Translation Please: Innovation And Independence


Any week containing a fireworks holiday in the name of independence is cause for celebration. It’s just never satisfying being the guy stuck under the other guy’s thumb.

This applies to innovation, too. In cable, it goes way back. Old-timers will recall the move to addressable set-tops, back when life was 100% analog. Ditto for the move to addressable advertising, here in the dog days of digital.

“Addressable,” back in the early 1980s, defined a set-top that could be remotely authorized to receive premium channels, like Showtime and HBO. Doing so prior to “addressability” required a thing called a “trap,” at the house, to block premium channels from non-subscribing homes.

Every non-subscribing home required a trap. They were cheap (around $2), but it was still a lot of traps. Addressable set-tops only went to homes which subscribed to the services. Pay as you go. Very cable.

Addressability also required changes in the billing system, to correlate Customer Jane’s new premium services with her billing address.

Enter thumb.

Cable providers felt they were under the thumb of their billing-system vendors, which were gaining too much control over what we now call “product roadmaps.” Any billing change request took 18 months and cost $1 million, operators grumbled.

Billing providers felt they were being asked to make big changes, with no return. Linking a subscription level to an address was clearly a billing function, they reasoned, so they should control the addressability in set-tops. Giving that work to someone else — set-top controllers, and the next big thumb, as it turned out — was a threat.

Fast forward 30 years to now, and the vendor “ecosystem” developing around the SCTE 130 standards for addressable advertising. Its mission is to make cable advertising as targetable, measurable, and reportable as Internet advertising.

Engineers tasked with making this happen speak of it in a perplexing jumble of language. Here’s an example from a recent batch of notes: “CIS, SIS and POIS essentially feed information into an ADM or an ADS.”

The SCTE 130 standards are about interfaces: How and what one machine says to the next, about the shared task of advanced advertising. SCTE 130 didn’t set boundary lines about who does the actual work of, say, playing the lawn mower ad to the homeowner, and the stackable washer/dryer combo to the condo owner.

Giving such a wide girth to technology suppliers is proof of a commitment to collaborative innovation.

The consequence is a bumping of heads amongst SCTE 130-oriented vendors about who does what. Instead of one guy stuck under another guy’s thumb, now it’s more like an eternal thumb wrestling tournament. More on that next time.

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