The Nuts and Bolts of Broadband Video

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Cable networks are taking “do-it-yourself” approaches as they create or adapt video-channel content for use on broadband services. Brands as diverse as Cable News Network, Starz, MSNBC and Showtime have built their own capabilities and are relying on off-the-shelf software and hosting resources.

One example of that is CNN Pipeline, the multiscreen news-on-demand Internet service that debuted in early December.

Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services, noted that Pipeline is built on the same infrastructure and backbone currently used for CNN.com. That includes the hosting facilities run by America Online, a cousin company within the Time Warner Inc. empire.

TURNER’S CHALLENGES

Grant and Monty Mullig, Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s senior vice president for Internet, collaborated with their content and technical teams to identify resources necessary to build Pipeline.

The team faces a slew of challenges, Mullig said.

“We used to support every codec, but it was clear that the development burden was too high, so we had to move to the lowest common denominator,” he said. In CNN’s case, that meant a system that could synchronize video and non-video services and one that could be used in “other Turner properties, where DRM [digital rights management] is important.”

For Pipeline, CNN opted for Windows Media Player, which Mullig called “extremely efficient.” Pipeline subscribers will pay less than $5 per month for unlimited access to multiple streams of simultaneous video.

“None of this can be mistaken for our video programming,” said Grant, who added that Pipeline’s server is populated with timely news content.

The homegrown search capability, based on Verity search software, lets viewers sort clips by “most popular” or by topic. A recent search, for example, of CNN stories found 82 video reports related to the trial of Saddam Hussein trial since July.

“Depending on the story and how we’ve covered it,” viewers can see a correspondent’s stand-up report or a lengthy sound bite from a newsmaker, Grand said.

MSNBC is shaping a similar vision of direct-to-Web video. Network vice president of interactive strategy Jeanne Rothermich citeed recent coverage of Hurricane Wilma. A TV producer pulled together a series of two-minute segments that did not appear on the TV channel. He cut it specifically for use on the Web site.

Rothermich also envisions use of “vlogs,” or video blogs, featuring talent and material from the channel’s primetime programming. For example, she expects that Hardball host Chris Matthews may offer vlogs of his daytime preparation for the nightly show to supplement (or replace) his daily text blog.

MSNBC ADDING VIDEO

Meanwhile, Charlie Tillinghast, the new president of MSNBC.com, is eager to add more video — including original content— to the four or five hours per day that is now streamed on the Web site.

When MSNBC began its late-night streaming of NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams last month, it meant the full roster of major news shows from the NBC Universal networks — including CNBC and MSNBC — was now available on the Web.

The MSNBC.com staff in Redmond, Wash., captures and posts video content, using a proprietary system to handle content that arrives via satellite feeds. Video is “encoded on the fly,” Tillinghast said, then editors add captions and metadata to enable searching.

Content is moved onto MSNBC.com’s local hosting facilities. Limelight, a large hosting supplier, handles overflow on high-volume days, such as during Hurricane Katrina, when MSNBC.com served 9 million streams in one day.

The MSNBC system has handled peaks of up to 300,000 simultaneous page views.

Tillinghast would like to create “a new kind of product” aimed at the growing number of PCs that operate on Microsoft Media Center edition.

“We can modify the desktop product to make it work [on TV sets],” Tillinghast says, envisioning programs delivered on demand through a PC to a large-screen living room monitor, rather than via a set-top box.

PREMIUM APPROACHES

Showtime and Starz have also embraced broadband services, in different ways.

At Showtime’s Web site (www.sho.com) all video is delivered through a proprietary player, developed in-house. The network offers supplemental programming, including behind-the-scenes reports, back stories on characters and other enhancements to its original programming. For the popular series Weeds, it built the fictional town of Agrestic, complete with stars’ trailers and other elements to bolster the show.

“A lot of our broadband strategy is promotional,” says Judy Pless, senior vice president of the digital media group, citing material created for the Masters of Horror and Sleeper Cell series. For the new-season debut of The L Word in January, Showtime is creating broadband blogs.

Showtime hosts its broadband features in a partnership with Akamai Technologies Inc. It began using Flash video on all its products in July, and has been “very pleased” with the visual performance, says Chris Lucas, vice president and executive producer of digital media. Showtime is working with Macromedia Corp. on Flash 8 products, he said.

Pless adds that Showtime’s broadband syndication relationships are often focused on specific content. For example, Showtime has provided promotional videos and episodic clips from its gay-themed shows, such as The L Word and Queer as Folk, to Web site PlanetOut.com, which hosts the segments on its servers.

Lucas explains that Showtime relies “on our CDN [content-distribution network] partners to provide scalable end-to-end solutions” for broadband video delivery.

In contrast to the free/promotional Showtime philosophy, Starz Ticket is an online subscription service: $12.95 per month for access to 300 movies. It has been available since the summer of 2004.

Within the next six months, Starz plans to launch an enhanced download service, built on the premise that “the benefit of broadband is that we’re not constrained by channels,” according to Bob Greene, senior vice president of advanced services at Starz Encore.

OPENING 'WINDOWS’

“Tomorrow’s solution is Windows-based,” he continues, referring to Windows Media Player 9, rather than the Real Networks player used in the original offering. And it will be delivered via a “tier one” content distribution network, which Greene declines to identify.

“What you’ll start to see from Starz is a quantum leap to addressing [the] broadband market. … We’re realistic. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we think it will grow and provide upside for our cable and telco partners,” he said.

“The advantage of having our own platform is that it allows us to control our own destiny and come back to the cable industry and be much more proactive,” Greene added.

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