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The Emergence of Multiscreen Ad Insertion

The cable industry is sitting on a number of gold mines: Home automation is one. Commercial services -- and its cousin, cellular backhaul -- is another. A third is advanced advertising

In many ways, advanced advertising perhaps is the most promising simply because it is flows naturally out of the advertising insertion business that has been part of the cable industry for decades. Monetizing it doesn’t require learning an entirely new technology as, for instance, home automation does. Instead, it is pushing the boundaries and upgrading what already is an integral part of the cable industry’s DNA. At the same time, it is expanding in ways that make it every bit as promising as these completely new services.

Despite the familiarity, however, advanced multiscreen ad insertion is a fundamentally different world than its predecessor, and fully monetizing advanced advertising won’t be easy. There is a tremendous amount of development work to be done on both the technology and business model levels to enable this bright future to become a reality.

On the technology side, the advances move on two planes. It is helpful to think of the transition ahead as progressing on a chart with X and Y axes. On one axis would be the three main types of programming: linear, VOD and streaming. The other axis represents the advertising insertion capabilities of the infrastructure at a given point in time.

The second axis is the most interesting. The starting point – where many operators are today – really is a prequel. It simply is the ability to reliably display content on IP-based devices without advertising. In other words, the basic adaptive bitrate streaming platforms must be created. The next step – the first in which advertising actually is present – simply is replacement: The same spot runs on all screens. The third phase features specialized content on different classes of devices. The final and highest evolution of the ad insertion sector is the ability to identify and deliver ads to individual devices.

The picture of the transition is complete when that chart is fleshed out into a series of 12 boxes – the three types of delivery and four stages of evolution. The goal is to check off each of the boxes. The order and speed in which this will happen, however, will differ across the industry.

Difficult – But Interesting

The task is made more difficult – but more interesting – by the fact that the nature of the content delivered to the main television screen and to each of the others is fundamentally different. A high definition ad delivered to a big screen television could simply be the set up for the call to action, which would be delivered to a tablet or smartphone. This is a continuation of the major shift that EBIF began: Instead of an ad being more or less a self-contained message, it is part of a dynamic, multipart outreach to subscribers. It is not an ad; it is an element of a campaign.

Advanced advertising insertion – and the vendors and service providers in its ecosystem – will succeed or fail based on their ability to handle these nuances. Venhat Krishnan, the Vice President of Advertising Products for SeaChange, pointed out that 60 percent of people watching television – IP or traditionally connected -- simultaneously use companion devices. That number is expected to rise in the future.

In the past, the primary goal of the television ad may have been to get the viewer to visit the dealership for a test drive. That’s still a great outcome, of course. But the approach in the new world will be to focus the television ad on creating as much excitement about the car as possible, with the actual call-to-action being shunted off to the companion device. The viewer will be called upon to click on a link on the tablet to make an appointment.

A related benefit is that the sophisticated audience analysis tools available in the IP world are far more concise and reveal far more important information than anything in the legacy world. This data has the potential to supercharge advanced ad insertion. “The biggest thing for cable operators is that they want to get more focused and offer targeted ads to understand viewers’ behavior,” said IneoQuest marketing director Kirk George. “On the IP side they can tie the viewer behavior into the device. It can say things like, ‘This device always is receiving CSI-type shows at this time of night, this device always is receiving sports,’ and take action based on that.”

The bottom line is that an era of tight customization is dawning. The ability to drill down and tailor ads – and their respective calls to action – will become more precise. The infrastructure also will be able to identify patterns and tap into the type of recommendation technology that is routinely used on the Web today.

Creating the Future With IAB VAST, SCTE 130 and ESAM

This is a very promising but, at the same time, extremely complicated arena. It is not even governed by the same set of standards. On the Web site, the placement of spots is managed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Video Ad Serving Template (IAB VAST). VAST was launched in 2008 and now has reached version 3.0, according to the IAB. It is described as “a universal protocol for serving in-stream video ads, permitting ad servers to use a single ad response format across multiple compliant publishers/video players.”

The rough equivalent on the legacy cable side of the fence is SCTE-130 and the Event Signaling and Management (ESAM) protocol. According to the consortium, SCTE-130 allows operators to “dynamically pick which ad, which length, and to which viewers to splice into linear, stored, or switched video content.” It allows “personalized/targeted advertising” replacement of one spot over another and other features, the organization says.

The key to extending these tools into the multiscreen world is ESAM, which defines how ads are delivered and system components talk to each other in order to quarterback placement and control of ads in an adaptive bitrate streaming environment, according to Simone Sassoli, the vice president of marketing and business development for RGB Networks.

It is no accident that even that cursory description makes it sound like the two standards do about the same thing. The difference is the environment which each serves. Even with its expansion in recent years, the cable industry is a closed world in which there is a relatively limited number of players. The Internet industry – which the cable industry must deal with in order to check all 12 of those boxes – is the wild west. Spots are spread across a huge universe and come in an almost equal array of forms.

Running one type of campaign is difficult. Coordinating two – one based on IAB VAST and the other on SCTE-130/ESAM – presents even greater challenges. The saving grace is that since the protocols involved all are standards-based, software stacks that coordinate between the Web and legacy television worlds are possible.

It is worth noting that the pure technology issues, while complex, perhaps are less difficult than the business issues that accompany advanced advertising. Cable operators are well positioned to orchestrate the new world in which Web-based and legacy advertising must work in close coordination. By doing so, the operator becomes more central to -- and deeply involved in -- the process than previously.

This changes the basic business dynamic between the operator, the agency and/or the advertiser. “Now, the relationship is changing,” Krishnan said. “The MSO says, ‘I want to orchestrate it myself, I want more of the pie.’ The mix is going to change over time.”

SeaChange, IneoQuest and RGB

Three companies -- SeaChange, IneoQuest and RGB – are deeply involved in dealing with this complex landscape.

At the Cable Show in Washington D.C. in June RGB Networks displayed its Ad Insertion for Multiscreen (AIM) platform. The platform, according to the company, is comprised of the TransAct Encoder/Transcoder, the TransAct Commander, The TransAct Packager and the Application Media Server.

The Transact Packager is at the heart of the package. According to RGB – which is working with BlackArrow on an end-to-end, best-of-breed platform – the Transact Packager inserts network-based ads, manages stream and repackages payloads into any format necessary.

The company says that that Transact Packager uses network based controls – instead of client-side redirects, which it suggests is a more cumbersome approach. The approach currently inserts advertising live into Apple HLS, with support for other formats expected soon.

SeaChange’s Infusion advertising software enables the lifecycle of linear, video-on-demand and over-the-top advertising. The modular Infusion solutions leverage television and Internet specifications so that operators can work with a wide range of third-party components.

At the point of content ingest into an ad operation, Infusion AdFlow provides high-availability automatic ingest and transfer of ad assets and their multi-platform/multi-device ready variations. The Infusion Ad Decision Server enables insertion across linear channels, on-demand and OTT. Support for HLS, HDS, DASH and Smooth Streaming, as well as SCTE 130 and IAB VAST compliance, allows operators to serve ads to any subscriber device. Infusion Spot/VOD Managers enable operational monitoring of the advertisement network with configurable screen views, and also provide extensive real-time analysis.

IneoQuest offers its Consolidated Ad Insertion Reporting (cAIR) umbrella. A key element -- the iVMS 5 -- looks at the entire health of a network. It tracks “customer impacting events” and sounds appropriate alerts. The base system, the company says, provides real time monitoring and performance analysis. Modules allow the operator to meet its specific requirements.

The Expedus DVA IP is a probe for Quality of Service and Quality of Experience (QoS and QoE) video monitoring and management. It verifies that content is being processed and ensures that it is being delivery throughout the system. The DVA is matched with the IQ Dialogue, which is a probe more directly targeting advanced ad insertion. It reports to the IQ Dialogue Audience Measurement Platform (AMP).

The bottom line is that these and other firms are well on their way to enabling the cable industry to tap into the huge potential of advanced advertising. Said RGB’s Sassoli: “The good news is that it is happening. Advanced bit rate streaming and advanced television services are being deployed en masse, not just trials. The ability to extend the reach of television to multiple screens should make advertising even more attractive to the advertisers and the brands.”

The industry is moving quickly into this new world. Lynn Birch, the Director of Product Management for IneoQuest, said that the most common inserting on VOD and related time-shifted “catch-up” television – are ahead of inserting in streamed programming.

The industry currently is kicking the tires. “They are picking vendors and methods of deploying,” Birch said. “It will be 2014 in terms of buying equipment.”

At the end of the day, the key will be to have a technology platform that works, a business model that benefits all parties and a security infrastructure that protects the personal information of subscribers, who may not want their video consumption patterns used as a marketing tool. “Adoption and the beginning of implementation is being sorted out,” Sassoli said. “The business side and the technical side are moving along, sometimes at the same speed and sometimes at different speeds.”
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