In recent years,
thePlatform has emerged as a major video publishing company, working with four
of the five largest U.S. cable MSOs and with more than 20 programmers. The Comcast-owned firm
has played a particularly important role in a variety of "TV Everywhere" initiatives
to make more video available online to multichannel-video subscribers. HD Update contributor George Winslow recently
spoke with Ian Blaine, CEO of thePlatform and senior vice president of content
publishing for Comcast Interactive Media, about the big trends in online video
for 2010 and the prospects for higher quality, HD Web video.
MCN: What are most
interesting trends you see in online video and how might high def video fit
into those developments?
Blaine: I think one of the more interesting trends going into 2010 is
that TV Everywhere, which has been in trials and tests, will start reaching
scale. In a lot of ways, 2009 was about getting a lot of the pieces working and
getting the business arrangements agreed upon and starting to trial it.
That went well and now it is about getting TV Everywhere out
into a larger world of consumers and subscribers and seeing what the appetite
is for it.
This is exciting because, I think, it will be a great add-on
to a subscription service. It is something that people are increasingly wanting
and expecting. They are watching a lot of online video from other places, so it
makes a lot of sense to start adding that to your subscription.
I also think this will be one of the places where high
quality video and if not high def, at least very high-bit-rate video, is a real
expectation. It is an expectation not only on the part of the content providers
who want to see their content is being presented in a similar caliber to what
is on television but also on the part of a paying subscriber. Even if they are watching
it online on their PC, there is an inherent expectation that it will look
So I think you will see an increase in high quality video
driven by the TV Everywhere initiatives. But do that you need to deal with two
things. The playback has to look great, but you also high quality of service.
Those two things aren't necessarily in direct conflict but they
can be challenging to each other. The higher the bit rate you try to push, the
more you are putting strain on the network. So there are both challenges and
opportunities to make sure you get the right quality of both picture quality and
quality of service.
On the business side, if you think about it pragmatically,
you can't really just be looking to find the highest bit rate possible. You
actually have to find the lowest acceptable bit rate possible because as you
add higher bit rates, your costs go up.
Obviously, everyone wants to present a great experience, but
there will be a lot of research to determine what is good enough. One of the
important things that will emerge in 2010 is that we'll have a lot better
information on whether there is a measureable drop off of viewing when you
lower bit rates, or where there is a measurable increase as you raise the bit
rates. I think that will drive the industry over the next year to a sweet spot,
which of course will adjust [as time goes on.]
All of this, of course, demands variable playback, which I'm
glad to see has really come into its own in the last year or so. You had an
early pioneer with Move Networks that really got out there and achieved really
beautiful playback with good quality of service because they were able to
adjust up and down with how much bandwidth was being used. You are seeing Adobe
and Microsoft follow suit with streaming solutions. That has been a huge step
forward technically to make sure you have the best possible experience.
MCN: You mentioned a
sweet spot of the ideal bit rate. Where do you think that is?
IB: You shouldn't
think of that in terms of fixed rate, but an average depending on the network
latency and the device.
Right now 1 to 1.5 Megabytes per second lends itself to a
really great experience for broadband subscribers on a PC. If you go upwards to
1.5 or 2 Megabytes, it looks pretty good on a larger screen as well.
I think the big question is whether it needs to go significantly
higher than that for a good experience on the PC. I think time will tell but over
the next couple of years the capacity will be there to do higher bit rate
delivery. What will govern [increases in bit rates and quality] will be whether
it is there a perception that a higher bit rate is better for the consumer and
whether the cost equation works.
MCN: There has been a
lot debate over business models for making more content available online. Do
you see TV Everywhere as a sign that operators and programmers are coming
together to make more of their highest quality, hit shows and content available
on multiple platforms?
IB: I think it is
a great first step, but I would characterize it as early innings because right
now TV Everywhere is really viewed as extension of someone's subscription. That
works contractually between content owners and operators, but [it's] still a
little fuzzy about whether there is an additive business model for TV
Everywhere that is meaningful. In other words, is this something that is
designed just to add value to consumer subscription or are you going to derive
additional revenue streams through advertising for example?
So to me it is an important first step. It is a way to give
the consumer what they want without breaking the current business model and disrupting
the value chain. It is consistent with the current model and is an extension of
But I'd say there needs to be a lot more experimentation in
terms of what it means as a business.
MCN: We've seen
programmers like ESPN and Discovery announcing plans for 3D channels. How do
you see the prospects for 3D online?
IB: I think is a
probably a little more challenging online. To offer the true 3D experience, you
need pretty specific equipment and you don't have that built into your average
laptop or desktop display and I think it would probably be price-prohibitive to
build that into the PC. The PC is not primarily an entertainment device. It is
many things. So for now, I think 3D will work better in the realm of TV.
MCN: You're obviously
been very successful in lining up a lot of customers and doing a lot of work
with major MSOs for their TV Everywhere initiatives. But has the fact that you
are owned by Comcast created some concerns from telcos or satellite operators
who are also interested in the concept?
IB: To date,
we've had a pretty great track record for convincing companies that we, in fact,
do operate independently.
We are indeed a subsidiary of Comcast but they really have
allowed us to keep a firewall between ourselves and Comcast that has allowed us
to compete successfully in the market.
As you can imagine there are one or two companies in
the U.S. that probably feel strongly enough about Comcast that
they don't' want to do work with us and we kind of expected that as we entered
the agreement with Comcast. But in general, it hasn't been a big concern and
Comcast has gone out of their way to address that concern when it comes up in
deals that we are going after.