Cable advertising has one foot in the present and one in the future. The demands are significant: Advertisers, operators and vendors all want ads to be targeted more narrowly. They want interactivity to grow and are eager to reach out to non-traditional screens. Back office tasks -- including inventory of ads, providing proof that spots ran and gauging results -- must be updated to reflect this more complex new reality.
All of these demands are being made against a background of the broader industry evolution from traditional delivery to fully IP-based networks -- though many of these demands must be met before the switchover is complete. "You have established companies like SeaChange that have been delivering basic ad insertion that you see normally in TV today," says Yoav Schreiber, a senior analyst at Current Analysis. "What we are seeing from them and ARRIS [and others] is the evolving of platforms to take into account advanced advertising opportunities. There are elements of targeting and interacting with solutions from other vendors that provides more than just ad insertion."
The strategic goal of making advertising more interactive is being carried out for the current generation of set-top boxes by the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), an increasingly widely implemented standard that provides a rudimentary level of interactivity in a manner that is relatively easy for operators.
EBIF a Good Start
Another short-term tactic is to send a variety of spots that are likely to be needed as close as possible to the end user. The thinking is that networks now generally have enough intelligence to choose the right spot based on what is known about the viewer. Malcolm Stanley, the business unit manager for monetization for SeaChange, observes that companies are doing this in a couple of ways: By downloading to the set-top or to the DVR if the home is using one supplied by the operator. Observers point out that billing and logging ads trafficked in this way is a difficult task.
Stanley suggests that the inherent limitations of QAM-based advertising are pushing the move to IP-based delivery. IP -- whether it be Microsoft's Smooth Streaming (part of Silverlight), Adobe's Dynamic Streaming or Apple's HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) -- is a huge change for the cable industry in general and cable advertising in particular. Each of these approaches, notes Neerav Shah, vice president of product line management for ARRIS Media and Communications Systems, handles manifest files -- the messages that determine where each "chunk," or piece, of fragmented content ends up -- in a different way.
The emergence of IP means that the entire way of inserting ads will be upset. Many argue that this will be for the better. "In the old world, we had to have a very, very elaborate system," says Ramin Farassat, RGB Networks' vice president of product marketing and new business development. "Now we can do replacement of specific portions of video that already was fragmented, segmented or chunked. It allows us to do a lot more."
SCTE 130 Seeks Order
It's undoubtedly a chaotic world. The standard that comes closest to creating some level of order is SCTE 130, which consists of eight elements. The standard, which is applicable to both QAM and IP systems, uses XML data structures and communications. The goal of SCTE 130 is to optimize the presentation of a desired piece of advertising to any recipient in a manner that allows validation of the spot.
Needless to say, that is far more easily said than done. According to Tom Russell, SCTE's director of standards, SCTE 130 has several elements: the content information service (CIS), the subscriber information service (SIS), the placement opportunity information service (POIS), the ad decision service (ADS), the ad management service (which is abbreviated as ADM despite the name) and the general information service (GIS). Russell explains that SCTE 130 also defines the core data elements and message transport. Application programming interfaces (APIs) can connect to billing and other systems.
Chris Hock, senior vice president of product management for BlackArrow, says that SCTE 130 and the distribution are discreet. The ads are processed according to SCTE 130 and then are distributed on traditional QAM, VoD or adapative bit rate streaming platforms. The two processes -- SCTE 130 and the actual distribution -- are contiguous, not parallel.
Hock notes that operators must decide whether to implement entire SCTE 130 platforms from one vendor or take a "best-in-breed" approach in which system elements from different vendors are used and, presumably, interoperate smoothly. He also notes that work must be done to determine the signaling protocols between these elements. The next step, he says, is determining workflows and routing instructions. "How do you stick the widgets together?" he asks.
Right now, the world of cable advertising seems to be simultaneously -- and a bit counter-intuitively -- evolving quickly and waiting for the next big thing to take hold. "I think we are in a period of confusion," Stanley observes. "The possibilities of multi-screen video or IP delivery could be implemented within a [reasonable] time line. I am not sure operators want to make that big an investment. We're seeing a lot of hedging of bets."
Carl Weinschenk is a reporter for Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.