The bright outlook rests in part on the fact that cooperation between programmers and service providers has quickly generated a content base that’s large enough to justify service rollouts. Equally important, Comcast, in cooperation with its subsidiary thePlatform, is demonstrating its ability to meet the complex operational challenges that attend TV Everywhere. These include not only the essential authentication, license policy enforcement, advertising, distribution and other fundamental processes but also the ability to support multiple approaches to these tasks, thereby overcoming the time-to-market barriers that would have been imposed by any need for pan-industry agreement on highly centralized models.
“Everybody is very interested in this particular space,” says Marty Roberts, vice president of marketing at thePlatform. “We’ve seen a real acceleration in their strategies over the last couple of months.”
Roberts says he’s now “very confident” that by the end of 2010 TV Everywhere will be available to 50 percent of the cable TV subscriber base. “In the first and second quarters I was spending a lot of my time explaining why this is possible from a technical standpoint,” he says. “Now the conversations have shifted across the board to ‘When can we get this in the market?'”
While Verizon, in announcing it was becoming “a partner in the industry’s TV Everywhere initiative,” stressed its ability to activate the service over its mobile as well as fixed networks, the initial implementations for Verizon as well as everyone else are focused on getting programming to the PC. “As an industry, it’s critical that we get the TV Everywhere user experience and value proposition right,” says Shawn Strickland, vice president of FiOS product management at Verizon.
But a convergence with mobile is coming, and not just because an established wireless player like Verizon is involved. “Across the board MSOs are super aggressive about the wireless space,” Roberts says. “Initially, our customers are saying, let’s get it working on PCs, but everybody is very keen on working through the early phase to where we can get to the wireless experience.
“We’re building our system such that we can model all kinds of different rights around this media,” he continues. “We’ve already got a request to support a free programming weekend offer. What we’re building is a really flexible system that anticipates that one day content will play back on mobile phones and on portable devices. We’re anticipating those things will come pretty quickly. The technical barriers to consuming content beyond just the PC and Mac are coming down.”
The unfolding scenario entails each service provider working with each programmer to forge deals supporting the online distribution of subscription TV. Where Verizon has only identified content from Time Warner’s Turner networks, TNT and TBS – although it says it will soon add more to the trial – Time Warner Cable (TWC) has named TBS, TNT, HBO, CBS, Syfy, BBC America, AMC, WE tv, IFC, Sundance Channel, Discovery Communications and Smithsonian Channel as trial participants. Comcast, which, as previously reported (August, p. 1), intends to go commercial with the service by year’s end, says its content affiliations for what it calls On Demand Online now total 23 programming networks.
TWC says it will be launching multiple trials in different localities, reaching a total of 5,000 subscribers in the coming months. Comcast, also in trial with 5,000 customers, is offering the service to limited numbers in a large number of unnamed markets. Verizon has not said how many people will be served or where the trial will be conducted.
“TV Everywhere is an all-around win for those of us who love television,” says TWC chairman, president and CEO Glenn Britt. “It will give our customers more control over content and allow them greater access to programs they are already paying for, while enhancing the distributors’ and networks’ robust business model that encourages the creation of great content.”
TWC intends to rapidly expand TV Everywhere to more customers as it continues to add programming options. The programming offered through the MSO’s TV Everywhere trials will include many shows currently unavailable online and others that will be made available on the Internet more quickly after their original air dates than is currently the case.
Along with variations in deal making the TV Everywhere strategy supports flexible approaches to how content is accessed, as is evident in the approaches taken in the three announced trials. Only a relatively small proportion of the Comcast On Demand Online content offered through its Fancast portal will be available via subscriber log-ins to content providers’ sites. In contrast, Verizon, at least initially, is requiring FiOS TV subscribers to log in to programmer Web sites to obtain access. And, in a third variation, it appears TWC intends to make virtually all the content that’s accessible through its Road Runner and other portals accessible via log-ins on content providers’ sites as well.
No problem, says Roberts. “For those service providers who have their own video portals it makes sense to use that approach to content access,” he notes. “But second tier and smaller MSOs that don’t have big video portals still want to participate. TV Everywhere content positioned on the programmer’s site makes more sense for them.”
One of the drivers to the accelerating pace of TV Everywhere rollouts has been the availability of programming, which rests in part on the industry’s ability to meet the technical requirements associated with user authentication and adherence to licensing requirements. “I think more content will become available throughout the fall as we make more progress with more pilots and deployments,” Roberts says, noting it remains to be seen what the optimum minimum will be to satisfy consumers.
There’s sufficient programming now available to get the trials and possibly early launches underway, but service providers want more. “If you were to talk to MSOs in general, everybody is working toward the same goal of getting as much available online as is available through the TV,” Roberts says. “But different companies are in different stages of being able to roll out that programming.”
Indeed, one reason Comcast was able to get an early start is the fact it already had built a Web adapter to its billing systems for purposes of confirming that users have valid accounts. “Comcast has many billing systems,” Roberts notes, “so it was good they had abstracted the interface and could avoid having to build individual interfaces for each billing system.” This model is now being followed by other service providers, he adds.
Beyond assuring the communications links between the Web space and back-office systems, there are many complexities associated with authentication, all of which are now addressed in the system thePlatform is operating for Comcast. Users must be validated as legitimate subscribers to TV programming, of course, but there’s much more to it than that.
Not only must they be identified and authorized on the service provider’s portal, there must be a seamless authentication process for subscribers to gain access to programming on the content provider’s Web sites. “We have to make a map between the consumer and the actual account to set up user passwords and to authenticate against valid accounts,” Roberts says. “And before anyone clicks play, we have to figure out on an asset-by-asset basis what the consumption rights are around that particular video for that particular subscriber. Do you have the right to watch based on what’s on the channels you’re watching in your area? Can you assign access to another device? How many times can you watch it?”
Different markets associate programming with different packages. To determine whether a particular video is part of the lineup that a subscriber has access to in their locale, all the programming offered in all affected systems must be registered and retained in the authentication data base. “thePlatform is coming in and protecting media as well as authenticating,” Roberts says.
“In setting up the service we’ve established the link to say this show is associated with this service ID for this MSO, and that has to be established in the authentication process,” he continues. “Once we say this person is authenticated as a legitimate subscriber we have to revalidate to make sure this particular video file’s rights map to the particular subscription package the user subscribes to, and then we have to determine whether we are in the right air dates and geographic areas depending on where that subscriber is accessing the content from. All this has to be done in real time, which is relatively new technology.”
One barrier to maximizing content availability is the vagaries of the usage rights attending each program. “Comcast has been engaged in rigorous negotiations to find the windows of availability,” Roberts says. “Generally what we’re seeing is programmers are making a subset of programs they run on TV available for title-based viewing online.
“Some of it has to do with the networks’ own rights structures,” he adds. “For example, Fox has the rights to American Idol for linear broadcast, but you have to go to Fremantle for the broadband video rights. So there are cases where we’re taking a hard look at the library that’s available for this medium and what the associated rights are that the programmer can grant and pass through to each operator.”
Similarly, other technical challenges, including the flexibility to serve multiple business and advertising models in a complex mesh of programmer-to-SP arrangements, are proving less daunting than they once seemed, thanks to the inherent capabilities built into thePlatform’s service model. This has obviated any need to go to centralized aggregation and/or authentication, Roberts asserts.
“I’m not sure this would ever happen if we tried to centralize everything,” he says. “Media rights depend on every content provider signing deals with each MSO. So there’s a mix of rights being negotiated and deployed. And the MSOs are picking different authentication flavors. So it’s a very heterogeneous, dispersed way of managing the service.
“Our approach is to embrace complexity and to push the use of standards wherever possible,” Roberts continues. “Good advancements are happening with authentication for the social networking space. Federated authentication mechanisms are the right way to go.”
When it comes to distribution, thePlatform’s flexible approach to online content publishing accommodates whatever models content suppliers and service providers choose, including interfaces with their own CDNs (content delivery networks), CDNs offered by third parties or CDNs provided as options through thePlatform. Moreover, in the case where a cable company has its own CDN, the subscriber’s ability to access content might still require a third-party CDN when the subscriber is away from home.
“The good news here is no matter where the content lives on the network, if everything looks good once we’ve run the authentication process, we’ll pass to the consumer the most appropriate link to use in grabbing the file,” Roberts says. “We anticipate a very disaggregated distribution model.”
Flexibility in distribution also entails the ability to deliver content at bit rates that match bandwidth availability at any given moment over each user’s access network. The average rate supporting video distribution in standard definition format is 750 kilobit per second, Roberts says. Adaptive streaming pioneered by Move Networks, the streaming provider used by Comcast in the trial, and now used by other leading suppliers including Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe provides a means by which the content experience can continue smoothly as bandwidth availability fluctuates.
“With adaptive streaming the client monitors how much throughput a device is receiving with the streamed content, and if it starts getting starved for bandwidth it will ask for a lower bit rate,” Roberts explains. “And if it builds up too much content in the bit buffer, say, 10 or 15 seconds ahead of wherever the user is in the stream, it can ask for a higher bit rate to speed things up and increase the quality. Typically we’re seeing adaptive rates from 300 kbps at the low end to 1.5 megabits per second at the high end, with two or three steps in between.”
Presently the Comcast trial is designed to accommodate single RF-channel modes of distribution over the DOCSIS broadband platform, but adaptive streaming provides a ready means of supporting higher bit rates over bonded DOCSIS 3.0 channels, Roberts notes. “We’re talking to all customers about things like adaptive streaming for scaling up to take advantage of DOCSIS 3.0 deployments,” he says. “Increasing video quality is going to become more and more a part of our offering.”
Where advertising is concerned, “there’s no absolute requirement to get advertising nailed down at this point,” he observes. “We’ve even heard some people say, let’s get up and running without advertisements. Comcast has publicly talked about including advertising in their system. What we anticipate is that eventually we’ll have different advertising policies.”
In most cases thePlatform is distributing source content in the Comcast trial, meaning programming in its original state prior to insertion of ads in the broadcast process. “We get the source content and dynamically insert the ads,” Roberts explains. “So we’ll work with different suppliers of ad servers to determine which ads to show in the chapter break points. Two choices get made. The first is based on what the ad policy is.”
For example, Double Click might be designated as the primary ad server for that first chapter slot with another supplier designated as the failover if Double Click doesn’t have an ad suited for the situation. This is where support for different advertising models comes in. “We can set up the ad policy to apply in the same way to all content,” Roberts says, “or we can set it up to say if the content owner is XYZ then 30 percent of the time you talk to their Double Click server and 70 percent of the time you talk to the service provider’s ad server to fill the ad slots.”
The second step in the advertising decision making process is taken by the ad server itself. “Once you’re in the ad spot it’s a question of which ad to play,” Roberts says. “There’s coordination with thePlatform passing through the metadata tags and grabbing information from the client itself, such as, has this user already watched this ad in the last ten days?
“These things help the ad server determine whether to run a truck ad or an ad for Target. You might have ads sold against a particular TV show or particular categories of shows like all news or sports. Additionally, with some ad networks you can sell against audience types. There are lots of ways to target around broadband video today.”
Indeed, unlike efforts to accommodate advanced advertising in the linear and on-demand TV spaces, there’s “no new grand scheme” required for advertising in TV Everywhere mode, Roberts notes. “In terms of broadband video today, we’re pretty far down the path of what advanced advertising means,” he says. “We’ve moved past determining whether we can make it work to the phase of determining good practices. All our clients get to take advantage of this collective knowledge.”