Open Mic: Cable's proactive approach to keeping video customers

Sat, 02/28/2009 - 7:15pm
John Callahan, CTO of ActiveVideo Networks

Cable is well down the device-based, interactive road with EBIF/tru2way.

As broadband infrastructure becomes a viable medium for video delivery to the consumer, television is being hard-pressed to provide the same level of choice and control that Web video offers to viewers – especially "the Millennials," John Callahanwho are our future market. The only sure thing is that the television experience will be much different from the traditional "watching TV" of past decades.

A quick glance around similar landscapes shows the difficulty of defining the future of multichannel video service. The recording industry is in the process of remaking itself. Declining landline telephone service is limping along in a society that is growing ever-more attached to cell phones. Earlier this year, the CEO of a large MSO said: "People, particularly young people, are saying: ‘All I need is broadband. I don't need video.'"

What's needed for cable to thrive is a comprehensive approach that combines the industry's advantages – an installed HFC infrastructure that supports real-time, two-way digital video; established customer relationships for marketing new services; and leadership in interactive video applications – with the network-based video streaming approaches that have been the foundation of cable's decade-long VOD deployment.

On the set-top side, the industry is moving toward standardizing on lightweight scripting engines and Java technology. Networks have evolved to support new technologies that give consumers more choice and control: millions of streams of movies and television programming, the evolution of network-based DVRs, and ultimately server-based interactivity. Together, these solutions collectively equal "ease of use" for the customer, and can engender loyalty among those individuals who stand most likely to defect.

Judging from the buzz around the "widget" concept at CES earlier this year, device-based interactivity is the "next big thing" in home electronics design. While widgets can provide a subset of Internet-based media, the integration of that experience with high-quality video streaming has yet to be seen. The challenges of software provisioning, deployment and revision control will present the CE industry with the same problems that operators have been dealing with for years.

Anecdotally, client-based applets such as news, stocks, weather tickers and commerce have not had great appeal to customers. Compelling content and ease of use will require substantial attention before connecting a TV to the Internet will displace the operators.

That said, to keep young viewers from cutting cords, and to preserve the subscriber and advertiser value of video packages, a more expansive approach is needed.

What cable's "at-risk" segment of Web video viewers really wants from television is the same media richness and depth of content that they've become accustomed to while on the PC. Just as "channel surfing" is roughly analogous to the hyperlink on the Web, the key to keeping young viewers engaged will be to provide hyperlinking of rich media content in a manner that is "as easy as surfing channels."

Cable has some key advantages in this area. While the CE industry is just now baking interactivity into a new generation of televisions, cable is well down the device-based, interactive road through its work with EBIF/tru2way, and the industry has created standards that will simplify the application development and regression testing process. And while the satellite industry has offered limited interaction for some time, the robustness of cable's two-way plant and the enormity of its market footprint offer the ability for EBIF/tru2way prompts to serve as gateways to a wealth of new content.

Just as the Internet significantly enhances the value of desktop PCs, so too can cable's network complement the capabilities of set-top clients. Local graphics blending, location execution environments for overlay applications, and low-bandwidth, presence-based applications such as chat and text can all be processed efficiently at the subscriber premises. When used to launch additional applications in the network, however, their utility to subscribers and their value to operators, programmers and advertisers increases exponentially.

Imagine the possibilities: A user experience that is primarily large-screen format, high-quality video (i.e., "TV") with embedded links that can take viewers from localized menus to broader searches, trailers and recommendation engines; EBIF triggers within broadcast series that initiate local application overlays and enable viewers to navigate to cast bios, special offers and links to related content; or triggers from series to related advertising microsites that allow subscribers to explore the features and benefits of products in greater depth.

In the end, just as it was in the earliest days of cable, it's not about any one or two particular technological approaches. It's about using the full spectrum of our engineering capabilities to give the consumer access to the products that will increase loyalty, attract new subscribers, and enable the entire media community to provide relevant and timely content that can be monetized.

Next month, the NCTA's Bill Check will write about the
convergence of technology and public policy as The Cable Show comes to Washington, D.C.

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