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Open Mic: Navigating television’s perfect storm

Thu, 03/07/2013 - 5:37pm
Jim Tanner, Chief architect at Clearleap

For today’s well-equipped TV watcher, pausing a program on the living room TV set and resuming it on the portable tablet is merely a matter of pressing buttons or swiping screens.

A click here, a tap there, and in seconds the program hops from one screen to the next, uninterrupted and ready to resume.

Or so it appears. In fact, the backstage technology maneuvering that’s required is anything but simple, and the TV show that traverses the two screens is the same only in appearance.

In all likelihood, what has really happened is that the viewer has summoned onto the tablet a discrete digital stream that is tailored uniquely to the device in hand. Not only is the digital encode/decode language different, but there may be variations within the assigned codec family pertaining to bit rate, adaptive bit rate, resolution, screen size, DRM, and also program metadata. From an asset management standpoint, the viewer isn’t watching the same content at all. It just looks that way.

Making it “look that way” is the new challenge facing television networks and content distributors as they navigate the technology shoals of the fast-emerging multi-screen environment.

At heart, it’s a math problem: Serving video across a diverse universe of devices is an exercise in multiplication, demanding a solution account for every possible combination of transcoding plus other attributes of video. Even widely deployed IP video formats such as HTTP Live Streaming have underlying variations that produce several file preparation flavors. Accounting for these everexpanding variations in packages of content, the preparation, management and distribution of hundreds of versions of the same TV program must be generated. Multiplied across a schedule of dozens of weekly TV shows and deep archival reservoirs produces an astonishing range of variation and processing requirements – a “perfect storm” for the logistics of digital video.

Today’s environment is a far cry from the not-so-long-ago era when television networks for the most part had to manage only one digital video format (MPEG-2) in two resolution variations: standard- and high-definition. Expanding from those two video formats required making content available across the spectrum of devices – daunting enough. But there’s more.

The multi-screen/on-demand video environment also demands the care and feeding of variations in metadata – the set of visible data and invisible behavioral rules that prescribe when viewing windows open and close, where advertising can appear, how artwork looks on the screen.

Despite the valuable contribution made by specifications like the CableLabs Asset Management Interface, there are subtle differences in metadata requirements among various video providers, making for another layer of program complexity. Further, often new media, such as online video or video to tablets or mobile devices, do not adhere to the CableLabs standards.

Advertising integration also rises up as an important ingredient in the new multi-screen video environment. Video files must address how, when and/or whether advertisements are allowed to appear within digital streams, all while accommodating audience measurement indicators. The new world of on-demand video also requires that business rules ride along with the content itself.

For example, there’s rising interest among television content providers and their distributors about what happens to available ad inventory after the Nielsen-defined C3 ratings period for national ads vanishes. Whether the inventory opens up to local advertisers, accommodates new national commercials or vanishes altogether must be addressed within the encoded video asset content that gets distributed over a constellation of wired and wireless networks. And, like metadata, there is not standard or de facto common practice for advertising and related business rules that applies across all screens (TV, PC, tablet, mobile, games, etc.).

Together, metadata and advertising data are perhaps even more critical than video formats but vastly increase the math problem.

To manage an increasingly complex video environment, many television networks are turning to a broader information technology infrastructure that has been built to accommodate the enormous data requirements confronting banks, airlines and other data-intensive industry sectors. The same resources that have elevated the art of data management there – including modern data centers, distributed software running across multiple “generic” server blades and highly scalable architectures – can, and are, being applied successfully to the new video environment. Additionally, advances in broadband network technology have produced enormous improvements in the capacity and reliability of terrestrial IP networks, making it possible (and economical) to manage high-speed transportation of video files within today’s multipoint-to-multipoint networking environment. Finally, new latitude and resources in software user interface design make it possible for TV networks and content providers to orchestrate this complex data interplay over accessible, intuitive, Web-based interfaces.

For content providers, the multi-screen environment opens up entirely new ways to reach viewers and expand television’s economic field of play. But it also demands extremely adroit management of the product itself as it plays out in a consumer landscape where high expectations prevail. The good news is that by harnessing modern IT capability and broadband networking advancements, it can be done – to the delight of TV fans everywhere.

jtanner@clearleap.com

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