Mark Hess, senior vice president of digital television, Comcast

Mark Hess
Mark Hess
When it comes to video-on-demand (VOD), Mark Hess' view is pretty expansive. It's a panorama that encompasses movies and television shows but also a large territory of local programming. And in the future, it could also widen to include HD and non-video content.

For having a vision to develop video-on-demand beyond simply a virtual Blockbuster, CED has awarded Comcast Corp.'s Mark Hess the inaugural VOD Pacesetter Award for 2004.

Shepherding VOD services for the nation's largest MSO isn't a one-man job, but as Senior Vice President of Digital Television, Hess has had a big hand in shaping Comcast's VOD rollouts. VOD is now available to 50 percent of Comcast's sprawling footprint with plans to increase that to more than 80 percent by the end of the year.

That is ambitious enough given the MSO's sheer footprint, but it isn't a generic, cookie-cutter product with the same content everywhere. In Philadelphia and most recently in Boston, Comcast has rolled out a VOD programming block that goes local, with content provided by several local outlets. Industry watchers have dubbed these services "BostonVision" and "PhillyVision."

"It stems from two things that we started working on pretty early–one was a true belief that when we started talking about video-on-demand, we were talking about all types and kinds of video," Hess says. "Most people when they first started talking about video-on-demand in 2001 were just focused on movies and how we were going to put Blockbuster out of business with some great movie service."

While other content like HBO or music videos may see higher overall volume, the local content fills in the cracks and reinforces the idea that, unlike satellite, cable is a locally generated service with more direct community ties, Hess says. Local content also doesn't hurt when it happens to be a major Achilles Heel for your satellite TV competitors.

"If you can combine two of our hugest advantages in one product–they can't do VOD and they have trouble with local– then that's even better for us," Hess says.

But adding local content that is primarily news does present a challenge. Given that viewers will only seek news programs within about 24 hours of initial broadcast, Comcast and its video gear vendors had to come up with a real-time encoding process, capturing and digesting the content and the associated metadata on the fly. It has been a work in progress–when Comcast first rolled out the local VOD programming package in Philadelphia last year, encoders could only process one such stream at a time.

"Now we are up to six (streams), so actually the BostonVision [project] is the first kind of opportunity where you are seeing multiple channels potentially being captured simultaneously," Hess says.

The MSO and its vendor partners also have pared down the delay between broadcast and VOD server availability to 30 minutes, and the goal is to eventually provide the content the minute the original broadcast ends. The results have been encouraging enough that Comcast plans are to take that same "vision" to other VOD markets, provided there are at least a couple of willing local programming providers.

"If you've got a local newscast or two, that is enough. Part of this is getting our feet wet and getting in there. A lot of it is shaking out the technology–how the metadata is created and delivered so it shows up on the UI. If you can convince one local broadcaster to jump into the pond with you, then it's worth doing," Hess notes.

The real-time encoding capability, meanwhile, is finding application outside of the local scene. Comcast has started to real-time encode some news feeds from national sources, such as E! News Tonight. Comcast this year also began encoding NHL game highlights, delivering four-to-six minute excerpts from the games at the Colorado-based Comcast Media Center, which shipped the highlights out to all of the VOD servers.

But Hess emphasizes that the Comcast VOD rollouts are the result of hard work among MSO staff and its technology vendors.

"All of the work really gets done out in the field itself, and we have a collection of vendors that really saw what we were trying to accomplish and really wanted us to be successful doing it. All of that really made the difference," Hess says.