Key Hollywood and Service Provider Industry Consortia Advance Formal Digital Media Standards Collaboration

KC Blake, director of business development, Entertainment Technology

KC Blake, director of business development, Entertainment Technology

May 4, 2009 – The TM Forum and the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California in Hollywood have created a collaborative partnership, further formalizing efforts to facilitate standards and common business practices across the broadband content value chain.

The overarching goal of the new liaison, say the two industry consortia, is to "rapidly eliminate the barriers to new distribution revenues for content and communication services providers."

Over the next three months, the two organizations plan to develop a roadmap and specify deliverables, milestones and actions "required to enable seamless and profitable digital media services." Initial joint projects will address content metadata and identification schemes to advance interoperability across digital distribution value chains.

"We look forward to working with TM Forum in the effort to streamline the delivery of content across platforms," says KC Blake, director of business development Entertainment Technology Center (ETC@USC). "We feel that this collaboration is a valuable step in ensuring that consumers have access to their content anytime and anywhere."

Specific areas of collaboration will include standards gaps; digital video distribution value chains model issues; and solution trends in the current content metadata landscape, particularly in identification and descriptive areas and the monetization and profitability implications to both content owners and service providers.

"Initial work will focus on the interactions between content owners and communications providers in order to radically simplify the creation, distribution and monetization of digital media services," says Jim Warner, vice chairman and head of content media and advertising at the TM Forum. "Aligning the major players from these two key industries not only sends a powerful message; it will eliminate much of the friction in today's distribution chain, driving down operating costs while improving time to market."

The ETC @ USC (www.etcenter.org), founded in 1993 with the help of George Lucas, brings together senior executives from the entertainment, consumer electronics and technology industries to collaborate on issues related to the creation, distribution and consumption of entertainment content. Current ETC members include Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, Lucasfilm, TATA Consultancy Services, Thomson, Dolby, LG Electronics, Singapore IDA and Volkswagen of America.

The TM Forum (www.tmforum.org) is an industry group focused on business effectiveness for the communications and media sectors with a long history of providing information technology roadmaps, best practice guidebooks, software standards and system interfaces to telecom operators. Members include some 700 service providers and suppliers ranging from Alcatel-Lucent, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Nokia Siemens to BT Group plc, KDDI R&D Labs, Time Warner Cable, Sprint and Verizon Communications.

Much of the groundwork for the new more formal collaboration has been laid over the past two years through ad hoc meetings between TMF and various studios, content aggregators and ad agencies, along with cross-industry participation in events including TM Forum's Management World conferences in the U.S. and abroad. 

According to TMF's Warner, progress toward the partnership can be traced through four Management World "Content Encounter" events beginning in mid-2007. That first event helped spell out the basic processes of delivering and ingesting content, transforming the content into services and applying personalization and advertising.

"We wanted to glue all the bits together and get a feel for what you would need," he says. "It was successful, and we found that a common end-to-end interface and common processes are important, as is a descriptive metadata that describes the content or ad and what the rules and rights around it are. Then you can start to match content to user profiles and prospective ads."

The second Content Encounter demonstrations in May 2008 brought in innovators in monetization elements like revenue tracking, revenue assurance and billing, as well as vendors with quality of service (QoS) management solutions. It also brought in user generated content, while British Telecom brought in commercial content "to see what challenges they pose."

A third phase last November added elements of ad personalization as well as specific industry technical specifications, such as the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' SCTE 130 ad insertion protocol and IPDR (Internet Protocol Data Record) specifications which lay a groundwork for creating records of user behavior.

"We also started playing with 'on-boarding,' which is similar to the application store concept," Warner says. "It's one thing for a service provider to have working relationships with partners at the enterprise level. It's another thing to take a page from the Apple App Store to open up to any provider of applications and allow them to access fundamental network capabilities – including access to things like the service provider's billing abilities or information like end customer location – and to the customer base of the service provider. That requires APIs [application programming interfaces] and development toolkits, so anyone can figure out how to get their product into the service provider. There are no standards yet in this area. We just began to play with that."

Fulfilling that open app-store-like "on-boarding" vision will require a two-sided view, he says. Upstream, the industries must devise standards, interfaces and common practices to define how the service provider connects with content owners, advertisers and media buyers and how it provides them with performance metrics and analytics of what happened to a movie, TV show, application and/or ad. Downstream, the industries must jointly develop practices through which content and ads may be personalized such that the personalization "doesn't annoy end customers or strike them as spam or a violation of privacy," Warner says. "The service provider sits in the middle as an honest broker, if you will, for the advertiser and user."

The fourth Management World event, May 4-8 in Nice, France, featuring Content Encounter demonstrations and meetings also features a newly developed "T8 World Summit," an invitation-only event for C-level executives from major players in the communications, media, advertising, banking and Web sectors to discuss how to generate new sources of revenue through innovative business models.

Much of the "two-sided business model" work that lies ahead involves providing business-to-business services to other service providers and leveraging investment in IT infrastructure by reselling services based on core competency. For example, TMF notes, Amazon has expanded beyond its original online retailing position to become an early market leader in cloud computing, Web services and opening their platform to third-party retailers. Amazon's CTO Dr. Werner Vogels was to brief the summit on progress Amazon is making in this area.

The common thread in all these efforts "is bringing together players in the value chain," Warner says. "You get language and terminology down. In the content world content management means something different from its meaning in the service provider world."

Further, he says, the cross-industry initiatives are providing forums to "confront notions like the advertisers' perception that service providers are a free utility, when in fact the service providers need their own shareholder approval to spend on infrastructure that can support new digital media services," he says. "The service providers can help the advertisers out, but if the service providers don't participate in the revenue stream, they can't afford to continue to build out infrastructure. Getting those kinds of business issues on the table in front of the whole value chain is allowing all sides to recognize, 'It's in my best interest if you get some money too.' This puzzle has so many pieces to it. We've identified a number of barriers and roadblocks and beginning notions of who can address them."

Parties on both sides are now persuaded that the content supply chain is "a challenge that can be partly solved with a cloud computing approach, but "you have to have management problems really nailed to do this in cloud environment," he says.

IPSphere (www.tmforum.org/IPsphere) – another key cross-industry consortium that merged with TM Forum last year – has separately spent the past two years developing technical and business model frameworks and interfaces at the inter-partner IT level and "is very far along," Warner says. "We'll use a content-based service in Nice to show IPSphere's latest work. It wouldn't surprise me if by end of year you see IPSphere become a direct part of Content Encounter."

With its highly complex technical challenges and potentially contentious business issues, "The dream of any content through any delivery medium to any device is still long away," he adds. "How you get there and who occupies which positions in the value chain will be difficult to work out."