Programmers Get Comfortable Online

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Over the past few years, many major cable programmers have beefed up their online presence by adding video and audio content on pace with the steady uptick in broadband penetration.

And as broadband becomes more popular, much of the streaming activity occurs on the sites of major content players — whether they're movie studios, cable or broadcast programmers, music labels or sports leagues.

Cable-network engineers — who now boast several years of experience in encoding, storage and managing content-delivery networks, as well as asset management and digital rights-management tools — have grown more comfortable within the Internet-protocol video and audio space.

So what's held back an even greater supply of content from the IP-video world? It isn't technology, or even the cost of that technology. The bugaboo is the business model.

ESPN'S 'IP VIDEO'

ESPN has been one of the streaming-media leaders. The sports programmer feeds its video content to two different online initiatives: ESPN Broadband, available solely to its cable affiliates; and ESPN.com on the public Internet.

ESPN takes video from the broadcast router and delivers it via broadband, said director of broadband technologies Ed Davis.

"We make [Moving Picture Expert Group] versions of those files that the multimedia editorial staff then previews, and generates our clips," he said.

Those staffers then produce the clips, adding metadata information. From there, the files are transcoded, then converted to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player format or Real Networks Inc.'s RealPlayer format. ESPN Broadband offers clips at two speed — 600 kilobits per second and 800 kbps, said Davis.

"At this point, it becomes IP video," he said.

At present, ESPN offers broadband content in the Windows Media format only. (ESPN.com offers both the Windows and Real formats.)

After the broadband clips are created, they are sent to streaming company Aerocast, a firm backed by Motorola Inc. and Liberty Media Corp.

We deposit that in one place, and they in turn take the video and distribute it to streaming servers inside cable Internet data centers," Davis said.

Comcast Corp. and AT&T Broadband are presently downloading ESPN's video at a handful of their headends through Aerocast, via the public Internet.

"We receive notification that the video is there and ready, then we update the broadband application," Davis said.

When new broadband subscribers hit the site, ESPN Broadband will test their PC, then send them any necessary plug-in information to ensure a quality experience, Davis said.

"Sometimes the barrier for entry can be: 'Where do I get this plug-in?' " he noted.

By downloading IP video to a server within a cable system in advance, "We can give you two to three times better quality because of the local link from the local server," said Davis. "The actual application lives on our servers, but the content lives on servers in the cable headends."

ESPN downloads new clips hundreds of times a day, Davis said. It typically takes 10 minutes to get the video from the broadcast router to the point at which ESPN Broadband subscribers may access it. Clips are from one to three minutes in length, he said.

ESPN went with Microsoft because "our application is pretty robust, and we're pushing the envelope a little bit," Davis said. "We wanted an environment with the most control over the player and the way it integrates with the application."

Aerocast uses Windows Media, he added.

ESPN's narrowband dot-com site uses a similar strategy. It also pulls video from the broadcast router, but it then generates video clips for connections at 56, 100 and 300 kbps, in both Windows and Real formats. Six versions of each clip are produced.

"We send the video through the public Internet to Digital Island [Inc.], and Digital Island hosts and streams the assets," Davis said.

ESPN's editing suite is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Narrowband clips average between 30 seconds and 60 seconds in length, he said.

Over time, the editing has become more automated, which cuts down the time and expense of handling so many clips — and so many different formats — each day, Davis said.

Since all of ESPN's streamed content is its own, digital-rights management has not yet become a major issue. Should that day arrive, ESPN can use a DRM solution that Microsoft has already built into Windows Media.

"A lot of effort goes into leveraging the work in one group for another group," Davis said. The same system that produces clips for broadband and online use could be employed for video-on-demand, he said.

"Our goal is to be able to do either and be prepared for either," he said. That could mean someday streaming IP or MPEG video to set-top boxes.

35 FEEDS FOR CNN

Cable News Network uses some of the same strategy to process MPEG video into IP for posting on CNN.com. Some 35 news feeds arrive at CNN Center, said senior vice president of Internet technologies Monty Mullig.

The video is saved, catalogued and edited at 56, 100 and 300 kbps in three formats: Real, Windows and Apple Computer Corp.'s QuickTime, Mullig said. All encoding is automated, using software from Anystream Inc.

At that point, CNN.com's editors decide what to post to the site.

CNN sends about 200 video clips per day — typically at two to three minutes in length — to AOL Time Warner Inc. sibling America Online. The ISP then ships the content to edge servers throughout its national backbone infrastructure — the same network that delivers the rest of AOL's audio and video content to hundreds of servers, Mullig said.

In late March, CNN instituted "CNN NewsPass," levying a $4.95-per-month charge for access to its video clips. CNN video also is available through Real's $9.95-per-month RealOne service.

Real also distributes CNN's QuickCast and Uncut. Quickcast is an updated hourly newscast, while Uncut features longer-length video, such as a 10- to 15-minute interview with a head of state or a press conference. CNN said it's negotiating with third parties about distributing the same video.

Since CNN's content is now a paid service, its video-streaming volume — now in the range of 15 million streams per month — is likely to fall off.

"It will drop off a lot," Mullig acknowledged, and it'll take time to build it back up.

Users can access the video clips either from links within stories or via NewsPass. And Mullig said CNN has developed its own proprietary DRM technology to insure that only paid subscribers can get its online video content.

In the past, the Web site was at break-even, said Mullig. The move to a subscription model is an effort to climb back to that point by adding a second revenue stream to advertising.

"We think it does have tremendous revenue potential," Mullig said. "It's a relatively young medium. The technology is by no means mature, and new opportunities continue to arrive."

MTV Networks puts between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces of distinct content online, said MTVN chief technology officer Nick Rockwell, who's responsible for the MTV Music Group as well as Nickelodeon, TNN: The National Network and TV Land.

Most of that content comes in doses of 30 seconds or less. But they have staying power: Each month, the network adds a few hundred clips to an ever-expanding library.

"They go up and they stay up," Rockwell said.

The means are similar to those employed by ESPN and CNN. Video clips from on-air tapes are encoded at 320 kbps, in both Real and Windows Media formats.

We use Surestream [Inc.] for Real and Intellistream [Technology Inc.] for Windows," Rockwell said. "The server and client negotiate the final speed."

Content is sent out via MTVN's principal delivery network, Akamai Technologies Inc.'s network of 2,200 data centers around the world. The programmer has also used Williams Communications Group Inc.'s network, as it was a client of iBeam Corp., which Williams now owns.

MTVN has developed in-house digital asset management tools, said Rockwell.

"DAM frankly is not that challenging a problem," he said. "The next step is an enterprise asset-management approach," which the company is testing, he said.

In terms of digital-rights management, MTVN has used Microsoft for a handful of pay-per-download promotions in the past, and has tested Real's DRM system, Rockwell said. But MTVN, per se, is not in the pay-per-download or streaming business, like pressplay or MusicNet Inc.

On that front, MTVN will follow the lead of the major music labels.

"It's an area that's going to be very important," Rockwell said. "But we're not typically the content owner, so it's appropriate for us to follow on DRM."

In the future, Rockwell said, "we're are in an optimizing mode. The distribution area is where we're very focused."

More links are developing between online and linear content. For example, MTV2's Control Freak
allows viewers to vote via the Internet for videos they'd like to see on the TV network.

"It's actually completely automated between the online votes and the play-out control," said Rockwell. "That's interesting in an MSO world. It opens up a lot of possibilities. It's very powerful, and potentially transformative."

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