Charter Revamps VOD Structure To Support New Service Models

Richard Fickle, SVP, Ascent Media

Richard Fickle, SVP, Ascent Media

November 22, 2010 – Charter Communications, fast on the heels of its ground-breaking data consolidation initiative (see April, p. 10), has taken another pioneering step toward enabling next-gen operational efficiencies by deploying a highly centralized VOD architecture that eliminates duplication of resources and processes.

The new architecture, supported by Ascent Media Group’s new VOD Accelerator platform, positions the management of all VOD content for all Charter cable systems at the MSO’s headquarters in St. Louis, notes Doug Ike, Charter’s vice president of advanced video and applications engineering and development. “This new centralized architecture simplifies the tracking of our digital assets and makes VOD delivery more efficient and provides more choice and value for our customers,” Ike says.

Charter has long used Ascent’s metadata and tracking system to make sure incoming VOD content is properly categorized and accurately delivered to subscribers. By utilizing the new VOD management platform, which taps Ascent’s experience building and operating content “mezzanines” for Hollywood studios, the MSO can move to an IP-based CDN (content delivery network) distribution mode, eliminating the need for separate VOD “catchers” in all its systems.

This means VOD content can be ingested through a single master catcher in St. Louis and distributed over IP backbone networks to caching servers for local distribution, notes Richard Fickle, senior vice president at Ascent. “Our platform supports a tiered distribution system where the operator can use off-the-shelf servers in each market to cache, as opposed to the much more costly catchers that would otherwise be required in each market,” Fickle says.

Beyond streamlining management and distribution of traditional VOD service, the Ascent platform combined with a CDN-based architecture provides operators a framework for supporting new service models like TV Everywhere and time-shifted access to prime-time programming, Fickle notes. “The idea is, let’s make VOD a really good experience now, and when we want to serve other devices we can leverage the architecture to do that very cost effectively,” he says, adding that the concept mirrors what Comcast is doing with its IP backbone support for the Xfinity on-demand service.

“Ascent Media’s VOD solutions give us more control over the digital flow of our on-demand library and provide the groundwork to expand choices for our customers,” Ike says. “We are already taking advantage of scale to offer our customers thousands of choices at any given time, and this new architecture enables us to continuously increase that number going forward.”

Charter has focused on building its VOD library and moving to prime-time-shifted options ahead of introducing a TV Everywhere platform for delivering premium content to subscribers over broadband connections. But company officials make clear TV Everywhere is on the roadmap.

Meanwhile, the new architecture greatly enhances what can be done in the vein of on-demand services delivered over the digital TV network by eliminating the need to ingest and manage content and metadata at every cable system, notes Donna Thomas, senior vice president of sales for cable, telco and new media at Ascent. “The [Ascent] system has many benefits including the ability to receive content in a variety of formats; track titles from receipt to ingest into the VOD server in each market; and to easily localize metadata for more robust consumer campaigns,” Thomas says. As for the TV Everywhere track, “it also allows content to be repurposed to multiple devices,” she adds.

The ability to manage large volumes of time-shifted programming efficiently should be a major boost to operators’ efforts to license content for Prime Time type services, Fickle notes. “Most operators can brute force a handful of programs into the VOD system for a Prime Time service,” he says. “But with our system operators can efficiently handle dozens of programs and guarantee to the suppliers those programs will show up as scheduled.” Ascent provides a dedicated operations support team that helps monitor all related infrastructure, the flow of all titles and helps manage changes in configuration and various parameters associated with VOD services.

The heart of the solution is a digital asset management system based on the mezzanine post-production platform Ascent originally developed for major movie studios to manage massive content libraries. “Our work with the studios started with their need to digitize their assets, which were placed in mezzanine files now totaling over 400,000 titles,” Fickle says. Ascent now has over 18,000 VOD titles under management for the service provider sector.

Most of this content is taken in from various aggregators like In Demand and TVN, but, as in the case of time-shifted programming, it can be ingested into the asset management platform directly from programmer sources. Whatever the source, the goal is to maintain a consistent approach to applying and managing metadata and allowing all content to be tracked end-to-end on a per-use basis.

“With a fairly robust metadata management system we’re maintaining the quality control and revenue assurance that’s essential to consistent performance and successful monetization,” Fickle notes. “It’s a Web-based content management and quality control system that can work within the constructs of a CDN or with smaller, MSO-operated VOD systems.”

The platform also provides a much more cost-effective way to build long-tail content than has traditionally been the case, he adds. “Going through aggregators adds costs and often prevents operators from adding what would otherwise be valuable additions to their VOD offerings,” he explains. “In our case, suppliers can drop their files off to the mezzanine and reduce operators’ costs of provisioning that content.”

Ascent also has relationships with independent film, vintage TV and other libraries which add to the range of long-tail content available to users of the firm’s VOD platform, Fickle notes. Through the application of a uniform metadata management system, all such content becomes immediately available through whatever search and recommendations engines the operator is using.

Fickle stresses the Ascent platform opens a way for smaller operators to overcome cost barriers that have prevented many from getting on the VOD bandwagon. At costs of $40,000-$50,000 per headend plus operations costs, it’s no wonder that only 20 percent over the over 1,000 cable companies comprising the National Cable Television Cooperative offer VOD, he observes.

For smaller operators, Ascent can host as well as managed VOD content and distribute it in IP mode, allowing them to leverage their broadband channels to deliver a branded over-the-top service that monetizes the use of their conduits, in contrast to standing by as bandwidth gets consumed by users of Netflix and other Internet suppliers of on-demand content. “We’ve found that in some towns use of Netflix consumes 20 percent of the operator’s bandwidth during the weekend,” Thomas says.