With the advent of file-based content management, the promise of distributing and viewing content on a variety of devices has now come to fruition, enabling consumers to watch their favorite shows whenever and wherever they want. The next step in “TV everywhere” strategies is the ability to begin watching a show on one device and then resuming it on another, such as going from a TV to a cell phone, without missing a scene.
This latter capability makes perfect sense for subscribers of cable, satellite and telco TV services, because they are essentially renting the content for a specific period of time. For the service providers themselves, however, the technology to facilitate this freedom is expensive and in many cases tricky to deploy. So, they appear to be saying, why do it if there's no significant demand?
“We've been working a lot with of TV providers that are interested in expanding their services across multiple platforms,” said Mark Hyland, vice president of sales and marketing at QuickPlay Media, based in Toronto. “Until recently they have been hesitant to spend without a clear return on investment.”
After entering the market in 2004 with its OpenVideo platform for premium mobile video, the company recently launched a new Multi-Screen Movie Solution that allows service providers to capitalize on the growing online rental market, which, according to research firm IDC, will reach $2 billion dollars in 2013. The Multi-Screen Movie Solution delivers a high-quality, fast-start download service that features an extensive catalog of new releases (delivered by Deluxe Entertainment Services Group), a complete digital locker system and seamless viewing capabilities across smart phones, PCs and other consumer electronics devices.
The solution also offers service providers a way to differentiate themselves, with a customizable storefront interface that allows mobile operators to match the look and feel of the solution to their brand as well as the ability to have the service fully integrated with their billing system.
“I think the technology we have now suggests the possibilities,” Hyland said. “There are still a few technical challenges, but most of the hurdles right now are content rights-related. For content providers to get to the point where they are interested in selling that right and for cable companies to offer that functionality, there has to be a demand for it from the marketplace. As with any emerging technology, revenue generation gets people's attention.”
Some service providers are moving forward in this direction. QuickPlay is now working with AT&T U-verse to help the TV service provider deliver content from QuickPlay's cloud-based administration, transcoding and fulfillment infrastructure. Under a managed service agreement, QuickPlay powers key components of the U-verse Mobile TV service. QuickPlay also offers a licensing model where they will install special software on existing workstations and allow the client to handle the content management onsite.
Among a number of services, AT&T allows its U-verse subscribers to use an Apple iPhone application to program their at-home DVR to record a program. QuickPlay's software enables a consumer to select and view VOD episodes from select shows on a cell phone within minutes. The content comes from the virtual storage cloud, so it can be viewed anywhere, at any time.
“The building blocks are in place, and more companies will follow AT&T U-verse's model,” Hyland said. “We've reached a point where offering these types of multiscreen services is a natural fit for service providers. It's going to happen because it makes sense to consumers.”
The way it works is that QuickPlay takes a high-resolution version of a piece of content and automatically creates multiple copies to accommodate all of the various mobile video and broadband platforms. The company's platform is also designed to fully manage the administration activity of a multiscreen service, including authentication and subscriber management, content security and billing integration. It also includes the capability to identify individual users within a household, so parents can control content viewed by their kids.
“Managing a household's entertainment usage needs is the next big goal that many people are chasing,” Hyland said, adding that service providers will launch such services commercially in 2011.
The metadata within a program itself is important because if subscribers rent a movie on their set-top box, somewhere in the cloud that time code has to be stored and attached to that session. Then it has to automatically send a different version of that file for their cell phones and start playing at the exact frame where they left off. At the same time, this has to be scaled to hundreds of users simultaneously that are all watching the same piece of content, and across hundreds of titles. The volumes, storage and CPU power required is enormous.
SIRIUS XM also uses QuickPlay to deliver audio content to its smart phone subscribers, whereby a user could begin listening to a show in his car, then get out, open up an application on his cell phone and continue listening to the same channel.
The QuickPlay platform distribution model makes economic sense for content owners because they only have to send a single master copy of a piece of content and then have QuickPlay distribute it to the owners' various distribution partners, such as Bell Mobility, Cricket Wireless and US Cellular.
For terrestrial TV broadcasters, QuickPlay sees potential for success in mobile DTV. Over-the-air transmission is still the only platform that can handle millions of simultaneous users without service interruption. Hyland said he thinks broadcasters' mobile DTV signals should be tightly integrated with VOD because consumers have now grown accustomed to watching shows when they want to watch them.
“To me, mobile video carries huge potential for broadcasters, but there has to be some type of value added besides local news,” Hyland said. “I think it's going to be tough to convince broadcasters to spend millions on new mobile DTV equipment if all they are getting in return is a few more viewers and the same advertising revenue. Somehow there's got to be more, for both the consumer and the broadcaster.
He said QuickPlay's message to stations is, “You've got the broadcast piece; let's work together to develop an on-demand model that integrates tightly with what you are already good at doing.” That could mean using a digital subchannel for VOD; sending content to a device that has adequate storage capacity to hold multiple videos that can be played back at any time; or distributing the content over a WiFi or 3G network.