WRAL-DT Tests Datacast Video-on-Demand

Video-on-demand is moving to the over-the-air TV signal with the help of Decisionmark's QuickCast application and a datacast stream sent out through a station's DTV broadcast signal. A trial of the system by WRAL-DT Raleigh, N.C., came to an end this past weekend.

Sam Matheny, general manager of WRAL-DT's DTVPlus service, which handled the trial, says it went well. The QuickCast application sits within WRAL-DT's online schedule guide and allows viewers to click on the names of the programs that will be datacast. An XML packet is then sent back to Decisionmark's facility in Iowa, and the QuickCast system brings in the request and processes it. It then sends XML information back to the computer, detailing when the PC DTV tuner card should turn on and what channel it should turn to so that it can receive the data. The datacast is then downloaded onto the PC, where it is available for viewing.

According to Decisionmark Vice President of Product Development Mick Rinehart, the system allows viewer and signal to interact and the broadcaster to increase viewership. "Broadcasters need a streamlined way to convey what content is on because there is not any one good place to definitively get that information."

A number of WRAL-DT original productions are available on the datacast, including news, sports, religious and other programs. Traditionally, the station would place programs on a datacast carousel, and the receiver would join the loop in progress, receiving whatever was being broadcast at that moment.

QuickCast has changed that. "This is more scheduled, and people can pick and choose which content they want to download," Matheny explains.

The system operates similarly to a digital video recorder or TiVo, using the computer's hard drive as the storage device. One difference, however, is that, whereas DVRs are "forward-thinking," datacasting allows viewers to watch programs they did not program into the DVR.

"Long term, we would love to work with those types of [hard-disc] devices," adds Matheny. WRAL-DT currently sends out the Windows Media 9-encoded content to viewers in a 1-Mbps data stream, delivering 450 MB of data per hour and 11 GB during a 24-hour period. In the future, it will be possible to send full-resolution MPEG-2 files to more-traditional TV set-top boxes. If the bandwidth dedicated to datacast services is increased in the early-morning hours, when demand for HDTV content is lower, the data rate can extend well beyond 1 Mbps.

Rinehart says viewers don't pay for the service, and the stations typically would pay $1,000-$3,000 for the service for the year.