Time Warner has announced an industry-wide initiative, dubbed "TV Everywhere," to put cable programming on the Web as a value-add for cable subscribers. Similarly, Comcast, which already puts some of its programming on its Fancast site, has announced plans to beef that up even more with its own initiative, On Demand Online.
Growing consumer demand is a given. But what does the delivery of Internet protocol (IP)-based "everywhere" video mean on the technology front?
Some technical concerns include transitioning to DOCSIS 3.0 so there’s enough capacity for IP video. And there’s also the need for content delivery networks (CDNs) that can store and stream IP video.
Aside from those issues, it appears that a lot of the work to deliver video to IP devices will be done by video management publishers, such as thePlatform, which is a Comcast subsidiary. thePlatform already delivers broadband video for Comcast and other content providers such as the Associated Press, Cablevision and PBS.
"We’re anticipating embracing the concept of extending cable subscriptions out to other devices," said Marty Roberts, thePlatform’s VP of marketing.
From the initial announcements, it appears that the top cable operators spearheading these broadband video efforts intend to provide their content online as a bonus to their subscribers.
But even if cable subscribers don’t have to pay extra for the online content, they will still have to prove they are subs and have the right to view the content. That presents authentication challenges. At each step, the consumer must be verified, said Roberts.
After a sub is verified, a host of other digital rights questions will have to be answered. Can the subscriber download the content? Transfer it to other devices? Watch it how many times? On how many devices? Within what time frame? And just who is a subscriber? Does a child living away at college qualify?
"Those are digital media rights that we set up and enforce like a product catalog," said Roberts. "It’s not brand-new territory. We do it for several digital media stores," he said, citing Starz Play, Fancast’s digital store and Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner digital store. "We’re almost there in terms of our ability."
A lot of the digital rights management (DRM) questions sound like something a back-office billing company would deal with. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the big billing company CSG Systems is already in this space.
"There’s kind of a free-for-all going on right now," said Rob Kunzler, executive director of marketing for CSG. "The business model for delivering content over the Web is still being defined. The next 12-18 months are going to be really critical."
Metadata is key
"thePlatform manages the physical asset," said Ryan Anglin, senior sales consultant with CSG. "We’re more in the business of managing the metalayer above the asset."
CSG has created a product called Content Direct that provides a turnkey way for distributors of content to manage and monetize broadband video. "It’s all Web 2.0 stuff, developed to get customers up and running quickly," said Kunzler. "We create all the member management in the player itself. It’s good because you can embed the player on other properties."
National Lampoon and World Extreme Cage Fighting are CSG’s first two clients to use the Content Direct product for viewing and purchasing online video.
"What differentiates us between thePlatform is we bring metadata to the table," said Anglin. "The video asset is important, but there’s a bunch of other stuff – synopsis, ratings, reviews, recommendation engines, bios of actors."
Roberts agreed that metadata is vital to broadband video management. "Just taking content and mapping to another medium is not the best tack," Roberts said. "Each medium will have slightly different metadata standards. One has a 160-word limit; one has a 60-word limit."
Rather than taking cable content and trying to change it for the Internet, or vice versa, Roberts said it’s better to step all the way back to production. He said it’s preferable to take the source content from the program network "and figure out the best metadata for the particular outlet, and manage that process from end to end depending on where you need to go," he said.
With the recent announcements from Comcast and Time Warner, 2009 is sure to spawn new entrants in the online media management space.
"We have about 40 competitors, and we add about one a week," said Roberts. "It’s a crowded space. We’re constantly surprised at the unique twist that one company might take to win a customer."
Roberts said competitors of thePlatform include Brightcove, ExtendMedia,Unicorn Media and Entriq.
Linda Hardesty is associate editor of Communications Technology.
Sidebar: Cord Cutting: No Cause for Alarm
There’s a new term in the cable industry: cord cutting. Just a few months ago, this term might have conjured images of the birth of a first child. Now, it’s official industry jargon, conveying the concern that cable customers might become so enamored of watching video online that they will "cut the cable cord" and cancel their video subscriptions.
All this talk of cord cutting has given birth to industry research into online video viewing.
In late February, Leichtman Research Group reported that online video viewership is growing but isn’t cause for panic in the cable world. The Diffusion Group said cable operator strategies to move content to multiple screens could increase profits.
The Leichtman research, based on a survey of 1,250 households nationwide, indicated that only 1 percent of adults view recent TV shows online daily, and 8 percent weekly – compared to 6 percent weekly last year.
Most video content being consumed online is not long-form video, said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group. "The majority of it is not TV shows – it’s sports clips, YouTube videos," he said. "Online is not the preferred location; it’s an alternate location."
Leichtman cited a comScore report published in January that indicated the average viewing time for online video was only 3.1 minutes.
The profile of a high TV viewer is someone who’s older and lower income, he said. The people viewing online video are younger and use more telecommunications devices.
Money on the table
Research firm TDG, in a random sampling of 2,000 adult broadband users surveyed in January, found that 43 percent were interested in viewing their linear pay TV content on their PCs. Two-thirds of those (29 percent of total) were willing to pay at least $10 per month for the service.
The survey questions asked respondents if they would mind paying the extra $10 fee on their cable TV bill, said Michael Greeson, president of TDG.
"The question is to what extent are PCs becoming ancillary," said Greeson, who argued that cable companies should stop thinking of themselves as TV providers and start thinking of themselves as video providers to whatever screen the consumer wants.
As far as making online video a value-add for cable subscribers, Greeson said that leaves money on the table. "It’s very difficult to give things away for free and then start to charge for them," he said. "This is something the music industry tried. There’s a great deal of uncertainty about which model’s going to work."
There have been a lot of comparisons between video content moving online and earlier migrations of newspaper content and music content to the Web. Leichtman argued that the proxies are not the same.
"Online video is not a replacement for traditional TV," he said. "It’s an augmentation."
– Linda Hardesty