Given the current economic climate, the urge to look ahead for positive signs is stronger than ever. Broadband is often mentioned as a development that will both
November 1, 2001

Given the current economic climate, the urge to look ahead for positive signs is stronger than ever. Broadband is often mentioned as a development that will both generate new revenues and provide easier access to audiences. It’s not a distant dream. We are now on the brink of a mass take-up of broadband, thanks to the compression of video pictures (so that full motion is achieved at speeds of less than one megabit per second) and the introduction of digital cable and ADSL technologies (which allow existing connections into the home to run faster). Though technophobes may be tempted to bury their heads in the sand, the implications for doc-makers are too significant to ignore.

Why broadband matters

Factual producers generally have limited arenas in which to make money, and limited control over those arenas. The primary reason is that the gatekeepers – in this case, broadcasters – hold the reins on the programs and determine the value they have in the market.

By bringing broadband into the mix, two things happen. First, the distribution mechanism is much more accessible. Theoretically, anybody with a broadband connection running at the right speed is a potential target for your program. Secondly, that audience can engage more directly in the viewing experience through any interactive elements that might be included.

Extrapolating on these two points, the ‘so what?’ is significant. Instead of your program being ‘broad cast’ over the widest possible area in the hope that it reaches its target audience, broadband allows for true ‘narrow cast’ – delivery whereby your audience is an identified, interactive, targeted and, therefore, relevant demographic that can be sold to advertisers or charged on a pay-per-view basis.

Even after broadband takes off, ‘broad cast’ models will continue to have a role. The last time there was a similar paradigm shift was the introduction of cable and satellite channels into the broadcasting landscape. Interestingly, the secondary market in most countries began to evolve at a time of recession and uncertain economic outlook. This caused a ‘trough’ between the arrival of the technological means for multiple channels and consumer take-up, which is also evident now as we approach the broadband era. The most critical factor when secondary channels were established was the control of rights, especially in the U.K. market. The majority of British broadcasters were unwilling to trade their rights, hoping the stranglehold on supply would limit the penetration of any potential competition into the market. History shows it did not work and, as a result, non-U.K. companies control the majority of the U.K.’s secondary market.

Today, all mainstream media companies have a secondary market presence of some sort, and it is an accepted fact that audiences are fragmented between platforms – programs need to be seen across a number of channels, both at home and abroad, in order to recoup program budgets.

Rights are now broadly controlled, but they still remain in the control of relatively few companies. How those rights holders enter the broadband world is critical to whether it becomes the platform it is designed to be.

Moving forward

What doc-makers can or should do at this stage depends on what relationship the primary programming investors – i.e. broadcasters – will have with broadband. If it is seen as a threat, as was secondary television, producers will have a hard time controlling the rights necessary to make inroads into broadband. However, if the broadcaster sees it as a complementary platform that helps amortize costs, then producers will be able to exploit rights more effectively.

Producers with experience in retaining rights to their programs will be in the strongest position. Their relationships with distributors and deficit financiers will likely evolve as the number of potential revenue streams increase with the uptake of broadband. The traditional distributor will become more of a programming financier, recouping investment in the on-demand interactive world, in addition to the traditional broadcast market. The challenge for producers will be to make a case for retaining broadband rights without threatening the broadcasters’ requirements for exclusivity. No easy task, especially since many believe broadband will result in rampant piracy and copyright infringement.

On the technical and marketing side, doc-makers will need access to ‘portals’ that will market, distribute, and collect money for their programs. The idea that producers can have websites and engage their audiences directly is not really a viable option, as there will be no way of getting their programs noticed in the almost limitless sea that is the World Wide Web – let alone have enough revenue to justify what will be a costly process. It is more likely that broadband portals will operate in discreet geographic areas, with servers that hold the video programming – digitized into the relevant formats – at an ideal place in the network. The deal for the producer will be more in the form of a royalty payment than a license fee, based on the number of times the program is viewed.

When it comes to making broadband content distinctive from its broadcast version, there are many roads to follow. Early broadband adopters are all for interactivity. In factual, this has classically taken the form of multi-layered levels of information that allow the user/viewer to drill into the program’s knowledge base, beyond the top stratum seen in the linear format. Of course, we have been here before with the interactive potential offered by CDI/CDROM technologies in the 1990s, which promised much, but did not revolutionize the business.

Taking this lesson in hand, the best way to make content broadband friendly is to have a level of interactivity that is not too expensive to incorporate, but offers added value to the viewer. In the language of the moment, producers should insert ‘meta-data’ at the editing stage of production – information embedded into the program’s digital signal that can be referenced at a later date. Software programs are already available for embedding this information in uniform code, which can be understood by multiple platform software.

When broadband will hit its stride is unclear. What we do know is that as broadband services begin to roll out, and video-on-demand platforms establish themselves, the programming landscape is going to change. The days when programs were seen once or twice on one channel and then locked away are history. In future, programs will be seen in many ways, maybe starting on a terrestrial channel, but eventually moving to other platforms that allow them to be viewed in a number of ways for as long as there is a demand.

As a result, programs are going to have to address the segments of the market served by broadband platforms. This represents an extension of the secondary market that is already established, where each channel has carved out part of the audience and caters to it exclusively.

Broadband will take this several steps further, as the economics of on-demand delivery begin to allow for highly specific targeting of audiences. For those rights holders whose programs have a defined subject and audience, the arrival of viable broadband penetration will unlock value and define the programming that is produced in the future.

What is Broadband?

The current broadcast spectrum is a two tier world. In the top tier we broadcast our programs in uncompressed formats via satellite, TV and cable methods for mass audiences. On the bottom we have compressed narrowband internet activities that support the programming that is produced, but do not act as viewing mechanisms.

Broadband is basically the coming together of these two tiers, whereby programs are compressed into a size that enables delivery on broadband networks, while allowing for a level of interactivity with the audience that is not possible in the current model.

When we speak of broadband networks, we are referring to a variety of technologies that can deliver information at a fast enough speed to allow for full motion video. In context, an ‘uncompressed’ signal is transmitted at around 270 megabits per second. This compares to most current narrowband connections of 56 kilobits per second – about 4,500 times slower.

R. Bernard Macleod is a media consultant senior adviser on broadband at netdecisions ltd. (

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