Mark Christie, Chief Technology Officer, KIT Digital
Audiences now demand access to content at a time that suits them, not when the broadcasters want to show it. From the days of the VCR, consumers have been able to time-shift their selected favourites. Now they want to be able to choose from a wider selection, without deciding in advance what they will record: catch-up television.
This is best delivered as an IP stream over some convenient network. While the open internet is often used for “over the top” television (OTT), there are huge advantages in using digital cable.
For the consumer, the great benefit is that the cable network has much greater capacity than the typical broadband ADSL service, even where this is available. Technologies such as DOCSIS allow very high quality streams to a large number of subscribers alongside the linear television transmission.
For the cable network owner there are two clear advantages. First and most important is the retention of brand loyalty. Consumers can choose live linear channels or catch-up OTT content from the same user interface, using the same device and remote control, in a seamless experience. The convenience is such that, once consumers try it they are likely to stay, thus reducing churn.
The second advantage is that the cable network is likely to own all the plant fr0m the headend to the set-top box or home gateway. This increases security of the content, rather than risking handing it over to the various players involved in internet delivery.
One of the risks of OTT content is that it expands the market to new entrants who can deliver over the public internet. These companies, like Netflix or Apple iTunes Store, are disruptive to the established broadcast and pay TV market because they seek to draw revenues away.
On the other hand, for them to enter a new market involves a significant expense. Not only do they have to open negotiations with content owners – something already done by broadcasters and cable networks – but they have to establish content delivery networks and other infrastructure to serve what is likely to be an uneven demand.
This gives established players, such as cable networks, a big advantage provided they act quickly. The extension of the rights window to catch-up is usually simple, and the relationships are already in place to negotiate for wider video on demand OTT offerings. The security, and the fixed geographic coverage of a cable network ease these negotiations.
Cable networks also have a subscriber management infrastructure which can then be extended to cover OTT content, either through an additional subscription (SVoD or subscription video on demand), pay per view (TVoD or transactional video on demand) or both. In turn, if these offerings are sufficiently attractive they are likely to draw in new subscribers, increasing core revenues as well as meeting targets for extended earnings fr0m the new services.
With the business case developed, cable networks must consider the technology platform they need to implement to support the addition of OTT services. This has to cover the subscriber and rights management issues as well as the content distribution technology.
It also needs to focus on the user interface at the subscriber end, ensuring that the user experience is welcoming, easy to use and reflects the brand values of the service. That's especially important when the portal is a home gateway serving a range of networked devices, rather than just a set-top box serving a single television screen.
The challenge for an OTT service is the range of devices on which the content will be seen: everything fr0m an HD television to a smartphone. This means that the encoding headend has to be prepared to derive a very large number of variants, in terms of screen resolution, codec, wrapper, and delivery format.
Away fr0m the television, most devices now support HLS, the Apple adaptive bitrate streaming format. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes the Microsoft Xbox as well as Android phones and tablets. Some devices, though, need either Flash or, in the case of Windows 8 computers and tablets, Smooth Streaming.
Given this complexity, managing the metadata throughout the system is really important. Technical metadata will combine with the encoding workflows to create the right combination of packages for delivery, either in advance to allow content to be cached on the edges of the network for fast response, or packaged on the fly as a subscriber requests the content.
Descriptive metadata is also important, to support content discovery. The fundamental difference between a linear television channel and OTT content is that the linear channel suggests a constant stream of programming to the viewer; video on demand expects the viewer to find it. So you have to help subscribers discover content they are likely to enjoy.
As part of the KIT digital VOD Store suite of software products, users can choose to implement PerSys, a dedicated personalisation system. This is a simple way to implement a recommendation engine into the platform, learning the preferences of the user and proposing similar content that is likely to be popular.
The final part of the system design is the way in which subscribers will interact with the system. The business advantage of OTT over cable is that the network operator has the opportunity to deliver a coherent service, and so it’s important that the look and feel of the service is the same, whatever device is being used.
This doesn’t happen by accident. It needs to be built in to the design fr0m the beginning, particularly if the plan is to go for a staged rollout. Even if the service will only be seen on a small number of devices at first – perhaps only the television screen – the user experience should be designed such that it is portable to other devices and screen sizes later.
This is the plan followed by major broadcasters such as OSN in the Middle East and Channel 4 in the UK. Each used KIT digital’s user experience team to develop a strongly branded look and feel, bearing in mind that it would need to be ported to new devices as they became available. They now provide services to large numbers of devices.
OTT video cannot be ignored: consumers are now comfortable using multiple devices, and increasingly demand their preferred content on whatever device is most convenient at that moment. If the established players in the market do not meet this demand then others will, stealing audiences and revenues.
Cable networks are ideally poised to benefit fr0m the OTT revolution. They have the content, the brand recognition, and the subscriber management. Implementing the service involves additional investment in technology and design, but companies like KIT digital have proven solutions which can be rolled out quickly to meet the growing demand.