Need to Know: What Blockchain Means to Media

Why it matters: Operators, ad-providers and content creators are accelerating their efforts to establish blockchain as a secure, authenticated, multi-user system for distribution and payments.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to NewBay’s inaugural edition of Need to Know, where we explain complex topics and how they apply to each industry we serve, on our websites and in our magazines. Keep coming back for future topics, to include 5G, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and more.

Blockchain enthusiasts expect 2018 to be a breakthrough year in media and advertising, despite offering differing definitions of what, precisely, blockchain is.

Digital distribution and advertising payments are expected to be the runaway applications for the new secure technology, and fervent promoters use an almost-identical mantra about the evolution process en route to widespread adoption of blockchain in the media sector: "It's where the Internet was in the late '90s."

Blockchain technology, a complex topic simply explained, is “an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value,” according to Don & Alex Tapscott, authors of Blockchain Revolution.

Find out more about blockchain.

But if there's a 20-year timeframe until maturity, what's fueling today's blockchain frenzy? In part, the intense focus and confusion stems from the unfathomable huge price swings at Bitcoin, which uses blockchain as its underlying technology.

Steve Goeringer, principal security architect at Cable TV Laboratories who has followed blockchain development and written a seminal paper for CableLabs on the topic, acknowledges that the “Cable industry's interest in blockchain and similar solutions seems to be increasing even as cryptocurrencies continue to run into a variety of challenges."

Beyond the Bitcoin curiosity, Goeringer told Broadcasting & Cable, the growing interest in blockchain comes "because some use cases are becoming clearly attractive."

"Two examples are managing and providing transparency for user privacy and Internet of Things security management and orchestration," he said, citing projects that are high on many operators' agenda. But he acknowledged that the visible Bitcoin price (which has fluctuated from more than $19,000 on Jan. 1 to less than $7,000 in early February) has made "established companies very mindful of risks and so their blockchain activities will be pursued quietly.”

Details about cable’s blockchain agenda have been emerging slowly. Last summer, Comcast’s Advanced Advertising Group said it would launch a Blockchain Insights Platform in 2018. Comcast hasn’t revealed a lot of details about what’s to come, but Marcien Jenckes, president of advertising at Comcast Cable, said in a CES panel in January that the partnership will pave the way for multiple parties tap into pools of different data that can help to garner key insights that can help target ads to the right audience. Comcast is also working on a way to use blockchain techniques in the connected home in a way that safely provides customers a way to grant and revoke access to their IoT devices and smart home applications.

CableLabs and others have acknowledged several blockchain-facing explorations are underway. Programmers appear to be less involved in blockchain planning now, according to sources. 

The advertising technology sector and the video streaming category have been abuzz with blockchain plans.

Many analysts point to the ad-tech values, especially cutting out the estimated 75% of ad spending which is lost through fraud or goes to duplicative middlemen. Hence, the ad-tech industry's deep dive into blockchain solutions.

Barbara Bellafiore, principal consultant at Bell Communications, a Connecticut firm that advises media, ecommerce and technology clients about use of this evolving technology, compares today's blockchain situation to the "walled gardens" in the early phases of the online industry (think of services like Prodigy or the original America Online).

"In order to make blockchain work in media, we have to figure out how to connect everyone," Bellafiore explains. "The idea of putting a central control over it all is antithetical to the concept," she adds, citing the migration from walled gardens to openly accessible Web sites in the late 1990s.

Seth Shapiro, head of strategy at VideoCoin, insists that despite all the hype, blockchain really does present significant ways to make the entertainment industry more efficient, transparent, and profitable."

"It will also open up creative opportunities we’re just beginning to see. We will see a small group of blockchain companies emerge and rewrite the rules," Shapiro adds, comparing it to the situation when Netflix, Amazon and Apple faced off against "networks, studios and MVPDs [who] generally disbelieved that the Internet and broadband represented a threat to the status quo."

At a blockchain session during last month's State of the Net conference in Washington, Mercina Tillemann-Dick, chief operating officer of the Global Blockchain Business Council, said she expects that, "Over the next decade, blockchain will fundamentally alter many of the systems that power everyday life." She said that companies worldwide "are very excited about it, but they want regulatory clarity."

For now, though, she and other panelists emphasized that "the biggest thing inhibiting progress is the lack of information."

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Gary Arlen

Contributor Gary Arlen is known for his insights into the convergence of media, telecom, content and technology. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the longtime “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports. He writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs. Gary has taught media-focused courses on the adjunct faculties at George Mason University and American University and has guest-lectured at MIT, Harvard, UCLA, University of Southern California and Northwestern University and at countless media, marketing and technology industry events. As President of Arlen Communications LLC, he has provided analyses about the development of applications and services for entertainment, marketing and e-commerce.