October14, 2013 – One clear sign that North American cable operators are ready to embrace the cloud to lend coherence and scalability to multiscreen service plans is thePlatform’s introduction of a comprehensive cloud solution for distribution of on-demand and linear content.
“There seems to be a sense of urgency for getting services up and running,” says Marty Roberts, senior vice president of sales and marketing at thePlatform. “Everybody is looking at making sure they have the infrastructure in place to compete with over-the-top.”
As reported elsewhere, the trend toward embrace of the cloud model, which entails use of shared datacenter facilities running advanced software modules to supplement or even supplant traditional headend operations, has been growing over the past year, both here and abroad. The pace in Europe has been especially brisk, involving a broad range of entities from incumbent cable and telecoms to satellite and terrestrial broadcasters to pure OTT players who have determined cloud solutions on offer from a growing list of vendors represent the most cost-effective way to deliver next-generation multiscreen pay TV services.
In North America, where ActiveVideo has established a strong beachhead with cloud-based trials at Comcast and Charter and an expanding set of applications at Cablevision, the damn of resistance to such approaches hasn’t quite broken with the force witnessed in Europe. But thePlatform’s decision to move forward on this front, which has been under consideration for most of the year, suggests that moment may be near.
“We’ve been talking about parts of these features for a while working with a number of operator customers and programmers on parallel paths,” Roberts says. “Now it’s all coming together this
The appeal of cloud-based solutions has intensified in North America amid signs that new players will be entering the OTT fray with agendas going beyond those of established OTT providers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, who have largely based their business models on offering time-shifted TV programming and movies after their release in premium VOD windows. Plans by the likes of Intel, Microsoft and Apple to drive live and early-release content into the OTT domain are raising the stakes for established pay TV providers.
“In Europe a big motivation behind the cloud strategies has been the fact that Netflix is going in all over the place,” Roberts notes. “Here domestically everyone is talking about the Intel system, which should launch soon, and now you have Dish with their OTT strategy. Operators need to have an infrastructure in place to keep up with this.”
With so many entities touting cloud solutions, the term “cloud” does not really describe what a solution has to offer. “We were just talking among ourselves about how at IBC everything looked and sounded the same,” Roberts says. “It’s hard to distinguish one from the other.”
The sheer abundance of solutions mandates a very different approach to mapping strategies for pay TV providers. Now the starting point is to discover the range of options available for delivering multiscreen services before they formulate their plans. Once a strategy is defined based on real-world options they can put together a request for proposals (RFPs) to determine which solutions will take them where they want to go from a cost as well as functionality perspective.
So far, this isn’t how things have been done, says a senior industry consultant, asking not to be named. “People get together internally, determine what they think is the best way to go about structuring TV Everywhere, maybe mixing in a couple of approaches that have strong backing from different groups, and then they put out an RFP,” the consultant says.
“All the vendors jump through the operator’s hoops without ever getting to say, hey, wait a minute, you’d be way better off if you were to leverage our real strengths to do it another way,” he continues. “That’s why all we’ve seen are fits and starts and constant returns to the drawing boards. Sooner or later the word gets through that this or that vendor has a better solution, and they have to start all over again.”
Through its close involvement with operators like Comcast, BT and BSkyB Roberts says thePlatform has had an opportunity to learn with customers what the optimal approaches might be and to build in sufficient flexibility to support variations that inevitably crop up from one operator to the next. “We worked with Comcast on entertainment services early on,” he notes. “With Sky we’ve worked closely on many commerce services and have benefitted from their feedback. BT is a great example of working extensively with a customer to set up metadata to support distribution to all devices and their different types of set-top boxes.”
But the big sea change represented by cloud-based consolidated operations has yet to kick in. “What we’ve seen in the industry up to now is a lot of disjointed efforts where one operator may want linear with 100 channels, another wants 200 channels, some want a VOD-enabled portal for TV Everywhere,” Roberts says. “Some customers have launched both approaches as independent initiatives.”
Now that the consensus is building around a consolidated approach it’s easier to fashion a solution set that has wide appeal. “We’re looking to unify experience for our customers to get linear and VOD content on any IP connected device,” he says. “It has all come together for us to supply the complete range of functionalities.”
With the new Virtual TV Framework from thePlatform TV service providers will be able to mirror the full TV experience over broadband but with more personalized features and monetization capabilities across IP-connected set-tops, game consoles, smart TVs, tablets and other devices, Roberts explains. Enhanced discovery, multiscreen user interfaces, targeted advertising, commerce applications and efficient approaches to content protection are part of the portfolio, all manageable from thePlatform’s mpx system interface.
Critically, notes thePlatform CEO Ian Blaine, the framework employs open APIs and tie-ins with best-in-class technology partners to maximize customers’ flexibility while providing foundation solutions tied to unified metadata management, video ingest and distribution. “It’s not a monolithic stack, but rather an open framework that gives them greater flexibility and cost control,” Blaine says. “mpx is engineered to work in parallel with legacy TV systems – leveraging existing infrastructure investments – while providing a clear migration path to an all-IP based architecture.”
All of this reflects thePlatform’s long-standing approach to providing online support for video publishing and management, Roberts adds. “We find we have a tendency to solve these problems with a much broader approach,” he says. “A lot of vendors are approaching this as a big monolithic block of solutions all tightly bound together with CDNs, transcoding platforms, etc. The result is vendor lock where you don’t have the option to pull in a transcoding, metadata or other solution that might work better for you.”
thePlatform’s experience in online content management has served as a proving ground for the solutions that have been incorporated into the Virtual TV Framework design for pay TV operators, he adds. “For example, with our experience supplying metadata solutions as an entertainment management service provider with lots of feedback from lots of different customers, we’re able to offer a robust market-tested solution right out of the gate,” he says. “When we start going through the functionalities that come to us from having a lot of customers contributing their experiences, we’re able to go much deeper. It’s a true meritocracy where each of our partners has earned their opportunity to offer their solutions in the stack.”
Beyond the competitive pressures and the need to consolidate linear and on-demand operations in the multiscreen space, there are two key market developments helping the whole transition to the cloud, he adds. One is the maturation of the cloud as a general feature of the enterprise landscape. “Increasingly we find our customers are comfortable with the idea of cloud-based deployments,” Roberts says.
In addition, the commoditization of CDN costs have made it easier to deploy private CDNs, which allow operators to exercise controls essential to sustaining premium-quality performance. “Prices were going down at 50 percent per year and now are declining at 20-25 percent annually,” Roberts says. “Whether operators are deploying private CDNs or using Akamai, Level3, Limelight or one of those guys, we’re finding the CDN economics, which used to be the biggest cost driver, are now coming into line where operators can launch profitable multiscreen service initiatives.”
This is, in turn, has made the opportunity to drive advertising revenues and returns on commercial offerings worth pursuing. In addition to publishing national ads in linear feeds, mpx enables customers to deliver more Web-like and personalized advertising in live programming via integrations with FreeWheel and BlackArrow, Roberts says. Building on what’s been accomplished with targeting and tracking capabilities for on-demand video, these capabilities open the higher-CPMs associated with targeting to mainstream TV, he notes.
Similarly, mpx provides a comprehensive video commerce platform to manage digital storefront purchases, subscriptions, subscription extras, customer notifications and cross-promotional offers, Roberts says. “We introduced commerce functionality on mpx almost a year ago,” Roberts adds. “And last spring we introduced subscription payment enhancements. Now we’re combining the two to run promotions and special offers.”
Operators can configure new kinds of content bundles, season or series purchases. For example, he notes, at the conclusion of a movie, TV viewers could be prompted to purchase or rent its sequel or prequel.
“We can target pricing for promotions based on what subscriber level you’re at,” he says. “We can blend information about who the account owner is and what content that person is accessing to drive commerce enhancements with that content. We’re able to treat the transactional experience around that video as if it were a true e-commerce site, down to targeting different audience members with different offers. We think this is going to take off over time. “
Another thing that has changed to affect the way things are done in the cloud arena is the shift to terrestrial versus satellite distribution of pay TV from networks to distributors’ headends. “We’ve undertaken a big initiative around ingestion,” Roberts says. “It used to be that VOD, online content and linear TV were all distributed in different ways. Now everything is moving to terrestrial distribution over fiber networks. So we’re pulling everything in to high- quality mezzanine files and doing transcoding for their end point.”
This has allowed thePlatform to streamline the metadata aggregation and distribution process to simplify the management of all types of content. “We can link all the metadata from Rovi, Tribune Media, VOD providers and other sources into one entertainment metadata service,” Roberts says.
Working with leading encoding systems, mpx can ingest live programming and dynamically apply associated metadata and business policies, orchestrate CDN delivery and support real-time updates to electronic programming guides, he notes. At the same time, the cloud allows operators to manage much larger libraries of VOD and time-shifted TV, including use of the datacenter facilities to support network DVR services. Soon, thePlatform intends to enable media files and associated cue points for ads and associated metadata to be automatically saved and archived for VOD as linear channels are airing.
Of course, the centralization of metadata management across all content and device categories is crucial to the enhanced discovery and personalization capabilities touted for the Virtual TV Framework. Better search capabilities, more dynamic guide navigation and personalized viewing options are all part of the new framework, Roberts says. mpx integrates with the ThinkAnalytics content recommendation engine to incorporate contextual, behavioral and social data, along with editorial promotions, he adds.
Operators can create features such as “My TV,” which lets subscribers bookmark favorite shows, highlight programs they are known to like and surface other programs users are likely to find appealing. “You can treat the EPG more like a website where you can come in and highlight programs and do promotional specials,” Roberts says. “Any device can access these features whether it’s an iPad in flip navigation mode or an Xbox with voice commands.”
Roberts notes that Accedo has become a key partner with regard to enabling advances features like My TV, which, in fact, is a feature the app integrator has been promoting across all its partner outlets. “Accedo does a fantastic job of designing a unified experience across multiple devices and also making features available based on the types of devices,” he says.
Another factor contributing to the move to the cloud by pay TV operators is the pace of improvements in transcoding systems that run on general purpose processors. These gains correspond to operators’ needs to set up encoding farms for live linear streams in the IP domain, Roberts notes.
There’s also talk of moving to expansion of VOD on the cloud farm, depending in part on the age of the existing encoding infrastructure. “If the encoders are at the end of their lifespans, we’ll probably see some decisions made in favor of cloud-based VOD transcoding at the end of this year,” he says.