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Platform And Function

When rolls out its In2TV broadband service in January, it will give online users the opportunity to take a nostalgic trip to the 1970s and '80s via vintage shows from that era.

But AOL executives might be thinking back to the late '90s, when words like “convergence,” phrases like “TV on the PC,” and concepts like “lean forward vs. lean back” ruled the industry and challenged companies to rethink their role in the media universe.

Still, today's “Convergence 2.0” seems for real. “There now seems to be a group of viewers who are enamored with these new technologies,” says NBC Universal Cable President David Zaslav. “And convergence is really happening.”

In many respects, the current success being found in the marketplace shouldn't be a surprise. During the first Internet explosion, presentation after presentation by young upstart companies always began with a slide that pointed to steady, strong growth in broadband acceptance. And when did those steep growth curves predict that a large broadband audience would exist? Often the years cited were 2005 or 2006.

The maturing of those curves—mainly a result of steady advances in PC, broadband and cellular technology—is one of the reasons Igal Brightman, global managing partner, Deloitte Technology, Media and Telecommunications, is bullish on convergence. “The winners are likely to share in a trillion-dollar revenue premium generated between now and 2010 from emerging convergence products and services,” he says in a new report.

That may be wildly optimistic, but nascent content providers are bullish, too, as technology unfolds new possibilities.

“One of the driving forces in our approach to file-based production is the ability to support multiple-platform distribution,” says Gordon Castle, senior technology fellow, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. One of the technologies CNN relies on is Anystream, which can reformat video and audio content for the different consumer devices, a one-size-fits-all solution that the news network likes.

David Schleifer, VP, Avid broadcast and workgroups, says producing formats that can be used on various platforms is tough. That's because Avid must also ensure that a production environment has enough bandwidth for multiple users to access content and prepare it for distribution to TVs, PCs, cellphones and portable media devices.

“A facility that hasn't gone to centralized storage of the content and nonlinear editing won't be able to tackle workflow issues,” says Schleifer. “If a station has to take the tape with the original story [for TV] and then pass it on to have it digitized [for the PC] and then passed on to others, the station will be beyond dead last when it comes to getting it in front of viewers.”

A nonlinear editing system also makes it possible to easily switch out shots or graphics that may not be easily discernible when moving from a 60-inch plasma screen to a 2-inch cellphone screen.

“We've been waiting for this explosion for the past several years and have put flexibility into our systems so they can replace graphics and shots,” says Schleifer. “And those workflows will only get better.”

Todd Boes, VP, marketing, for Maven Networks, points to work the company is doing on the consumer end of the business that is changing television delivery, too. Maven is working with Disney on the delivery of full-screen DVD-quality video to PCs and iPods, a challenge because it requires a piece of content to be reformatted for each delivery method. A typical piece of content comes into the Maven Media System and is encoded at the desired bit rate and format for the device and then placed into a publishing system. A small application on the user's computer lets the user know when new content is available and then pulls it through the system.

By the next generation of the tool, Boes says, the client software will get smarter and handle the format conversion itself, eliminating the need to reformat content multiple times. “That will mean a much lower cost of delivery for the content provider because delivery methods can be expensive, especially with DVD- and HD-quality video that can't be streamed.”

Control over quality

Castle has one concern with that approach, however: It takes control of the video and audio quality of the content out of the hands of the content owner and relies on the device. “We wouldn't want a cellphone to take a 25-megabyte DV file and attempt to covert because it won't produce the best results,” he says.

The new distribution platforms also have satellite service providers responding with new services. Inmarsat is rolling out an improved satellite phone for sending more data traffic (see page 25), and GlobeCast recently opened a new technical-operations center in Miami that is designed to support the company's new IPTV Super Headend, which provides more than 200 cable channels ready for Internet Protocol (IP) delivery.

GlobeCast has built a spacious 85,000-square-foot facility in the U.S., having experienced the massive demand for IP services in Europe, where the company is already heavily involved in delivering video clips and network programs to cellphones.

Like other technology companies, Globecast is finding that customers want do-it-all providers that can deal with whatever new delivery mode is thrown their way. The new studio “was designed for IP delivery, which can be very flexible,” says GlobeCast Senior VP of Sales Mary Frost. “Our customers want the widest distribution path possible, but they don't want to have to buy 14 different paths.”