Two years ago, the big engineering issue facing premium programmers and cable operators was making sure that linear feeds — both traditional analog and new digital signals — were delivered successfully to system headends and end-of-the-line subscribers.
A lot has changed. Video-on-demand has delivered a new raft of encoding, pitching-and-catching, metadata and asset-management issues for programmers to deal with.
These aren't just issues for programmers and operators — they extend to set-top, server, guide and transport vendors.
"On-demand television is the most complex technical and operational video product cable has introduced since the move to satellite," said Home Box Office senior vice president of technology operations Bob Zitter.
In Demand LLC, HBO, Showtime Networks Inc. and Starz Encore Group LLC have led the charge among programmers. In many instances, they've been forced to deal with encoding, transport and asset-management issues long before standards or even the technology was ready. It's been trial by fire.
"Last year we worked out a lot of bugs," Zitter said.
Programmers' tales include stories of the unnamed set-top manufacturers who couldn't handle the standards-based 50-character title for an subscription VOD movie.
In another case, a certain guide completely shut down as it tried to process various SVOD categories and subcategories. And some set-top software didn't have the closed-captioning specification, established by the FCC.
"The stuff is rolling out faster than problems are getting solved," said Showtime vice president of operations and technology Jim Occhuito.
The first issue SVOD programmers dealt with was encoding. Most of the major programmers are encoding content at a rate of 3.75 megabits.
"We encode everything at one data rate, because cable headends are not yet capable of handling variable data rates," Zitter said.
HBO, Starz Encore and In Demand are using outside encoding houses, including California Video Corp. That unit of Warner Bros. has handled encoding work for the DVD market, and in many cases it has handled VOD content. A typical two-hour movie costs about $1,000 to encode.
But long-term, those three programmers plan to bring encoding in-house. Showtime has already brought SVOD encoding functions in house.
"It's going to help us with deadlines with late-arriving programming," Zitter said.
HBO also pitches content to affiliates before it appears on the user interface, which also requires a quicker encoding turnaround. Dealing with closed captioning and Spanish secondary audio program (SAP) feeds also led to the in-house encoding move.
The encoding should be shifted to HBO's premises by the fourth quarter, Zitter said.
Zitter said HBO has had to re-encode some early HBO On Demand content, since closed captioning had to be added. It takes about four to five hours to encode a two-hour movie, Zitter said.
Currently, Starz undertakes a separate encoding process for SVOD, compared with what appears on the linear network, even though the movie may be the same.
"The content is slightly different, and there are separate branding elements," said Starz Encore Group vice president of technology John Beyler. The SVOD content is encoded at 3.18 megabits per second, Beyler added, while on the linear channel "we use variable bit rates with stat muxing [statistical multiplexing]."
Long-term, however, Starz wants to encode content just once for use on either the linear or SVOD platform.
Showtime encodes in-house, Occhuito said.
"It works very well with the way tapes flow," he said, considering some directors shoot material up until the last minute before airtime.
Showtime's SVOD encoding is sometimes done before the linear network encoding, since it often takes several days to a week to package and download SVOD content.
For their direct feeds to cable systems, all four providers use N2 Broadand's pitchers and catchers. Each programmer has bought an N2 pitcher to "pitch" programming to end suppliers.
In many cases, that content is sent directly to N2 catchers inside cable-system headends, as is the case for Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp.
Other MSOs, such as Charter Communications, Insight Communications Co. and Adelphia Communications Corp. use TVN Entertainment Inc. as a transport network.
In Demand does not have a distribution deal with those three MSOs, but any premium SVOD offerings those systems have planned would require TVN to install an N2 catcher to receive the SVOD for any of the three premium programmers.
TVN would then repackage the content for transmission across its own network to TVN docking stations at Charter, Adelphia or Insight, if the MSO planned on delivering SVOD via satellite.
"If you want to use a transporter or aggregator such as TVN, we'll deliver programming to a transporter of your choice that HBO has an agreement with," HBO's Zitter said. "We do have an agreement with TVN and with CVC.
"As long as that agreement is in place, distribution, from that point, is their problem, their cost, their risk."
HBO prefers MSOs to take SVOD feeds directly.
"When you take it direct, it doesn't cost you any more," Zitter said. "When we selected N2, we knew the affiliate would have to buy a certain brand of equipment at the other end," he said, but that is no different that what operators did with General Instrument Corp.'s DigiCipher gear when digital programming arrived.
Although catchers can "catch" content from different sources, Zitter recommends cable systems buy a catcher dedicated to HBO and Cinemax.
HBO also repitches content each time it enters a premium-TV window, so it doesn't take up server space.
HBO typically pitches its content on Monday and Wednesday of each week, with Cinemax reserved for Tuesday and Thursday. Currently HBO is pitching 150 programs from HBO and 50 programs from Cinemax per month. On the off days, HBO pitches library content to newly launched SVOD systems
Showtime has bought two pitchers from N2Broadband and sports two terabytes of online content-storage capacity at its headquarters. It distributes SVOD content directly to N2 catchers inside cable systems and also to CVC, which retransmits content to cable systems, such as Time Warner Cable.
Pitcher/catcher upgrades also involve metadata. Cable Television Laboratories Inc. adopted the metadata 1.0 specification earlier this year. It was based on a Time Warner 1.3 VOD standard the MSO adopted last year to get VOD off the ground in its system.
In TVN's case, Showtime presently ships digital loop tapes, but will switch to satellite delivery, Occhuito said. Occhuito said the network's been sending content to TVN via tape because "they didn't have the capability to take a 1.0 metadata feed via satellite."
"We needed to supply them a 1.3 package," he said. "They are changing over to a 1.0 package acceptance and we'll starting pitching to them."
That will require TVN to install an N2 catcher to receive Showtime's satellite SVOD content, he said.
If it sounds like extra work and cost in some cases, the programmers don't disagree.
"There should be a universal platform they should work on," Occhuito said. "We try to steer everyone into an agnostic format."
In Demand pitches its content from one N2 pitcher to more than 70 catchers in cable affiliates across the country. In Demand transmits 225 hours of new content each month, ranging from hit movie product to basic network VOD content. It was the first network to deliver VOD content via satellite in July 2001.
Content is shipped throughout each weekday.
"We like to spread it out," said John Vartanian, In Demand senior vice president of technology and operations. "Operationally, it's easier."
But for new VOD launches — in which servers are filled from scratch — it can take a month to pitch an entire VOD library.
Programmers have adopted the 1.0 metadata specification sheet that CableLabs adopted six months ago.
"We're compliant," said Starz's Beyler. "We author the metadata here and extract it from the business systems."
Metadata typically includes the title, year, offering window, actors and the film's synopsis. Some of is meant for subscriber consumption, while other information — such as how long a piece of content can stay on the server, or what category the film should be assigned to (such as comedy or action) — is for internal purposes.
One problem is that all VOD vendors in the platform chain have to make sure their equipment and software can meet and integrate with the 1.0 metadata specification.
"If the application layer that displays the metadata isn't consistent with the standard," then problems arise, Occhutio said.
Showtime, for instance, has subcategories under its series menu in SVOD, so subscribers can see both Soul Food
and per-program Soul Food
On the movie side, Showtime lists its movies in en masse, and doesn't use subcategories like comedy or action. But not all VOD applications can handle Showtime's setup, Occhuito said. "We're trying to maintain a consistent service across all platforms," he said. "It's important for the program providers to work directly with the cable operators to understand what kinds of problems they have.
"We're touching the set-top box. We have to know how the applications work."
Added HBO's Zitter: "Metadata has been going up the learning curve. It's been through the standardization process, but been hindered during the last year with spotty compliance by different vendors in the food chain."
Zitter said he hopes the MSO lab testing "is really going to minimize then problems seen by consumers."
"This has our brand name on it," he said. "Consumers have an expectation of HBO's brand at a level of quality and reliability, and if anyone sells for incremental cost something that has less quality on the technical side than the linear side, then they're kidding themselves."
CableLabs is working on a successor to metadata specfication 1.0, said In Demand's Vartanian. The new iteration would allow for updates of metadata, immediate content deletion and some video promotions.
For instance, if a programmer today decides to extend the VOD window on a piece of content, it must be resent with the correct metadata included. With the 1.1 spec, information can be sent via satellite to the server to change window information on a piece of content with no need to reship the actual program, Vartanian said.
A 2.0 spec also is on the horizon. "We're looking at the possibility of revising the encoding specification to handle content at lower or higher bit rates [which 2.0 would cover]," Vartanian said.
Beyler said Starz is looking at adding new features like Dolby Corp. digital sound to its SVOD service, as well as a secondary audio tracks, alternate image formats and wide-screen versions.
It's clear VOD has put some new wrinkles in the operator-programmer relationship.
"From the operations end of it, this is a different animal — the physical work flow of managing nonlinear assets," Occhuito said. "How it is going to live in a cable system, as a tangible asset, changes the way you think.
"Security comes into play. How do we take a program list and convert that into disk space we're using on a server? How do we manage that disk space and make our content available?"
Those are all questions with which MSOs and programmers continue to wrestle.