New Strategies & Challenges In the Multiscreen Revolution

Ian Blaine, CEO, thePlatform

Ian Blaine, CEO, thePlatform

June 14, 2012 – In this ScreenPlays interview thePlatform CEO Ian Blaine shares his insights on multiscreen service strategies of major service providers and TV program suppliers worldwide.
ScreenPlays – The emergence of multiscreen service as the new premium TV paradigm has triggered what looks like a stampede in the vendor community, where suppliers of every description are saying they have what distributors need to get these services off the ground.

Ian Blaine – Yes, that seems to be the case. It would be completely confusing if you were a brand new hire asked to find a TV Everywhere supplier.

SP – This has been thePlatform’s mandate for a long time. How do you make the case for your solution in this crowded space?

Blaine – I think, in some ways, we’re staying above the fray. It’s easier than you’d think just because of the customers we have. They’re associated with some of the most aggressive activities with TVE, including support for delivering content outside as well as in the home.

Look at [Comcast’s Xfinity] Streampix, which reaches subscribers on multiple screens wherever they are. Being a partner with Comcast has legitimized us in a way, but it has also pushed us into dealing with new issues relating to rights policies and devices that position us to serve needs that other suppliers aren’t equipped for. This is an environment where the system has to not only authenticate the subscriber but know what tier they’re subscribing to and what’s available in that tier.

So I think we’ve made a name for ourselves. When people think about TVE we get a call and usually that call goes pretty well.

SP – Innovation is spilling in from every corner of the ecosystem. thePlatform early on was able to exploit what often turned out to be market-changing developments from outside parties by bringing them into your portfolio of options. How do you keep up now and sort through everything to provide some coherency in the choices you offer to your customers?

Blaine – We’re always looking for innovations from new companies, but we also recognize some of our partners are market leaders because they have great solutions. For example, we’ve really bumped up the availability of the Adobe Pass system as it has become the market leader in authentication technology, even though we have our own authentication system. Akamai, with its HD Network and secure streaming, is another example of a partner, in this case in the CDN space, which brings a lot to the table that might be the best choice for some of our customers.

So these are two things that help us stand out – we work with really good partners to solve complex problems, and the people we work with as customers are well known. Because we’ve concentrated on bigger media companies and large operating companies, we’re not trying to pivot to serve this market just because it’s become a hot area.

I couldn’t sit here and make that claim if we hadn’t rebuilt everything when it became clear our market was going to shift from the traditional online video publishing space we started in to something much bigger. We took all that experience we’d amassed in those early years and built everything from the ground up to be in a position to address all the complexities and efficiencies this new market requires. So we’re one of the oldest OVPs (online video platforms) with the newest technology.

SP – Apart from the track record and quality of your engagements, what are some of the things you’re doing now which you’d say serve to differentiate what you have to offer?

Blaine – One really important thing we’ve done is future proofing everything we do around being able to publish to new devices when they hit the market. When the specs for iPad video support came out, we were able to utilize our publishing skills to say here’s a feed that will give you the links to video you can play on the iPad. That was done in one day.

We have equipped ourselves to be ready with the publishing profile and partners to support the rights enforcement, encoding, etc. and to say what’s the right size and format for videos and thumbnails. It’s hard to know what the next device will be. So we’ve spent an immense amount of time building into our platform the interfaces that allow us to plug in these new profiles as soon as we get them.

Another thing is being able to model all the things a premium TV service requires for multiscreen distribution. We’ve made provisions for making sure you can account for subscription levels, geographic restrictions, time windows and all the other details that will allow more innovation on the TVE side. When we saw this coming we decided to get out ahead of what people were thinking about at the outset, and now people are adopting these capabilities.

SP – Speaking of getting out ahead of the initial TVE strategies, not much thought was being given to advertising in the early going, but now it’s a hot button. How are you situated to handle these requirements, which get pretty complex when it comes to dynamic placements in live and on-demand content with the right timing and fragmentation formats to meld with whatever adaptive rate streaming modes are in play with any given session?

Blaine – There are quite a few constructs going on with advertising in TVE. One is the notion of 3C [the Nielsen rating extension that tracks ad exposure up to three days after live broadcast]. We can support ad requirements on services starting with the ads originally aired with the program, make sure those are supported through the three-day period and then on day four replace that file with a new ad. We support a broad range of ad management systems in the online space like Altitude Digital, Live Rail, Freewheel and the older ones as well as companies that are expanding into this space from traditional VOD like BlackArrow. Our model is to rely on the brains from these systems and to provide the metadata and tag points that help them determine what ads to place.

SP – Do you also get into being the go-between that gets the ad information into the adaptive streaming manifest that’s delivered to the device clients as part of the whole streaming process?

Blaine – That’s another one of the constructs we have to deal with. Sometimes ads are coming in from different systems and we need to take those steps. In others we’ll see Harmonic, Envivio, Digital Rapids, Elemental and other systems doing fragmentation and implementations that start with requests coming in from our mezzanine that ask them to fragment the content for a particular session.

Our role is in workflow management, policy management and what’s coming in from the consumer access side. Our player is pulling together the video playlist and the call to the ad systems. We use our plug-ins to call out to the ad systems. You can turn the integration and plug-in orchestration on and off for all those workflows through the progression of encoding, transcoding, CDNs, pulling in the metrics and performing the analytics.

SP – One of the challenges, of course, is to also extend the local ad avail opportunities the service providers have into this space, which I imagine represents another level of sophistication in how your system interacts with the ad management tier.

Blaine – Yeah. Local is a relatively soft problem on the Internet. Ad engines can geographically target ads based on using IP addresses to determine where people are. But it gets a little more complicated with live ad insertions where there are pretty discrete rules around distinct DMAs. That’s an area that’s still maturing. The technology is there, but a lot of things have to work in concert.

SP – I’d assume there’s a priority on getting this done.

Blaine – I agree it’s important. Today the predominant advertising in this space is all national and easier to sell. But as an industry we are evolving our ability to target and do analytics and ultimately to sell local ad blocks. We need to evolve our technology and business strategies to get there.

SP – So far we’ve been focusing on the multiscreen premium service space from the network service provider’s perspective. But we’re seeing content owners – the TV programmers and studios – moving in this direction as well, which is to say beyond the old over-the-top modes into what looks more like a virtual multichannel distribution space incorporating live as well as time-shifted content. How are you looking at this trend?

Blaine – From a purely technical standpoint it really does begin to make each programmer look like a mini-operator. And it gets more difficult with different authentications tied to different distribution strategies.

You have TVE authorizations and authentications which some programmers are doing themselves in cooperation with their distributor affiliates. But maybe you also want to offer content on a subscription basis directly to online subscribers, where, for example, you make content available a day after its gone live and you have an agent that says the user must be authenticated to access that content. Then maybe days 9-30 you make it available for free. And you retire the program from the site on day 31.

So you have to be able to control your libraries to work within those different windows. That’s something you can do with our system. And, by the way, it takes some level of sophistication to recognize situations where no agreement applies. To enforce a non-agreement you have to work around real agreements.

SP – What other types of rights nuances beyond windows are programmers having to deal with?

Blaine – For the time being the most important rights concerns are in terms of windows. But rights also have geographic restrictions, so you have to be able to enable access in certain regions and to block others.

SP – How much of a threat does all this pose to the traditional pay TV distributors?

Blaine – As I’ve mentioned, content owners may want to package together what amounts to a virtual subscription, where the content is flowing directly to consumers and the programmer looks a lot like an operator. But we’re seeing this approach being positioned as quite complementary rather than competitive to the network operators.

The technology allows you to do this in a way that parallels the traditional business while building new revenue streams for the content owner. We’re seeing more and more people moving in this direction.

SP – Does this lead thePlatform to new affiliations where you’re partnering with entities that are enabling the file storage and management capabilities that these new business models require?

Blaine – We don’t see these folks operating on the wholesale level yet. A lot of people are making bets in the direction of supporting these capabilities. Allowing live content to go directly to archive and making it easily accessible for these ancillary distribution models is becoming very valuable.

But archiving into this kind of highly flexible access environment can be a huge undertaking, especially when you factor in the expense of encoding from tape. So there’s a bet there that you have to make as to how far back you go and to what extent there’s value to having that access to older content.

We’ve talked with asset management companies that digitize stuff, and we can integrate with them. But, so far, the discussion is around more recent content. Exceptions are companies like the BBC, which have a mandate to have all their content available for public access.

SP – Are you finding thePlatform is well positioned to accommodate these new business models, whatever shape they’re taking?

Blaine – Absolutely. Content owners are taking a big step forward with managing giant libraries for a broad set of unique applications, and we’re a part of that. Adding more channels of distribution is not difficult for us.

From a business standpoint I don’t think the content owners are become operators to supplant traditional distributors. But what they’re doing looks similar from a distribution perspective.

SP – Thanks much, Ian, for taking time to talk with us.

Blaine – My pleasure. Thank you.