Local Broadcasters Enter VOD Picture

To stay relevant in a video-on-demand world, broadcasters are going to need to tap into the binge-watching generation for whom appointment TV means fitting content into their appointment books.

Broadcast networks make their programming available on pay TV platforms, of course, but this is about stations getting their own piece of the pie (see Cover Story), with help from an FCC poised to allow them to roll out the internet protocol-based ATSC 3.0 transmission standard that could be a game changer, either as a business-to-business play or delivering on demand local content, even on-demand emergency information, to their markets.

Ericsson’s TV and Media 2016 report found that 16-to-34-year-olds globally spend almost 2.5 hours more per week watching streamed on-demand programming than the 35 to 69 age group, while spending almost four fewer hours watching linear content on broadcasters’ timetables.

And where there are eyeballs, there are dollars. The same study found that VOD spending over the past four years in the U.S. has increased by 60%, from $13 a month to $20 a month.

Even though those U.S. consumers spent 45% more time figuring out what to watch on VOD than on linear TV, they are more satisfied with the VOD content than with linear.

ATSC can put broadcasters in that VOD picture, with help from the FCC.

B&C talked with National Association of Broadcasters executive VP and chief technology officer Sam Matheny about the potential for broadcast VOD. Matheny came to NAB from Capitol Broadcasting, one of the pioneers in new broadcast technology.

What is your role at NAB?
I run the technology department at NAB and am responsible for the team of engineers that provide all of the research and technical support that help our advocacy efforts, as well as our innovation efforts, which are principally run through our PILOT program. That is everything from research relationships with universities to business partnerships with companies that are relevant to broadcasting.

One of the technologies that could be transformative for broadcasters is ATSC 3.0, the new advanced transmission standard. What are the implications for the kind of video-on-demand content that viewers are increasingly demanding?
ATSC 3.0 is the world’s first broadcast standard based on IP technology and, since it is using internet protocol as its transport layer, that presents lots of opportunities for broadcasters to deliver content beyond just linear audio and video, which television has been known for, and for good reason.

With the transition to IP, though, you have the ability to deliver content that could be file-based, and that can be a video file.

To take a step back, within ATSC 3.0, the standards folks have been very specific to adopt W3C [an international Web standards development body] standards like HTML5 [the current version of HTML] as part of the application layer of the way content is rendered.

Unpack that for us a bit.
That enables you to basically design the way your station content is rendered, just the way you would design your website or mobile application.

So a local station engineer could design the look of a VOD offering?
I think it would be less a station engineer — say, someone responsible for master control or the transmitter — and more likely the digital teams responsible for designing your site or mobile app. So, stations already have these skill sets.

The idea of adopting these standards is: a) you’re are talking about tools already being used on the web and in other places, and b) when you do design it, it can be rendered for the 65-, 55- or 45-inch TV set in your living room or bedroom, as well as on a computer or tablet.

So you can do VOD for TV or a mobile device.
Anything with storage.

Will the VOD functionality be comparable to what you get with a pay TV provider?
I will give you three examples of things that have already been done in demos. The first example is probably what you had in mind when you made this call, which is, ‘Hey, I want to offer movies on demand.’

So, I mentioned our PILOT program, and one of our members is Akamai, one of the world’s largest content delivery networks.

Why is Akamai interested in ATSC 3.0?
They are looking at this and saying, ‘Now I have this IP pipe that I can make part of my Content Delivery Network and when that really popular video comes out or that movie gets released, I can use a broadcast network to distribute it to potentially millions of homes at once as opposed to paying for 1 million discrete connections, which is what they would have to do.

So, we worked with Akamai to develop and demonstrate a VOD application based on movies, the idea being that when the movie comes out in can be delivered to, in the case of the demo, a home gateway, but it can be delivered to any device that has storage, so we could do that sort of store-forward delivery to a TV that has memory or a home gateway or to a computer.

But that is a business-to-business application for ATSC 3.0, like the wireless backhaul market.
Yes, but I could see it being both a B-to-B play and a [business-to-consumer] play, depending on who the programmer is and what kind of content they have. I could see someone like Akamai being interested in it as a business-to-business piece because one of their customers distributes video and this is just a more efficient and cost-effective way to do that.

But I could also see any of our major network partners, who also have movie studios, looking at this and saying, “you know what, now I can offer a VOD service using content already in my library that is complementary to what I am doing in other places.

And the second example?
We work with News-Press & Gazette, which developed an application based on the premise that there is a lot of news content available and VOD could be an option. Of course, you can tune in and watch your normal newscast at the time of your choosing, but you can also use that HTML 5 application to navigate to the clip you are interested in and access it.

So, if you are interested in your son or daughter’s sports team that happened to get covered, there it is, on-demand, or a weather forecast, or other community news.

What else can broadcasters do on demand?
The third example is one I testified about to the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee a couple of weeks ago — advanced emergency alerting.

The idea there is that in a time of emergency or disaster, with broadcasters the No. 1 source people turn to, by using advanced emergency alerts, including VOD, we can distribute much better and more complete and actionable information.

The example I showed at the subcommittee was a HAZMAT example. The alert comes up with the basic information, but then you can click and get more information by scrolling through different tabs. A VOD component comes with that, so you can give really detailed information, with someone explaining to you what is going on.

So it is like EAS-plus.
Today if you got an EAS alert, you would get the crawl and the notice. What this does is it takes that crawl into an interactive experience.

We would think that could have very positive policy implications given that the FCC has occasionally admonished stations for not having sufficiently accessible or detailed warnings.
Yes, it absolutely could, and will, help address that. The other thing it does is fit well with what is happening at FEMA, where they are talking about a new internet system to allow rich media alerting. So, it is not only a great thing for broadcasting, but flows back upstream into what is happening with some of the governmental agencies and their recognition that they might want to include a video clip. They are building out that infrastructure and this plays into it.

So, to recap?
Looking at VOD, you have three examples that we talked about. One is the traditional movies or TV shows or other content, then you have a local news and information application, and you have emergency alerts. In all of those, VOD is playing a part and for all of that we have built out as demonstrations of our prototype home gateway.

Is there enough bandwidth for broadcasters to be able to do separate subscription VOD services?
One of the things we are doing some research on is how much capacity it’s going to take for folks to broadcast. There is a lot of flexibility in the new standard, and improved compression, and so it depends on what stations want to do, similar to today, where a station might be doing an HD channel and a couple of SD channels.

So, the short answer is “yes,” you can absolutely do a service like SVOD in conjunction with your traditional broadcast.

And you can do everything that MVPDs can do with their VOD?
When people start using terms like “everything,” I get a little hesitant. What I do know is that using an internet-connected device with storage that also has an ATSC 3.0 tuner in it, you can provide a very rich experience. You can do the store-forward delivery, and because you are on an internet-connected device you can leverage that aspect of it to provide other interactivity. So, you can provide a very compelling experience.

And competitive?

You talked about “store-forward.” Explain.
That is the idea that you have your storage on a home gateway to the device, so we broadcast a video file and store it locally and it will play back locally on demand. At Capitol Broadcasting, when I was there, we were experimenting with some of these models.

How fast can broadcasters get into VOD?
If you are looking at the overall time frame, [FCC] chairman [Ajit] Pai has set the goal of having the ATSC order out by the end of the year. Broadcasters have to be authorized to be able to broadcast in 3.0, and then from there, you light up stations and start rolling things out. Realistically, a station could start experimenting with this in 2018 or 2019. But to have a mass deployment is going to depend on the larger [post-auction] transition.

Are you confident the chairman will meet that timetable?
We certainly hope so. He has been a supporter of moving it forward. It’s voluntary, so there is no mandate involved, so that should hopefully simplify it in terms of any controversy that others might try to see around it [broadcasters and cable operators disagree over carriage issues, for example]. Everyone still continues to broadcast in ATSC and there is no interruption of service. The end of the year should be doable.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.