To help distribute its content on alternative platforms, public broadcaster WHYY Philadelphia has invested roughly $100,000 on an encoding system from video-on-demand (VOD) vendor SeaChange. The PBS station is using the product, called the QuickSilver Agility VOD Workstation, to encode its programming for VOD delivery through cable operator Comcast.
The station also plans to use QuickSilver to sell a VOD-encoding service to other PBS stations. In the future, WHYY may use it to prep content for Web streaming or VOD distribution on Verizon's fiber-optic TV service (FiOS). “In order to take a broadcast product and put it on VOD, it needs to be repackaged, and that process is typically foreign to broadcasters and teleproduction houses,” says Bill Weber, WHYY chief technology officer/VP, content distribution.
VOD represents opportunity for public and commercial stations alike. Owning an in-house VOD-encoding system gives a station more control over the programming it provides to cable operators and makes it easier to repurpose content that is otherwise gathering dust.
FIRST BROADCAST CUSTOMER
QuickSilver was developed by Sea­Change in conjunction with encoding-software–supplier Anystream, which helps media companies repurpose their content for broadband applications. Quick­Silver, with a base price of $70,000, is a turnkey system designed to produce content that conforms to the CableLabs 1.1 VOD specification without requiring additional nonlinear editing. SeaChange has sold nine of the systems, mostly to cable programmers and operators; WHYY is its first broadcast customer. “They built a business case for not only their own internal use for VOD content but also to grow it as a business externally,” says Tab Butler, SeaChange director of broadcast sales, Northeast Region.
QuickSilver has drawn interest from other PBS stations. As the network makes more national content available for on-demand distribution, affiliates want to be able to brand the content and create underwriting opportunities. Commercial broadcasters will be slower to adopt the system, Butler believes, because they need to work out sharing of ad revenues with cable operators before making content widely available on-demand.
QuickSilver automatically ingests files from storage or editing workstations, inserts the necessary meta­data, branding messages, promos and underwriting credits. Then it processes the content into CableLabs-compliant packages. Content packages can then be transferred as files over fiber-optic links to VOD providers.
WHYY's QuickSilver system includes a “quad” encoder and a single workstation, and more encoders and workstations can be added. Besides creating compressed MPEG-2 files encoded at a rate of 3.75 megabits per second (Mbps) for Comcast, the system could also produce files in the MPEG-4 format or in various streaming formats for the Web. WHYY is talking to Verizon about providing content for FiOS. “At the same time, we could create a parallel VOD service on the Internet,” Weber says.
WHYY also aims to use QuickSilver to provide encoding services for other PBS stations that provide content to Comcast, such as WITF Harrisburg, Pa. WHYY has been providing content to Comcast for VOD use since 2004, ranging from regularly aired programming like Antiques Roadshow to archive content.
CAPTURED FROM OVER-THE-AIR
WHYY broadcast programs are captured from the over-the-air transmissions and real-time encoded at Comcast's headend in New Castle, Del. Archive programs, however, have to be encoded to the CableLabs VOD spec. When WHYY began providing archive content in 2004, it would send a tape to the Comcast Media Center in Denver, which would encode the content and send it back via satellite.
In the initial launch of free on-demand content from WHYY, Comcast performed that service free of charge. But with VOD becoming increasingly popular and Comcast's list of programming providers growing, the facility couldn't continue to provide all that encoding for free. So Comcast advised WHYY of the impending change, says Weber, and said that, if the station wanted to continue using its encoding tools, it could work off its standard rate card ($300-$600 a minute).
And because of the logistics, Comcast can't encode programming on a daily basis. So Weber started looking for another solution.
Ted Hodgins, senior director of new product marketing from Comcast's Northeast Region, confirms that the Comcast Media Center could no longer provide the service for free. “Doing a lot of work for one particular market in the early days of VOD was not such a big deal,” he says. “But now we are trying to do national deals.”
WHYY aims to provide VOD encoding services to PBS stations at less than $300 for an hour of content and will market the service to commercial broadcasters as well. “We're hoping to be an entry point for other broadcast stations, so they can leverage the value of the VOD audience in the market,” says Weber. “No matter how you do it, there are costs associated with distributing in that format. This is a low-cost way to get started and not pay heavy commercial rates.”