IPTV: What’s the Happy Medium?

Grapevine, Texas -- IPTV providers must stake out a middle ground between the Internet -- with its endless supply of anything-goes, low-quality video -- and the traditional walled gardens of cable and satellite TV, panelists said at the Telco TV conference here last week.

In the panel discussion “MeTV: Exploring the True Power of IPTV,” moderated by Multichannel News editor in chief Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, executives from AT&T and BellSouth said they’re positioned to enable new forms of content sharing and viewing tailored to niche-oriented audiences. And, they added, they’ll be compelled to deliver some kind of user-originated content to attract viewers.

“You have cable on one end and the Web on the other, and if you can’t play somewhere in the middle, you’re in trouble,” said Jeff Weber, vice president of product and strategy for AT&T. “We don’t have to be better than everyone on the Internet, but we have to bring [traditional programming and Internet content] together.”

But Lee Friedman, director of IPTV applications for BellSouth, said the more immediate opportunity for TV providers is to deliver time-shifted content to customers.

“What I want to find is the content that’s of interest to me,” Friedman said. “I don’t really care what was on NBC at 8 p.m. last night. I just want to be able to tell the service that I want all of the new episodes of Heroes, and I’ll watch them when I want to watch them.”

He added: “Our expectations about what we do with video are not being set by cable, or even IPTV. It’s being set by YouTube.”

So what will the killer application look like for IPTV in five years? “I have no idea,” Weber said. “If we’re in the position of trying to think up the next killer app, that’s a bad place for us to be in.”

The main thing, according to Weber, is to provide the capabilities -- the underlying infrastructure -- to allow consumers to view content on any device. “If we do a good job of executing … if we can get you what you want, then we’ll be in great shape,” he added.

Derek Kuhn, senior director of strategic solutions at telecommunications-equipment provider Alcatel, said future IPTV applications will revolve around personalization and “transferable” viewing, to watch programming on multiple TVs and devices. “You’re going to see significant integration among multiple screens,” he added.

As for providing niche-oriented content, Weber said AT&T will, in the future, provide a “much broader, wider, deeper array of content choices.”

But “it’s not 500 channels versus 300 channels,” he added. Rather, content will be aggregated into topics of interest, like basketball or English cricket. “It will start with the biggest niches, but over time, we’ll get to more kinds of content,” Weber said.

Weber recalled a programmer approaching him at an event and asking if AT&T was interested in polo. “I said, ‘Yes, we’ll be interested in polo, eventually.’ Later, I realized I didn’t know if he meant water polo or the horse kind, but it didn’t matter -- there are audiences interested in both of those.”

At the top of the panel discussion, Steinert-Threlkeld showed a promotional video for AT&T’s U-verse TV that advertised one of the (eventual) features of the service as allowing viewers of a football game to pick which camera angles they want to watch. He noted that 25 years ago, an identical interactive-TV feature was promoted by the cable industry.

So when will AT&T offer this? Quipped Weber: “We’ll definitely deliver that within the next 25 years.” More seriously, he added, “Is everything in there literally Day One? I don’t think it is. We’re talking about capabilities we’ll be offering in the next few years.”

Another member of the panel, Bryan McGuirk, president of media solutions for satellite-services provider SESAmericom, said the idea of delivering sports programming with multiple camera angles has been around for years. But, he added, cable operators’ networks couldn’t accommodate that type of programming.

“Telcos have a unique advantage because it’s switched video from the CO [central office],” he said.