Comcast Media Center Expands Support for VOD Advertising

Sanjiv More, senior director, advanced advertising & VOD sales, SeaChange International

Sanjiv More, senior director, advanced advertising & VOD sales, SeaChange International

January 5, 2010 – Comcast Media Center has stepped up support for dynamic VOD advertising in a new trial with SeaChange International amid other new measures aimed at accommodating growing demand from programmers and advertisers for new ways to monetize on-demand content.

The SeaChange trial, which involves ad placements on VOD content supplied to Kansas-based Sunflower Broadband from the HealthiNation network, is another step in CMCs efforts to streamline use of various vendors’ VOD ad management solutions, says Jon Shaver, director of content development at CMC. “The trial is going well,” Shaver says, “and if it continues to do so we will support [the SeaChange AdPulse On Demand system] going forward.”

Distributing VOD content to cable systems by satellite and, as of December, fiber is a big part of CMC’s business. MSO affiliates receiving VOD content from CMC serve over 35 million subscribers, representing 90 percent of the market served by the top 25 MSOs, Shaver notes.

“We’ve been supporting dynamic ad insertion one or another going back to 2006,” he says. “That’s when we teamed up with Comcast Spotlight (the MSO’s ad sales division) and Tandberg [Television, now a part of Ericsson]. We’ve been supporting Tandberg’s AdPoint system since then.”

More recently, CMC has added support for BlackArrow’s Advanced Advertising System in conjunction with Comcast’s choice of BlackArrow to lead the MSO’s ad insertion technology for On Demand programming, starting with applications in the Jacksonville. Announced in October, that project is currently focused on inserting standard 15- and 30-second promotional spots as well as newly introduced 20-second spots designed to drive tune-in for upcoming shows and specials on PBS KIDS Sprout and FEARnet, says Diana Kerekes, vice president of video content for Comcast. “The ability to update VOD advertising will help us offer feature parity with traditional linear and Internet-based advertising systems,” she notes.

Right now “feature parity” with linear is the primary goal in these early rollouts of advertising tied to the CMC VOD distribution service. Traditionally, VOD advertising campaigns have had limited effectiveness due to the static nature of the ads being encoded directly into the content stream and the long lead times associated with ad scheduling.

“Initially VOD advertising was as far from dynamic as you can get,” Shaver says. “Our rallying cry around here is this is just unsupportable.”

Typically 90 days would elapse between the ad scheduling decision and actual availability of the content at the local level. To streamline the process at its end CMC developed its Express Lane platform, which allows programmers to access the work flow online, add their ad metadata tags and schedule a late placement prior to distribution on the fly. “We’re able to accept assets a few days before the start date and to deliver those assets in time to support propagation at the MSO,” Shaver says.

“Express Lane allows content providers to say, ‘I want this content to go to this particular market, whether it’s the feature asset or the ad asset,'” he explains. “You can schedule an ad for convertibles down South and skis up North. You can place several assets and build several play lists on tops and tails.”

“Tops and tails” refers to the metadata tags that dictate pre- and post-roll ad placements at the beginning or end of the program. “The next step is getting into mid-roll content – being able to place an ad within the content,” Shaver notes.

Right now the “lowest level of granularity” in terms of asset targeting is the individual cable system. CMC will be able to support distribution to more targeted zones once CableLabs develops the metadata specifications to support further subdivisions geographically. But when it comes to demographic targeting, that will continue to be done at the MSO level, he adds.

The three-month trial with SeaChange, Sunflower and HealthiNation CMC doesn’t represent any further advancement beyond the processes already in place with the Tandberg and BlackArrow VOD ad placement systems, Shaver says. “First we want to make sure it works within everyone’s [campaign management] system and is not negatively disruptive,” he notes. “Secondly, we want to see that it supports our advertising model and works as advertised. We want all parties to be satisfied.”

Sunflower and HealthiNation, a health video company that produces original education and lifestyle programs, agreed to participate in the field trial after several months of lab testing at the CMC. The cable company, which serves communities in northeast Kansas with triple-play service, has been using dynamic VOD advertising on its local content platform for three years.

“We have customers who say to us they’re not aware dynamic, targeted VOD advertising is real and happening,” says Sanjiv More, senior director for advanced advertising and VOD sales at SeaChange. “When Sunflower first launched with us in 2006 they only were doing VOD ad insertions on local content – community information types of programming. And then as the process matured they’ve added 25 or more national program providers to join in that market to do VOD advertising, including placement of local as well as national ads. This is real.”

The engagement with CMC is another step in the larger development process at Sunflower, which SeaChange still describes as a trial. “We all agreed we’d contribute our expertise and time and information with regular feedback because the business is still in its infancy,” More says. “We have roadmaps where we’re going to become more sophisticated.”

VOD ad placement management systems like AdPulse work with ad campaign management systems to execute on the business rules set by advertisers. “When those business rules are keyed in by the ad management system that runs VOD advertising, those ads are only run when the policy conditions are met,” More says. “It’s an extremely efficient way of reaching very difficult-to-reach consumers and to be able to quantify what’s happened with the schedule. This hasn’t happened before.”

A key to further progress will be the next phase of the specifications being developed through CableLabs for standardization through the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. Presently SCTE 130 specifications provide a standardized means of setting up dynamic advertising placements so that multiple campaign management systems can interact with a placement management system like AdPulse.

The version of AdPulse running with Sunflower is one developed prior to issuance of the SCTE 130 standard. “Phase two will incorporate 130, interior ad breaks and more and more targeting,” More says.

From the CMC side one of the big steps forward in VOD advertising this past year was the center’s adoption of the Nielsen viewer measurement system for time-shifted programming, known as C3. CMC’s C3 VOD service, by providing a means of measuring the average commercial minutes in programs that were viewed in time-shifted mode during the three days following the programs’ linear broadcasts, serves as a complement to dynamic ad placement in other VOD content not tied to immediately time-shifted broadcast.

CMC acquires real-time broadcast programming and delivers it for VOD placement within hours of the original broadcast. The 3C technology allows Nielsen people meters that tune to linear programming to measure the viewing in the time-shifted versions. “It gives advertisers and programmers a more accurate recording of the viewing of their assets,” Shaver notes. “We’ve dealt with quite a number of content providers doing 3C, and we’ve heard rumblings of very good numbers associated with it.”

Indeed, he adds, the pace of programmer participation in time-shifted distribution has accelerated rapidly of late and will probably continue to do so as the opportunity to monetize that content firms up with wide-scale use of 3C. “NBC and CBS are providing more and more content, and ABC is as wel,l I believe,” says. “So you’ve got the big linear networks and traditional cable networks, which were the early adopters. Prime time content is definitely on the upswing.”

Overall the portfolio of advertising support tools creates a more comprehensive approach to monetization on VOD than previously existed, Shaver says. “It will take longer for MSOs to widely adopt dynamic VOD advertising,” he adds. “But the beautiful thing about 3C is it’s here now.”