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Priming the VOD Pipe

New delivery architectures, better navigation software and more powerful set-tops will combine to improve the breadth and quality of video-on-demand programming offered to consumers, according to cable executives speaking at the B&C/Multichannel News OnDemand Summit in Philadelphia last week. The improvements should also boost on-demand revenues for operators and programmers, either by growing transactional pay-per-view revenues or making it easier to sell targeted ads against free on-demand fare.

Bob Benya, senior VP of on-demand product management for Time Warner Cable, notes that VOD delivery systems are moving to a “CDN-like model” as they scale up to handle more content.

Cable operators like Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cox have created, or are building, massive centralized VOD libraries that can pump content to local servers. Such hierarchical storage architectures place different types of content on different storage media, such as long-tail fare on hard disk and the most popular titles on flash memory.

Another benefit of such architectures is centralized ingest of content, to ensure the highest quality and make repurposing content for multiple platforms easier. They also provide centralized management of the metadata that controls the flow of VOD content according to business rules on price, windows and the like.

Just focusing on delivery to the home without revamping content ingest is “like redoing the plumbing without worrying about the water supply,” notes Mitch Weinraub, executive VP of Comcast Media Center. Comcast has created a robust content ingest, preparation and storage facility in Denver that delivers more than 9,000 VOD assets from more than 275 content providers per month.

Cox is also moving to centralized ingest and creating a centralized server farm, according to Louise Wasilewski, director of on-demand software for Cox. Doing so will give Cox “central control of VOD” and make it easier to manage long-tail content, she says, ensuring that formatting and pricing is handled correctly across multiple systems.

Jim Riley, chief sales and strategy officer for on-demand programmer TVN Entertainment, agrees that ingest has become a big focus and says that programmers are looking for “more dynamic integration with their content assets” on the VOD platform. One of their goals is to maintain persistent encryption of high-value content, all the way down to the subscriber's set-top.

As operators seek to deliver on-demand content to computers and mobile phones as well as TVs, they need to look at common storage architectures and content management, says Michael Adams, VP of software strategy for Tandberg. “Why manage titles three different ways?” he asks. Besides delivery of content to discrete multiple platforms, Adams notes that another goal is “session-shifting,” allowing a consumer watching a VOD movie on a living room TV set to continue the experience on a smartphone, for example.

VOD hardware and softwre vendor SeaChange is already supporting multiplatform delivery for several international customers using a common content management system. Those customers use an architecture that stores different versions of a title for each format served, to avoid the bottleneck posed by real-time transcoding. “The technology is there,” says Yvette Kanouff, SeaChange's chief strategy officer.

Cox's Wasilewski says that having a common guide to navigate multiplatform content is the real challenge, not the delivery mechanism. Currently, Cox is focused on creating dramatically improved navigation for powerful new set-tops it is deploying. “We have to change the user experience,” she says.

While new, high-powered Tru2way boxes can support more complex navigation, Time Warner Cable is also exploring ways to improve the VOD interface on existing boxes. One alternative is advanced server-side search that relies on technology at the headend, such as servers that store titles and movie jacket art, instead of the processing power of the set-top.

“The boxes may not be able to hold all the content we want to do,” Benya says. “So we can use the server technology in the headend and various data centers to pull the stuff requested.”

Cable isn't the only multichannel operator stepping up its on-demand game. Verizon has grown the HD VOD lineup on its FiOS TV service, and already offers “integrated search” that lets customers seamlessly search for a title among linear channels, VOD titles and content stored on their DVR. And for the past year, DirecTV has been using the Internet to deliver on-demand movies and other content to subscribers with broadband-connected HD set-tops, with 8,000 titles from more than 70 programmers.

The on-demand movies from DirecTV are delivered as progressive downloads that start playing almost instantaneously for subscribers with fast broadband connections, says Eric Shanks, executive VP of entertainment for DirecTV. As it continues its battle with cable over the quality and quantity of its HD programming, DirecTV is also “pushing” popular high-definition movies in the 1080-progressive/24-frames-per-second format to be stored on its HD DVRs.

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