Tracking Ads, Saving Cash

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Cable operators can save millions of dollars each year by deploying video signal-monitoring equipment which verifies that digital advertisements are properly placed in cable channels, a Los Angeles-based supplier of monitoring equipment said.

New server hardware and software from Mixed Signals Inc. is designed to monitor any video signal coming from any device in a cable-system equipment headend. Those signals could be regular cable channels, video-on-demand streams or interactive content, like text-based news. But the system’s key selling feature will likely be its ability to verify digital ads, according to CEO Eric Conley.

“We want to monitor everything in the digital space,” Conley said, but digital ad insertion is at the top of the list.

CUTTING FAILURES

The failure rate for digital ads is between 1% and 2% nationally, he said. That means for every 100 digital ads that are inserted into an ESPN or MTV: Music Television feed, one or two aren’t seen by the subscriber, because of some software failure in the digital ad-insertion system.

For every $1 billion in advertising, that’s a loss of $10 million. A 500,000 subscriber system, for instance, might insert 4.5 million digital ads in a month at $20 per ad, so a 1% failure rate amounts to $90,000 a month, or more than $1 million a year, Conley said. Operators can’t collect revenue for ads that aren’t delivered, he said, and have to run the ad again for free, wasting valuable ad slots, as well.

Adelphia Communications Corp. is one of several MSOs testing the product. “What I’ve seen, I’m impressed with,” said Tony Jenson, technical operations manager for Adelphia Media Services in Los Angeles.

The signal-monitoring gear will help the company zero in on digital ad insertion problems to determine if dropped ads are a server problem, a software problem or a problem with the ad itself. “We can see a history of what is going on,” Jensen said.

In addition to digital ad insertion fixes, Jensen said a system engineer spotted a problem with video signals in one of Adelphia’s fiber rings when the Sentry server was first powered up. “He saw the problem and knew what he had to do to fix it,” he said, before it affected subscribers.

Ten years ago, cable operators had only to worry about monitoring the analog and digital television signals of cable channels, Conley said. Network video signal monitoring consisted of an engineer staring at a bank of TV monitors watching every TV signal coming from the headend, Conley said.

Today’s cable system is far more complicated. In addition to hundreds of television channels, different devices in the headend are sending out video on demand streams, digital video ads and interactive content from servers “carousels,” Conley said.

Those server carousels could include the interactive program guide, and interactive television services like games and text-based weather, news and sports information.

Conley said most operators have video monitoring equipment that run spot checks of those signals, “but it’s not a proactive system.”

Mixed Signals’ Sentry server contains software that constantly monitors any video signal coming from the headend, Conley said.

The Sentry units take in video signals and analyze each packet, looking for frames that freeze, carry no images or are missing sound. If a problem is detected, the Sentry software automatically sends an e-mail message to the headend engineer, with an alert about the problem. If a digital ad is not inserted properly, Sentry will detect the blank space and also alert the engineer.

“Now, everybody’s moving to all-digital,” Conley continued, which includes moving popular channels now delivered in analog, like MTV and ESPN, to digital delivery. Local advertisements that were inserted into MTV’s analog feed, for instance, have to be re-encoded digitally and placed in the channel’s digital feed.

“There are hundreds of channels [to monitor], plus server carousels, digital ad insertion, closed captioning and Emergency Alert Systems,” Conley said. “Operators have reached a breaking point. You can’t watch a wall of TVs anymore. It costs them too much to be reactive.”

COST SAVINGS

In addition to insuring digital ads run, there are cost savings, Conley said.

Every truck roll costs a cable operator $50, and each call to a customer service representative costs $6. By deploying Mixed Signals Sentry monitoring equipment, operators can fix video signal problems before subscribers call, he said.

For instance, if part of a video signal gets dropped on the way from the headend to the home, the cable set-top box will send a signal back to the headend, requesting that part of the video signal be sent again, Conley said.

If the dropped part of the video signal still doesn’t arrive after the second request to the headend, the set-top automatically reboots itself, Conley said.

A subscriber, however, may not realize the problem is in the headend and believe the set-top reboot means the set-top is broken. He calls the cable company, who spends $50 to dispatch a technician only to find the set-top is working fine and the problem was dropped video packets in the headend, Conley said.

“High-definition is an even bigger problem,” Conley said, because dropped packets in the video signal are more noticeable on the big screen and can result in more phone calls to the cable system.

TRIAL PHASE

In addition to Adelphia, Conley said Cablevision Systems Corp., Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. are testing the Sentry product. One server can monitor up to 360 digital channels and process 500 million bits of data per second, Conley said.

Conley said a medium-sized system can “get up and running” for $300,000 in Sentry gear, while a large system of 100,000 subscribers or more might spend $600,000 to $700,000 to monitor all the signals coming from its headend. A 500,000 subscriber system that generates $100 million in ad revenue a year could save $1 million a year if it drops its digital ad failure rate from 2% to 1% — a savings that would pay for itself, Conley said.

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