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Content or Distribution? It’s Not a Choice

At this year’s National Show, cable television industry attendees were submerged in alphabet soup: VOD, IPTV, HD, DCAS, VoIP, HSD, ITV, SDV and on and on.

Content producers swore that they were “network agnostic”— that they just wanted to get their content to the customer whenever and wherever the customer wanted it. System operators, too, promised to provide the content however the customer wanted it.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But conference attendees still were asking, “What’s more important, the content or the pipe through which content is delivered?”

During a general session at the convention, Richard Parsons, chairman and CEO of Time Warner quoted his predecessor, Gerald Levin, saying, “Content may be king, but distribution is the power behind the throne.” His point: Content depends on distribution, and vice versa. If that’s true, we need to think about content and distribution equally.

In October 2004, in his article for Wired, editor in chief Chris Anderson introduced the concept of “The Long Tail.” His message was that people’s individual tastes cannot be completely satisfied by “top hits” alone. Money can be made by offering the widest possible choice in content.

People consume content in seemingly unpredictable ways. Who would have thought the iPod would change how people watch television? The video iPod came to market only in October 2005. But already, video downloads are becoming common. The cable industry understands that competing effectively requires giving customers what they want. That fact leaves MSOs struggling to improve network bandwidth efficiency to make it easier for customers to do business with them.

But despite all of their delivery plans and projects, the industry still seems to be doing little to provide “The Long Tail” economically. Every piece of content still resides at the edge on nearly every server.

This approach limits the number of customer-available program hours to how much content the provider can stick on the server’s internal storage and duplicate for every machine. Thirty-five hundred hours of VOD content may seem like a lot. But competition will ramp that number into the tens of thousands within the next few years.

And what happens when the on-demand customer experience becomes a series of events centered on a playlist of elements mixing branding, advertising and long-form content? Can providers reuse content across multiple platforms? Or is each technology an island of proprietary content managed and stored for only one purpose?

The right answers require thinking about content use and management according to how to get the content into consumers’ hands. Defining the service. Defining the process of delivering it. Finding the right skills, in-house or with partners, to pull it off. No detail left undefined , if the content is to be delivered in a compelling fashion to consumers who may be anywhere, at any time.

Content and delivery are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reliant.