Comcast is charting a new course with last week's announcement that it’s dynamically inserting ads into VOD , but even bigger dynamic ad insertion plans for VOD are afloat.
Ever since early last year, Canoe Ventures, which is backed by the six largest cable operators in the nation, has been laying the operational and technical foundation for dynamic ad insertion (DAI) on free VOD. Like its iTV request for information (RFI) campaign offering, Canoe Ventures is leveraging SCTE 130 components and CableLabs' Stewardship and Fulfillment Interface (SaFI) specification for its DAI architecture.
After tweaking the network architecture, Canoe Ventures started testing DAI with vendors last year in its lab. A CableLabs interop earlier this year  brought the company together with more vendors in the ecosystem to make sure the physical requirements and feature set would be the same in a field setting.
"We finished that architecture, and our goal this year is we are going to trial with some of our key programming partners and MSO partners so we can do commercial launches early in 2012," Canoe Ventures CTO Arthur Orduña said.
As far as the concept goes, DAI was top of mind when Canoe Ventures was formed in 2008, and it was also under consideration when it was still Project Canoe.
"We started Canoe with an eye toward, 'What can we do to leverage the on-demand capabilities of the MSO founders?'" Orduña said. "One of the first things we started thinking about was how can we take some steps with ad insertion into on-demand content.
"Only half of that issue is the technical and operational challenge. The other, bigger half of that issue is the business challenge of carriage deals that are in place between the programmers and MSOs. It's almost like a chicken and egg thing, because in order to justify the investment to add dynamic ad insertion capabilities by the MSOs, you wanted to make sure that there was a viable ad market to provide the return. In order to get the agencies and advertisers interested in doing that from the programmers' side, they had to be sure that there was a footprint in place."
Project Canoe first tested the waters on coordinating a national platform during the elections of 2008. Orduña said the successful VOD-based project was designed to see if the cable operators could coordinate, report and publish in unison on a national level.
Canoe Ventures backed off of DAI to build out its infrastructure for its EBIF-based RFI offering, which launched last year. (For an overview of the architecture, check out this CED Dynamic Ad Insertion wallchart  from last year.)
In the meantime, the free VOD (FVOD) landscape was maturing as major networks started offering their content up for free on service providers' platforms. Over the past 18 months or so, popular TV shows, such as NBCUniversal's "30 Rock," became available on VOD platforms, but advertising efforts were static, baked in assets.
"Once we knew we were in a good place with the EBIF platform and started to get ready on the campaigns, we revisited VOD and the VOD dynamic ad insertion capabilities," Orduña said. "We started by first talking to our programmer customers, folks like NBCUniversal, Discovery, Rainbow and A&E, since we were already working with these guys for iTV. They also have an incredible desire for making money off of their assets with VOD, specifically on VOD dynamic ad insertion.
"So suddenly you have all of these premium assets that are on on-demand, and there's a potential marketplace there now if you can replace and refresh the ads that are attached to those assets that people want to see. The timing was right for us last year to start saying, 'What is the architecture now?' We worked closely with those programmer partners, and we worked closely with our MSO owners because it has to be their systems that execute it."
Building the DAI infrastructure
Canoe Ventures purposely didn't reinvent the wheel to enable DAI on its iTV architecture, but it did need to make some changes.
"We looked to leverage things like all of the SCTE 130 work that has been done already, all of the SaFI work that we helped lead at CableLabs, and especially things like CIP, (campaign information package interface) that is part of the SaFI specification that really allows for end-to-end communication of what an advanced ad campaign should be and the information that is required to execute it," Orduña said. "Working with the MSOs and CableLabs, we expanded it to support VOD. So that was a lot of the work last year, all of the not very glamorous but incredibly critical blocking and tackling first on the architecture, next on the standards and interfaces, third on the data and the data models so that everyone is doing this the same way, and fourth on the reporting and messaging so that it can flow back and forth the right way."
By design, Canoe Ventures ended up with the same workflow, the same data flow and the same overall high-level components that were already in place for iTV. At a high level, there are the advertisers and programmers on one end, Canoe Ventures' centralized platform in the middle and the cable operators below Canoe Ventures that execute the VOD DAI campaigns.
From the iTV architecture, Canoe Ventures had to make enhancements to the following: order management, data management and the content/delivery management that's tied to an asset for VOD DAI.
With order management, Canoe Ventures had to support the differences between an iTV campaign and a VOD campaign.
"In a VOD campaign it's tied to assets, the way the campaign is managed, the way the assets are bought and sold, the frequency in which inventory is displayed or presented," Orduña said. "All of that is different in a VOD campaign than iTV, so we had to add those differences to the order management portion so it could be the same kind of seamless workflow, but supporting different business rules to that campaign."
In the second portion, which is the data management side, Orduña said Canoe Ventures needed to be able to support new data models, "because SCTE 130 basically means now we've got different elements of the campaign that we need to support, things like asset, schedule, genre that we don't have to support in iTV, but you do have to support in VOD."
"The good news was that these are all known elements because this is how VOD works today, and VOD is a 10-year-old-plus industry," he said. "We're adding assets to VOD, but that doesn't change metadata or any of the other things behind VOD that are already mature.
"On the broadcast delivery side, or the delivery portion, that's where we had to be very cognizant of things like SCTE 130. We have to add the awareness of what an ADS (ad decisions system) is, we have to be able to talk to ADMs (ad managers) below the line, and we have to be able to talk to ADSs at the programmer level. What does that whole content flow and content management flow look like? That's where we did a lot of work modifying CIP, supporting SCTE 130, ADS, ADM and all of those other lovely acronyms."
DAI in action
The dynamic ad insertions in FVOD could be sold alongside linear commercials, online commercials and RFI campaigns. Once a DAI sale has been made, the ad assets are sent down beforehand to the cable operators' on-demand storage. The content assets, such as that episode of "30 Rock," are sent down separately.
"When the campaign is slated to run, the programmer enters in the campaign information, saying, 'These assets that you already have should be inserted in a certain way attached to certain of my assets, and I want it with this kind of objective,' whether it's being sold by number of impressions or what have you," Orduña said. "They type that into their campaign manager. Their campaign manger could be a broadband campaign manager like Free Wheel, it could be a VOD-centric campaign manager like BlackArrow, OpenTV, Concurrent and Ericsson, or it could be multiples of those.
"That campaign information from their campaign manager goes to Canoe. The way they're typing it in, the number of MSOs and everything else is hidden from them. They don't care. They're not writing that this many go to Cox, or this many go to Bright House. They're basically saying this campaign needs to go nationally, and I need 20 million impressions against '30 Rock,' but it needs these kinds of campaign rules."
All the of information from the programmers goes down to Canoe, which provides the centralized platform and intelligence to send down the campaign information requirements in real time to the cable operator partners for execution.
"We do all of the hard lifting of translating from multiple campaign managers into a common way that MSOs below the line can understand those campaign instructions or those campaign decisions," Orduña said. "We're doing all of that heavy lifting at Canoe of being able to handle the many to many or the one to many for VOD."
Subscribers watching "30 Rock" could see a mixture of ads, including local ads sold by the cable operator or the national ads that Canoe brokers on behalf of the programmers.
For now, the ads can be dynamically inserted via pre-roll and post-roll capabilities. Orduña said mid-roll insertions are on Canoe's roadmap, but cable operators need to implement mid-roll capabilities – Comcast said it would have mid-rolls enabled later this year – as well as work out the business aspect of mid-rolls with the programmers.
So in the pre-DAI world, ads were baked in during pre-production on a VOD asset and sat there for the life of the asset, which is typically 30 days. With DAI, the ads can be switched out dynamically to coincide with a timely event, or when a campaign is concluded once it hits a certain number of impressions.
Once the campaign is underway, Canoe reports back to the programmer on a regular basis – every 12 hours, daily or whatever the programmer wants. The detailed reporting could include how many streams were requested or how many times an asset was requested.
"The key thing here is those reports do not show performance on a per-household, per-market or per-MSO basis," Orduña said. "They're national views across a national footprint that show how the campaign is doing.
"At the end of it, we will invoice the programmers, and we'll give them the campaign summary. Our plan is to provide insights, as well, with an eye toward improving the next campaign."
The business side
Canoe Ventures will no doubt benefit from Comcast's DAI deployment with BlackArrow since Comcast is among Canoe Ventures' financial backers.
BlackArrow has been working diligently to bring advertisers, programmers and cable operators together for advertising on VOD through the Advanced Advertising Media Project (AAMP) . (Check out some results of AAMP’s recent survey on free VOD advertising .) AAMP's members include Comcast and NBCUniversal, and it was founded to study how free VOD can be monetized. Currently, Canoe Ventures isn't a member of AAMP.
"I think BlackArrow is doing a great job of helping to try to build this VOD ad market," Orduña said. "We think first of all, it's very complementary to what we're doing because their target customers, as far as we can understand, are the campaign manager and the ad decision systems for MSOs below the line, and they also have some really good products for programmers above the line.
"We don't have anything public yet to say about AAMP, but from my perspective, I think it's a really good research initiative, and I think it's doing something very critical in terms of proving the value of advertising in on-demand."
With Comcast out of the starting blocks with its VOD DAI, Canoe Ventures' architecture in place, and an appetite to monetize VOD by programmers and cable operators alike, ad-supported video-on-demand appears to be poised for liftoff.
"Our belief is that this will have a lot of value for programmers and for their advertisers," said Orduña. "Especially for advertisers since this is in on-demand, and on-demand is an incredibly popular feature and growing in popularity. It's a real simple equation: If you put really popular content on on-demand, people will watch it. If you attach ads to those streams that people want to watch, people will watch the ads."