Seamless content on demand, mobile TV, seamless content mobility, portable content players: All these popular concepts have in one thing in common – content. With all eyes on content, now is the right time for the cable industry to look upstream, beyond the headend, and toward the growing numbers of content providers that are eager to make these concepts a reality.
In brief, it’s time to sketch the framework of a content propagation and distribution network that preserves the integrity of the content/customer relationship and provides a mechanism to enable future content types and delivery models. Content and consumer Before doing so, however, it’s worth reiterating some basic points. First, there is a special relationship between content providers and content consumers. Having one without the other doesn’t make much sense. Historically, most video content was created and supplied by TV networks and cable networks. In modern times, user-generated content has emerged as a plausible source for content. But in all cases, it’s a two-way relationship between the provider and consumer.
Second, it’s a transactional relationship. The consumer seeks out content. The content provider must have some motivation for going through the trouble of creating the content. It could be money (from advertising or subscriptions), marketing value (building a brand), or maybe even just fame or popularity (as often seen on YouTube). The lines blur as these personal video objects create brand or advertising revenue for someone in the distribution chain. In general, though, the truism holds: Content is king – a king who provides valuable services, but one who must be honored with money, brand appreciation or popularity.
How has content been delivered until now? For the cable industry so far, the two primary types of content are broadcast and on-demand. Broadcast content is sent in real time from programmers. This content may be live, such as news or sports, or it could be a syndicated show.
In the case of broadcast, the operator is usually simply receiving the content, maybe re-encoding it, and placing directly on the plant without any recording, buffering or time shifting. In this case, it’s a simple pass-through of the content and the associated electronic program guide (EPG) data.
On-demand content is a bit trickier because there is not only the video content itself, but also the rules concerning how much to charge, ratings, etc. Today, this content is usually destined for video on demand (VOD) libraries. CableLabs created the Asset Distribution Interface (ADI) specification to help standardize the VOD library distribution functions. A fundamental premise is that the VOD titles are "pitched" by a provider and "caught" by multiple headends. A typical VOD asset will have many hundreds or thousands of copies sprinkled throughout the country and world. Each copy is a full and complete copy of the content plus metadata – and ideally the same as every other copy. Beyond the status quo What happens as we move to multiple viewing devices such as PCs, cell phones and mobile players? Our industry currently services set-top boxes and PCs, but some operators, such as Rogers in Canada, also own the local cellular network.
How can we abstract the viewing device away from the supporting infrastructure to enable viewing on disparate consumer devices? Certainly the ADI specification can be adapted and used for these new devices because they are really just adaptations of the existing VOD experience (codec, screen size, bit rate, guide, etc.). It becomes even more intriguing as new forms of content emerge. How do we control the movement of all that content to all these devices? Equally as important, how do we reconcile the views/usage back to the content providers?
As a point of departure, consider time shifting. Time Warner Cable’s Start Over service gives consumers the ability to tune to a broadcast program in progress and restart the program from the beginning. In going beyond a movies-only model, operators will encounter special cases, such as syndication exclusivity, or syndex. That term refers to how a content provider may make a show available exclusively on one network Thursday, a second network on Friday and yet another on Sunday.
When a popular show like "Friends" is sold for syndication (reruns), these syndex rules become very important, not only to the content provider but also to the network that buys the rights to play the episodes. It would be unfair (and probably unwise) if three different broadcast networks played the same show on the same night. This exclusive availability can be different in any given area of the country or within different markets.
The localization of the cable plant, as compared to the direct broadcast satellite (DBS) footprint, brings a new capability to the term "exclusive." It could be exclusive in my region, my state, my town or maybe even my HFC node. Yet, in the current on-demand tier, there is little if any provision for such windows of availability. A new framework That example points to the need for a content propagation and distribution framework that preserves the integrity of the content/consumer relationship, as well as providing usage data to the content provider to maintain balance in the relationship. This new framework should also provide a mechanism to enable future content types and delivery models. (See Figure 1.) This framework should provide a granular control over what content is available in the smallest of areas and even by population demographic. The usage data needs to be propagated back to the content provider to facilitate adherence to licensing models and enable appropriate royalty payment. This could be similar to a pay-per view (PPV) model in some cases. In any case, building the value of the content provider will help us to better serve our customers and provide a superior experience.
Another critical but not-so-obvious requirement involves separating metadata dealing with content from metadata dealing with rules or scheduling. Take the case of a localized program that has one set of rules in Phoenix and another set of rules in Philadelphia. Providing a mechanism for localized rules allows different content, different schedules and different ads depending upon where the content is made available. Or the case of specific ethnic centers, such as Toronto, Canada. This is quite a diverse population, but completely different from San Antonio. If a content provider had to schedule on a nationwide basis, it could not give a different piece of content in these two different locations. Today, this problem is primarily solved with varying channel lineups within each market.
The increasing popularity of on-demand content affords a simple means to control different "avails" in different regions and so encourage a larger group of content providers. That in turn helps expand service offerings and satisfy customers. A single content object can be sent to all headends, or appropriate regional or local storage, but separate and distinct rules or schedules can be sent to each individual headend. These rules impose only a light tax on transport. While each complete movie object in MPEG-2 standard definition (SD) may be 3 GB or higher, the actual rules metadata is under 1 MB, or more than 1,000 times smaller. This keeps the majority of the propagation traffic the same for all destinations, and only a small rules set needs to be sent to individual headends. (See Figure 2.) The rules are used to decide how the EPG should be populated. In one geographic location, such as Phoenix, the rules may specify that a specific content object should be listed in the on-demand guide from noon until 4 p.m. In Philadelphia, the same content might be listed from 4 p.m. until midnight. Why? Let’s assume that the content in question is a "Friends" episode. In Phoenix, Cox might be carrying a channel with "Friends" reruns starting at 5 p.m., while Warner Brothers (the studio or WB network) may decide they want to offer "Friends" on demand, but not to compete with the Cox local channel in Phoenix. These rules allow the content provider, in this case Warner Brothers, to have the flexibility to schedule its on-demand offerings.
The content provider receives certain benefits from such scheduling. Dynamically adjusting the VOD schedule helps "steer" the consumer to the most interesting or most valuable content. Allowing content providers to schedule on-demand content, just as they schedule live broadcast content, can motivate them to provide more content. As always, balance is in order, and certainly having the flexibility in the framework to allow for such things is of great benefit.
One mechanism needed in the rules framework is the ability to control advertising on a per-content basis. One of the underutilized features of a modern VOD server is the ability to insert advertising on the fly. If each content object is marked with SCTE-35 messages flagging valid splicing points, a good VOD server can place or replace the ads in the content object. This ad placement must be made based on the content rules provided by the framework.
Consider these examples. An advertiser may want a different ad spliced in if the content is viewed on a cell phone instead of a living room TV set. The ad rules can also specify lock-outs or noncompliant ads. Or take our "Friends" example: Coke has product placements in the content and might be a little upset if the operator spliced in a Pepsi ad. However, Coke may want a "fresher" Coke ad than what was included in the original content. The rules should specify which ads can stay, which can be replaced, and what they can be replaced with. In a similar manner, some ads may be allowed for "trick mode" or fast-forward, but some may not. These rules will greatly add value to the content provider, helping to maintain and build their branding. Usage stats After a given object is played, the usage statistics are returned to the source of the rules. This in turn will propagate back to the content provider for "as-run" documentation. In the broadcast industry, "as-run" data is combined with the Nielsen ratings shares for the actual airing. This is how the advertising rates are applied and billed.
With all that content and metadata passing back and forth between the content provider and the cable headend, we need ways to propagate both content and metadata. The content payload itself can be propagated using conventional VOD schemes, such as a pitcher-catcher network, when the content is not "live." The content itself, plus the content-related metadata, can be bundled together using mechanisms such as the CableLabs ADI specification.
The rules metadata is a bit more complicated. This data requires a two-way communication mechanism to carry both the rules to the edge, but also to reconcile the as-run data back to the content provider. With the Internet and nationwide backbones, moving small rules files around does not pose too much of a challenge.
What about live content? This is where separating our rules metadata from the content metadata helps tremendously. The rules metadata would be pre-pitched using the rules propagation framework. As the live content is aired, it is captured and correlated with the rules metadata for adherence and control. Keeping the metadata partitioned like this allows one satellite feed to service the whole country, but many different rules to be sent to specific markets for localization.
Interestingly enough, this model approaches a broadcast trafficking and automation flow with as-run reconciliation and advertising make-goods. Because of the similarities to broadcast, much of the work of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers can be leveraged for this application.
One place this could help is in the propagation delay and pain of distributing VOD content. When the VOD library was strictly movies, the library stayed relatively static with infrequent changes. Today we have many nonmovie titles in the VOD library. Along with providing mechanisms for content providers to make their content available, operators should try to simplify the pitch-catch propagation model. In many cases, loading VOD libraries involves tapes being sent to an external dupe house and then shipped around the country. Enabling more streamlined distribution is yet another way to encourage content providers. New twists One new twist involves user-generated content sites such as YouTube. Do we facilitate viewing Internet-based content on our living room TV set, further blurring the lines of content? As an industry, we have the technology to provide a seamless content environment where the source of the content is not a primary restriction. But blending these two worlds can have some interesting side effects. Some content is really designed to be viewed on a PC, such as a Web site. Some content is designed to be viewed on a TV set. We naturally gravitate to our preferred viewing device, so allowing consumers to access any type of content on the preferred device is desirable.
Will YouTube replace broadcast networks? Not likely, but remember the opening premise: Content is still king. Regardless of source, popular content is still popular content. Planes crash, costumes malfunction, starlets get out of cars with short skirts, and not only reporters, but nearly everyone now seems to have a camera. These events can cause an amazing amount of traffic on Web sites, but usually for a very short time. Would they compete with the Super Bowl? Hardly, but the lines between broadcast and the long tail certainly are becoming more interesting.
With the infrastructure to reach the consumer, near-infinite capacity, localized relationships, nationwide backbones and strong content relationships, the cable industry’s ability to exploit this new content era is well-established.
Plenty of questions have arisen. Which features do you enable with time-shifted TV? Will broadcasters allow network digital video recorder (nDVR)? What is the best way to control streaming content to a cell phone? But nothing will happen for long without the permission of the respective content owner. The industry can either try to deploy services without permission or build the framework that enables content partners greater participation and control.
The latter approach, of course, holds more promise. Providing such added value to content partners will encourage them to offer more content. That’s the competitive edge it will take to win the future of media and content distribution. Bob Scheffler is distinguished member, technical staff, Connected Home Solutions, for Motorola. Reach him at BobS@motorola.com.