In last month’s column, I summarized some of the challenges and opportunities for operators in expanding and managing their on-demand services. In this second part, I’ll discuss some of the requirements and advantages of an end-to-end content management solution.

To review, on-demand systems rely on thousands of hours of content distributed via satellite from multiple content providers. However, because the metadata is bundled with content files, changes can only be made at each local system once the package has been distributed.

Moreover, with so many files in so many locations, it becomes a complex task to keep track of everything, and today’s manual systems are struggling to keep up. There is often a significant cost in on-demand operations from so-called "content propagation errors." These occur when part of the content distribution chain fails during the provisioning process. In most cases, the harm is done because there is no mechanism for the operator to automatically check that all the necessary assets have been placed on all the appropriate servers. So the provisioning error is often discovered first by the customer, who requests a title and gets back an error code. This impacts the session success rate. Worse, it discourages the customer from using the on-demand service and impacts operator revenues.

Real world

In practice, it is very difficult to make the content distribution chain completely bulletproof, and doing so would come at a significant cost, so it is better to automatically check the asset status on a regular basis. If a particular asset is missing from a server, it can be automatically rescheduled for delivery. Since assets are typically propagated before they are made available (before the viewing window), it is possible to repair any missing assets before they have any customer-impacting effect.

The situation is similar for on-demand dynamic ad placement. In this case, it is especially important to verify that the ad content is actually on the server before it is scheduled to be inserted into an on-demand stream. The ad decision is usually made at session start-up time, and at this point a play list is presented to the server.

Since operators offer the majority of on-demand titles across their entire footprint, it makes sense to manage them centrally. Since content distribution and delivery is spread geographically across a large number of systems, a distributed content management solution is required with centralized control. Since local divisions and regions also want to offer local on-demand titles, the solution must support local management of those titles.

A central control panel to manage content metadata provides a long list of advantages for the operator, including the potential to enable powerful and timely promotional campaigns along with pricing discounts, provide targeted advertising support, adjust the viewing window, remedy errors, or enrich metadata after the title has been provisioned (for example, to support extended descriptions, advanced search, or recommendations).

Examples

Let’s explore some example scenarios that are problematic for operators today, and I’ll explain how a content management solution can help to make these scenarios much easier to manage effectively. I’m going to focus on scenarios that are operationally intensive or impossible to implement today.

The corporate marketing and programming department believes that a title has truly underperformed and decides that a promotional campaign along with a price reduction is justified in the final week of availability. With centralized control of the metadata and the resulting ability to easily lower the price for the title, the marketing and programming department now has the ability to pull together a cross-channel advertising campaign in partnership with the content provider. Further, they can use their content processing solution to embed ETV triggers in that advertising to direct viewers directly to the "buy" screen.

A set of titles with a common element or theme can be listed in a special category; for example, all the movies featuring "Ben Kingsley" or all the "Bond" movies. By cross-linking the metadata of titles in this way, this also creates a foundation for automatically generated recommendations for new titles.

An unpopular title can be removed from the system before the end of its availability window to free up storage space for new titles. As new titles are introduced, a set of rules is used to distribute them to each market according to pre-defined priorities so that the on-demand storage in each market is optimized for maximum revenue generation.

A set of titles can be ingested in the traditional on-demand infrastructure and then automatically processed according to a set of rights and rules housed in a seamlessly connected solution to the appropriate content compression and metadata formats for broadband and mobile video service platforms. Depending on the rights and rules, in some cases, only the trailers are sent to these additional platforms, and in other cases, the movies can be purchased and viewed on them.

Change

In order to do all of this effectively, a fundamental change is required in the way that the content management solution structures and handles the relationship between a so-called "heavy" asset and its associated metadata. In short, the processing, managing and delivering of metadata needs to be separate from, but not disconnected from, the associated assets and vice versa. The content management solution needs to maintain more intelligence, awareness and flexibility in this critical linkage between assets and metadata.

For example, for certain distribution needs, the delivery of metadata might be unbundled from the delivery of the associated heavy asset. This is the case for many operators that do not have the backbone capacity to handle distribution of their content assets. By separating the delivery of these two assets, the operator can deliver very large content assets to local systems over a very cost effective satellite network, and yet still deliver metadata via its intranet. Thus, metadata and rules for the management of the metadata can be organized centrally and delivered to the local systems whenever content is distributed or updated.

Finally, operators will need to be able to provision content so that it can be played on any device. This provides the operator with a competitive response to "over the top" video providers by providing a seamless extension of on-demand cable services to additional devices within the home; for example, to TV sets with broadband connection, to PCs, or to an ultra low-cost Internet protocol (IP) set-top box. To make multi-platform services manageable and scalable, the content management solution must enable the operator to provision a single title with multiple playout options across multiple devices.

Michael Adams is vice president, systems architecture, for Tandberg Television.

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