The birth of broadband TV

Three years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell had a bestseller on his hands with The Tipping Point. In it, he contends that ideas spread like viruses, until a new notion is embraced by culture. If that piece of amateur sociology is true, we may be looking back on January's Consumer Electronics Show (ces) as the tipping point for broadband broadcasting - as the confluence of ideas and technology that finally made the medium practical.
March 1, 2006

Three years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell had a bestseller on his hands with The Tipping Point. In it, he contends that ideas spread like viruses, until a new notion is embraced by culture. If that piece of amateur sociology is true, we may be looking back on January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as the tipping point for broadband broadcasting – as the confluence of ideas and technology that finally made the medium practical.

In the same sudden way HD televisions went from a distant eventuality to available at your local RadioShack, in the last few months broadband broadcasting seems to have taken on a substance and viability it lacked only a few seasons ago. And the field is wide open. Broadband is attracting the interest of established networks eager to hold on to their dominance, as well as new premium services and internet search engines keen for a piece of the action. What the future will look like is still uncertain, but it can no longer be doubted that the scales have begun an inevitable tip towards broadband broadcasting.

The search for cold, hard cash
Whether it’s due to their ubiquity or their marketing budgets, it’s the major search engines that have generated the most press when it comes to online video content. And the innovations just keep coming.

Yahoo! chose the CES to announce the pending launch of Yahoo! Go TV, an initiative that will blend the company’s search capabilities with new video initiatives, and target pc-connected TV screens rather than computer monitors. The Go TV platform includes Yahoo! TV (which mimics a PVR), as well as a host of other capabilities. It has huge promise, but too little information is currently available for rights holders to fully understand how the platform will play out.

More immediately exciting is the latest from Google. First came Google Video – the video search engine that didn’t actually play any video – which launched in Beta form about a year ago. Next came the Google Upload Program, a platform that allowed rights holders to upload content and have Google supply the bandwidth, but that didn’t have a system in place to charge users.

At the CES, however, Google unveiled the final piece of the puzzle: the Google Video Marketplace. The Marketplace adds the ability to monetize and sell content to the Upload Program, and will finally make Google a platform professionals might consider. Video can be uploaded in MPEG-2 or -4 (among other formats), with applicable audio encoding, and then be downloaded for viewing on computers, portable video devices such as iPods and Sony PSPs, or be burned onto disk – whatever the rights holder allows. (Until the system is cracked.)

The Video Marketplace launched with several invited partners, including the NBA, CBS and Sony, but also includes significant non-fiction content, namely feature docs from filmmakers such as Ted Bonnitt (Mau Mau Sex Sex), Caveh Zahedi (In the Bathtub of the World) and Lerone Wilson (Aardvvark’d: 12 Weeks with Geeks). It also features hours of footage from the ITN Archive, Getty Images’ Archive Film Collection and numerous Charlie Rose interviews with famous names like Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs. Rights holders can set whatever value they want for viewings and downloads, although prices currently range from US$.50 to a few bucks.

Google meets Boondoggle
One of the docs on offer, Aardvvark’d, is a new 77-minute HD project from ny’s Boondoggle Films. With a budget of about $12,000, the film follows the travails of four interns who are brought into the ny offices of Fog Creek Software to create a new program in 12 weeks. Fog Creek brought in Boondoggle principal Lerone Wilson to make a film that captured the drama and humor of their task, the end goal being a dvd that could be sold online.

The initial order to the manufacturer was 1,000 DVDs, but thanks to word-of-mouth on blogs and message boards, pre-orders hit 1,200 before a single disk was delivered. (Sales currently sit at about 4,000.) With new stock taking at least a week to arrive, Wilson says Google’s invite to join the Video Marketplace was appealing, if only to relieve stress on the manufacturer. ‘I agreed to it,’ says Wilson, ‘but I did have some hesitation. With anything new, there is a great promise, but you never know if they will actually deliver. E-books were supposed to revolutionize libraries…’

While DVDs sell for $19.95, Aardvvark’d sells on Google for $6.99 (a completely arbitrary figure, observes Wilson), and the filmmaker keeps about $5. Wilson can opt-out at any time, but he notes that since this launch is as imperative to Google as it is to him, and the film is perfectly targeted to the early adopters of the Video Marketplace, he’ll likely stick around. Wilson’s one concern is quality; Google’s current delivery capabilities are still limited.

Download numbers were not available at press time (two days after launch), but what has struck the filmmaker is the immediacy of the feedback. ‘People are posting while they are watching the film,’ says Wilson, stressing that he tries not to get worked up about negative posts. ‘From the beginning, we had guys tracking the project. Before there was even a trailer, and before the paperwork was done, there were people saying, ‘This is going to be more boring than church. How can you make a movie about computer programming?”

Reversing the traditional distribution path, Aardvvark’d is next destined for film fests (though Wilson observes, ‘You can put a film up on Google in far less time than it takes to do the paperwork for a film festival’), and, if possible, a TV deal.

For its part, London’s ITN Archive sees its partnership with Google as yet another way to extend sales into the consumer market. Although the library’s main business comes from British networks, it is also the uk’s leader in video for mobiles and has set up a multimedia division to take advantage of digital opportunities, especially those with non-production sources.

ITN delivered about seven hours of short, digitized clips to Google and, says ITN chief executive Mark Wood, ‘we will continue to feed through selected digitized content. We’re waiting to see is what kind of content is proving most popular, and then we’ll add on.’ Wood believes wildlife might be a potential hit for the archive.

While ITN is on a similar revenue-sharing model as Boondoggle, current ITN content is only available in a view-only form and can’t be downloaded. When ITN moves to downloadable content, Wood says pricing and rights issues will need to be addressed. But, until consumers are more familiar with the service, simple and cheap is likely best. ‘Right now,’ observes Wood, ‘we’re following Google’s lead and keeping it at a very low cost. I think we can manage [what comes next] with good digital rights management systems. You can now calibrate delivery so that it is a one-off usage, or a five-times usage, or you can put a time limit on it… Pricing issues are hugely complex, but for the consumer market we will have to keep it as simple as possible.’

Less frugal than Google
What the search engines are doing is only half the tale. Several premium broadband service providers have also stepped into the fray, offering higher-quality streams subsidized by a variety of pricing models.

Cambridge, US-based Brightcove, a backbone service that allows publishers (i.e., video rights holders) to distribute via broadband to internet-connected devices, hit headlines at the end of 2005 by announcing not only a $16.2-million investment from partners such as aol and the Hearst Corporation, but also a content partnership with aol that will allow Brightcove partners to syndicate to

The Brightcove service delivers high-quality feeds to whichever site the publisher wants, and offers a number of services to help partners get from raw footage to an encoded, digital medium in Flash form. (Brightcove has partnered with software company ON2 for its Flix Pro video encoder that will rip MPEG, QuickTime, Avi, DV or other formats to Flash 7 and 8.)

Though Brightcove won’t disclose its economics, VP of content and online services Eric Elia says the service will be rolling out advertising- and paid-content based models soon, and is particularly interested in factual content. ‘Non-fiction content is really fantastic for the Web,’ he observes. ‘Research, vertical interest groups and evergreen information is really what the Web has been built on to date.’

Brightcove’s non-fiction publishers currently include, among others,, and Reuters’ – a host which allows other sites to pick up a Brightcove-enabled Reuters Video Player to stream news content onto any site, the idea being that the Reuters service can go where people want, and they are not forced to the host site.

One of the biggest hurdles to success in the broadband medium (beyond watchable content), notes Elia, is the quality of the broadband feed. ‘There is a garbage-in, garbage-out thing with encoded video. Not starting with the highest-quality video can result in a bad user experience…. As an industry, it is imperative that we build these experiences to be as high quality as possible, because we are competing against television.’

Thor Henrikson, coproducer of the site, says he was initially skeptical of the Brightcove service. The underwater exploration destination had originally been QuickTime based, and he saw no reason to bring in a third party. But having used the service for several months, Henrikson says it hasn’t really changed his back-end prep (beyond encoding into Flash rather than QuickTime), and it has the advantages of a far more advanced tagging and archiving system. That’s important for a prodco sitting on over 10 years’ worth of stock footage.

The site, which originally rolled out in July, 2004, will soon get another upgrade to further take advantage of the Brightcove system. Added will be a members area, which is likely to follow the paid content model. ‘What we want to do,’ advises Henrikson, ‘is offer memberships for $10 or $12 a month. If we get 2,000 members, then we can actually go out and shoot a show. The members will have a say in what the show is going to be and help with the research, and really be involved.’ Beyond original content, there will also be making-ofs, blogs and access to some of the archived footage the producers are sitting on.

Brightcove is not alone in exploring the premium broadband world. Sweden’s MPS Broadband has already rolled out a service to most of Europe, and will hit the us in February.

Like Brightcove, MPS is a white-label service (i.e., it can be integrated into existing services or fleshed out to a stand-alone service), but unlike its us equivalent, MPS is intended as a television distribution platform (à la DirecTV), rather than a Web service. (Though content can be dumped onto portable devices if rights holders allow.) MPS has been picked up by clients such as Jetix (Fox Kids) in Europe, as well as the Miss World Pageant.

MPS has some attractive features for film pros, such as IP recognition (which can lock out content in specific regions in case rights holders don’t have permission), and it also runs mainly in ram memory, so it’s fast.

Heading MPS in the us as ceo is Bo Landin, known to most in the doc industry as the brains behind prodco Scandinature. Landin worked with the principles of MPS when he was at TV4 Sweden. It’s not surprising, given the company’s television background, that the MPS system is intended to deliver to television screens via Microsoft Media Center Edition computers. Notes Landin, ‘Unless we can get it onto TV, it’s a dead duck… Well, it’s not a dead duck, but it’s a different duck.’ The partnership also means MPS can be launched directly from the Windows Media Player in many European territories. (The WMP backbone no longer supports Mac users, however – a similar issue for the Brightcove platform.)

Landin agrees with Brightcove’s Elia that quality is imperative for a service hoping to win over TV viewers. Problem is, so far the telcos aren’t delivering on their service promises. Originally, says Landin, MPS did not want to deliver feeds below 500 kilobytes per second, but most 500kbs DSL lines are actually only delivering around 380kbs. The MPS system, therefore, will check the best quality feed a user’s signal can handle and sends that, which can be as low as 300kbs. Landin grudgingly admits, ‘We aren’t happy with that, but that’s where we caved in our own ambition to only be high-quality IP delivery.’ A slower feed will look fine on a computer screen, but faster ones are required for a good TV signal.

The billing model is as much of a concern for Landin as quality. ‘Because the people behind mps come out of a programming environment,’ he says, ‘they want to give priority to content rights holders. We want to say: if possible, 50% of gross revenues should go to the content owners… Every deal is unique, but basically we’re trying to give as much money as possible to the content owners, because these systems will only survive and be good for the content owners and the customers if there is money in them.’

That’s music to the ears of filmmakers like Wilson, who already embrace alternative distribution outlets. ‘Chasing a TV deal is just ugly. The potential is certainly there for [online] to revolutionize distribution, and let some new and interesting films get beyond the traditional gatekeepers. I sincerely hope that happens and happens soon… I’d be happy producing solely for the Internet.’

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