allowing networks and stations to provide exclusive live video to their Web sites.

PC users' affinity for watching full-length episodes online, not just short-form clips, also has programmers looking for improved compression tools and more reliable delivery paths to the home PC.

Most networks' online video strategies are still in the experimental stages, with ABC offering high-quality streaming on its branded players, NBC and Fox partnering on a joint-venture that will distribute video through major portals and CBS syndicating its Web content across several hundred affiliate sites. But a common thread is popular primetime content, offered for free with advertising support.

As they consume more primetime content online, PC users are increasingly demanding a high-quality viewing experience, free of picture interruptions, audio loss and the tedious buffering that highly-compressed online video has traditionally required. In a nutshell, they want a TV-quality picture.

SURVEY SAYS: MAKE IT BETTER

A recent survey of 2,300 online consumers by Jupiter Research, commissioned by content-delivery network Akamai, found that 44% of online video users who are unhappy with their viewing experience attribute it to playback interruption, while another 35% feel the video takes too long to begin.

Some 60% of respondents who said they were unhappy with the video experience at a particular Website said they would be less likely to return.

Akamai has created a global distributed network to speed online content delivery, deploying some 25,000 servers in 750 cities across 70 countries to store high-value content closer to end consumers.

It currently provides Internet delivery services for Viacom, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, Discovery, Clear Channel, local station content aggregator Internet Broadcasting, and Starz' online movie service, Vongo.

While Akamai's customers encode video at a wide variety of bit rates, bit rates are increasing across the board, to match faster broadband speeds offered by last-mile providers, such as cable operators and telcos. “With the throughput increases at the last mile, broadcasters have been elevating the quality of the experience to the end user,” says Suzanne Johnson, Akamai senior product marketing manager. “We've seen it go from 500 [kilobits per second-kbps] to 700 to over 1 megabit per second [Mbps], as we've done for the NHL.”

Akamai's competitor Limelight Networks, a CDN focused exclusively on the media market, has seen traffic doubling from year to year as users watch more video content. “There's a tremendous amount of growth going on here,” says Mike Gordon, Limelight co-founder and chief strategy officer.

Limelight has some 4,000 servers deployed globally and provides online video distribution for Disney Channel; Amazon's Unbox video download service; Microsoft's Xbox Live gaming and video distribution service; online movie service Akimbo; and MSNBC.com.

STREAMING VIDEO ZOOMS

The six-year-old company initially did the bulk of its business in delivering Internet radio and distributing online games. That's changed.

“Three years ago, video was, maybe, 15% to 20%, but there's been very dramatic growth in video as a percentage of our traffic,” says Gordon. Now video makes up half. With Web video booming, business is also good for encoding vendors like Telestream and Anystream, which make production tools that help programmers repurpose their content for the Web.

“Everyone is looking to repurpose their content to get more ad revenue and to monetize their content in as many ways as they can,” says David Heppe, president and COO of Telestream, which makes transcoding tools that convert broadcast video into popular Web video formats such as Flash, Windows Media, Quicktime and Real Video.

Some broadcasters are buying servers and software to create central Web repurposing groups, while others are outsourcing video to firms that handle the transcoding of video for Web distribution. As the transcoding and workflow management tools get easier to use, more broadcasters are leaning toward handling their own repurposing of content, says Heppe.

At the IBC show in Amsterdam next month, Telestream will unveil a product aimed at broadcasters looking to incorporate user-generated video into their Web sites, an option for its popular FlipFactory software that will scan incoming files of any time and automatically determine whether they are video files and if they are able to be transcoded or not.

“The challenge there is just the variety of formats and Web [content] wrappers you have to deal with when people loading video from a cellphone or any consumer device,” says Heppe. “Not all of those are easily transcodable.”

Anystream chairman and founder Geoff Allen says the biggest change he's seen in online video is a sharpened focus on business models, now that digital rights for content are becoming commonplace. “The major change that is afoot is it's all about money now,” says Allen. “It's no longer promotional, or being defensive.”

SEARCH FOR A BETTER SEARCH

However, programmers are still using the “TV daypart model” to sell advertising online, which limits the medium's potential, say Allen. In order to fully monetize online video, programmers have to make inserting metadata an everyday piece of the production chain.

Attaching accurate, complete metadata to every video file will make TV content, particularly short clips, more readily searchable, says Allen, and allow for the same type of contextual, targeted advertising that Google has ridden to success in the text-based world.

Instead of just buying a pre-roll ad against a generic cooking show, for example, a utensil company might buy an ad placement specifically around a piece of video showing a chef chopping vegetables. But that is hard to do today, says Allen.

“You might have the best search engine, but you don't have descriptive information about that the video. All you have in search is the title of the video. That comes back to metadata, and metadata is a hard problem.”

For its part, ABC is running traditional commercial breaks during its online streams and this fall will use DMA targeting technology to give affiliates the ability to sell locally-targeted ads during streams of network programming through their own Websites.

According to Alexis Rapo, VP of digital media for ABC, offering shows online hasn't cannibalized ABC's broadcast business. Instead, online boosts broadcast viewing by allowing devoted fans to catch up on episodes they missed or getting viewers hooked on a show, then migrating them to the TV platform.

“In the surveying we've done we've seen a net positive effect, where they watch more on TV as a result of seeing it online,” says Rapo.

AND NOW, IN HD

ABC is seeking to differentiate on quality with its new full-episode video player, which last month began offering “high-definition” streams of primetime shows such as Lost and Desperate Housewives. ABC.com's HD streaming video is full-screen 720-line-progressive scan video which is compressed to a bit rate of 1.5 to 2 Mbps through advanced encoding tools from Move Networks.

ABC.com's HD streams aren't for everyone—the network recommends a late-model computer with a dual-core processor and 128 MB of video RAM and a broadband connection of at least two megabits—but the initial reaction has been very positive, says Skarpi Hedinsson, VP of technology for ABC Digital Media.

A lot of the quality can be attributed to American Fork, Utah-based Move Networks, which has developed an innovative encoding scheme called “simulcoding” that creates multiple profiles of a program at different compression rates. When network traffic lowers a consumer's effective bandwidth, the Move client software will communicate that to the server and automatically switch to a more-compressed version with a lower bit rate, thus avoiding picture errors or interruption due to buffering. When the network traffic eases and a user's broadband speed returns to normal, the Move software then switches back to a higher-quality profile.

While the resolution being delivered to the PC screen varies with Move, the viewing experience stays seamless to the user. The technology is also being used by the CW, Fox and Televisa.

CNN's STREAMING MISSION

One of the few major TV networks to regularly offer live video streaming is CNN, which has four full-time live video streams on its Web site, along with a selection of on-demand clips. CNN.com doesn't show any simulcast or time-shifted programs from the linear CNN networks, but instead pulls incoming video from CNN's central ingest site and then produces its own video that is customized for the Web and pumped out from an HD-ready control room.

“We're trying to be laser-focused on delivering the latest video and the latest news all the time,” says David Payne, CNN.com senior VP and general manager. “We want to be the destination for people to come, whether they're checking in to see what's new or they heard about something going on.”

The flexibility of the online platform also allows CNN.com to cover live news in a more in-depth manner than the linear networks.

“With the live product, we have huge flexibility to devote whatever time we want to anything,” says Payne. “One of the strengths of the Web is that it is not constrained by any type of break structure, or any of the things that a linear network regularly carries.”

While on-demand video on CNN.com carries typical pre-roll and post-roll ads, the live streams are currently commercial-free (they were offered through a subscription service called Pipeline until last month). That will change, says Payne, who plans to experiment with the type of “overlay” advertising that YouTube unveiled last week.

“Hopefully that will be the first stake in the ground for a new ad format that gets some scale,” says Payne. “The industry has been waiting for some innovation beyond pre-roll, as everybody implicitly understands that's not the solution.”

Asked if the same type of advertising that works for YouTube's user-generated fare would be suitable for CNN's news content, Payne was quick to say yes.

“The trick with any advertising getting traction is getting it to scale,” he says. “If everybody does everything on a custom basis, you will never get it to scale. What's interesting about the YouTube development is because they have such a large share of video viewing, they can help frame the marketplace better than any other single publisher.”

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