After years of carefully building the specifications and support technologies essential to facilitating interactive and addressable advertising formats, the cable industry has been caught short as DirecTV and Dish Network have put their national footprints to use to deliver interactive advertising capabilities right when the concept is catching fire on Madison Ave. (see July issue, p. 1). But, if building a national footprint out of cable’s eclectic grid of independently run networks is a bit more daunting than lighting up the whole country with a DBS-delivered interactive app, the fact remains cable can deliver a market vastly eclipsing satellite’s, assuming the industry clears the remaining hurdles to rolling out a national footprint for advertisers.
“The U.S. is going to overtake the U.K. in use of interactive TV, and that’s because advertising has become the catalyst that has taken the whole cable industry by storm,” says Sam Pemberton, CEO of Softel, the supplier of server-based playout technology for apps designed to cable’s enhanced television (ETV) specifications. “ITV is becoming more important to programmers as a means of keeping the attention of viewers, but advertising is where the urgency behind much of the activity lies.”
A year ago ad executives were still debating whether advanced advertising would be worth forcing everyone to change the way they do business, from increasing creative workloads to completely altering media buyers’ spread sheets. Now the debate in the wake of a brutal recession is where to turn for the enhancements that will keep advertisers engaged with TV.
For Canoe Ventures, the MSO-funded business charged with developing a clearing house for efficient buying and selling of enhanced advertising at the national level, the shift comes as a welcome spur to getting partners to work out the remaining kinks in cable’s ETV ecosystem, sources say.”Everybody understands decisions have to be made now, not later,” says a cable advertising executive, speaking on background. “The train is leaving the station, so it’s just a question of who’s on board.”
“Canoe has managed to cut through reams of red tape to get things moving on a faster track,” Pemberton says. “Their people have been working through issues and building relationships with programmers for a long time now, and they have the relationships with local cable affiliates as well as the big guns at the MSOs. Things are starting to sync up.”
Softel and other vendors have been working closely with Canoe in a series of test runs with various programmers to find out whether newly implemented EBIF (Enhanced Binary Interchange Format) functionalities in headends and set-top boxes across the country are working as intended. “We’ve been in a trial phase with Canoe working with a number of programming networks,” says Ed Humphrey, president of Softel. “Canoe is testing use cases with ad insertions, delivering 30-second spots and tearing them down so that the programmer knows by the end of the trial that this content will pass through to operators without any hiccups.”
The tests have helped identify and rectify tech issues, most of which have to do with dropped packets and jitter caused by multiplexers and other local headend components targeted in the industry’s “pipe-cleaning” campaign. As the provider of the playout server software in these trials Softel has had a bird’s eye view of the overall efficiency of the complex network of EBIF infrastructures as well as some of the ideas advertisers have in mind for use of the new technology.
“We’ve seen some extremely successful tests of various concepts,” Humphrey says. For example, an advertiser promoting a brand of soap offered a free bar as part of an interactive RFI (request for information) application and quickly ran out of the free supply.
The tests are also helping Softel build its reputation with potential customers, he adds. “People want a stable, tested functional system,” he says. “When it comes time to scale up and put all this infrastructure to use on a national level, programmers will know who we are.”
But it remains to be seen how fast the industry can move from the now nearly complete tech implementation phase to running large-scale advertising ad campaigns on EBIF. “The long pole in the tent is about certification on the operators’ platforms,” Humphrey says. Here the challenge goes beyond the EBIF functionalities to all the specific mechanisms, including local ad splicing, accurate fulfillment, performance reports, etc. that each operator must demonstrate to the satisfaction of each programmer.
The template-based approach to satisfying all these requirements developed by Canoe will help expedite things, Humphrey says. But he adds, “I hesitate to say we’ll be seeing the advertising side of EBIF go mainstream in cable TV programming by next year. I know Canoe is pressing hard, but I think everyone will be happy if things are finalized within the next year or two.”