A recent public demonstration of two new digital-ad insertion standards marks just one step in a much longer journey that will eventually blaze a trial for wider rollouts of the technology.
That demonstration took place June 28 at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. in Louisville, Colo., and was spearheaded by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' digital-video subcommittee and one of its working groups. Two interoperable, digital ad-insertion standards were tested: DVS 253 and DVS 380.
DVS 253 covers the cable-based digital program insertion (DPI) cueing message; and DVS 380 represents an application-programming interface for DPI splicing. In simpler terms, DVS 253 enables a programmer to embed the cue signal in the digital bitstream, and DVS 380 tells the headend to run the commercial when it "hears" the cue tone.
The DVS subcommittee's Working Group No. 5 has been developing the standards for about three years.
Within that group, Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. contributed encoders and cue injectors; nCUBE Corp. and SeaChange International Inc. supplied digital-advertising servers; and Cisco Systems Inc., Harmonic Inc. and Terayon Communication Systems Inc. provided digital splicing and grooming gear.
To date, in-the-field digital ad-insertion work has been relatively limited.
For example, AT&T Broadband has deployed the technology in Los Angeles, and Cox Communications Inc. is conducting lab trials in Phoenix and Atlanta.
RISING IN PHOENIX
Cox intends to introduce the technology to homes in Phoenix in late August or early September, said Cox Cable-Rep Advertising vice president of technical operations Guy McCormick. At that time, the MSO will offer digital ad insertion on one to four networks, with ESPNews and SoapNet among the likely candidates, he added.
Presently, the AT&T Broadband and Cox digital ad-insertion sites do not employ the standardized DVS 253 cue messages. Instead, they use techniques that trick the cue tones into telling the splicer it's receiving a DVS 253 message, said Paul Woidke, chairman of Working Group No. 5 and CTO of Adlink, a digital interconnect that reaches more than 3.4 million homes across 80 cable systems in greater Los Angeles.
As it exists today, digital ad insertion requires the operator to convert a digital signal to analog, insert the analog commercial, then send the signal through the cable plant in analog format. That method is not very cost-effective in a digital environment, Woidke said.
Equipment that adheres to those standards, when coupled with the standardized cue tones in programmer's digital signals, will remove the need for expensive encoding and re-encoding, Woidke said.
Getting existing systems to support the standards would be as simple as a software upgrade, said David Brenner, director of systems integration for Terayon Communication Systems Inc.'s digital-video systems unit. Terayon makes the CherryPicker digital-grooming system and has sold more than 1,700 units so far.
On the server side, operators that want to insert analog and digital ads simultaneously would need to add a new piece of gear. For example, SeaChange offers a "Transport Streaming Server" box that would sit on top of the company's legacy analog ad-insertion system, said SeaChange advertising systems architect Brian Kahn. The back-end portion of the system would be unchanged, he said.
PHASE II LOOMS
The CableLabs demonstration, which showed that the standards work as advertised, was just one rung in the climb to the top of the digital ad-insertion ladder, said Woidke.
"We don't have all of the blueprint completed yet," he said. "We have attached the engine to the drive train, but more work needs to be done."
More rigorous work is expected this fall, when Phase II of the project gets underway. That step will shift the technology beyond a demo of just one digital stream to compliance tests that involve running multiple streams through the splicer and running commercials simultaneously on a spate of networks. Phase II will also employ a satellite link to deliver programming to the test site.
Of course, all of this work is designed to boost a cable operator's bottom line and to give systems the ability to drive local ad revenue on their digital tiers.
Woidke said digital ad-insertion standards will help cable operators to tap a new revenue stream and enable programmers to offer more lucrative digital carriage packages to MSOs. Adlink generated about $130 million in revenue last year.
In addition to the standards, more interfaces and guidelines must be documented so the traffic system can communicate clearly with the server and the splicer, Woidke said.
"We can tighten that up a bit," he said. "Our end game is when programmers start to inject [digital] cue tones and operators start to insert commercials locally in the digital domain."
Adoption of the standard by vendors would ease the digital-advertising transition, said McCormick. Still, "we're much closer than we tend to believe we are as an industry," he added. "Some things can be done now as these standards are being developed and adopted."
McCormick also noted that he is pushing Headend In The Sky and other programmers to embed I-Frames in their digital signals.
Although the absence of I-Frames boosts bandwidth efficiency, inclusion of the technology alleviates the "tiling" that can occur when an inserted commercial ends and regular programming resumes. I-Frames would essentially clean up the visual portion of that transition, he said.