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Broadband Unravelled

by David Fox

Broadband has been slow to take off in Europe, particularly in the UK (which is 21st out of 30 in the industrialised world in broadband), but in the US more than 10% already have broadband and they are three or four times more likely to spend money online, which could make it an important market.

Daniel Webster, vice president for west coast operations, The FeedRoom, certainly thinks so. He predicts that online advertising will rise in the same way cable TV advertising in the US did between 1990 and now, during which time it jumped from being worth $50 million to more than $13 billion. He believes that even if it doesn't now, advertising will eventually pay, because broadband allows for such highly targeted ads, so long as the end user experience is good enough. The FeedRoom also gets money from sponsorship.

It works with broadcasters to deliver news Web sites as well as producing corporate applications which allow businesses to deliver their own video sites. "All companies will be media companies in the coming years," he claims.

Of course, The FeedRoom has to believe in broadband, that's its business, but traditional news organisations aren't so confident.

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APTN's head of content development, Christopher O'Hearn, believes that broadband, as it stands now, it too difficult and expensive to be worthwhile.

"You think there are standards problems in television. There are no standards in broadband. Real, Windows Media, QuickTime. Which version do you choose? If you go to Real version 8.0 immediately, you lose people who haven't upgraded, but if you stick with Real 6.0, you don't get all the benefits of the new version. And, which [transmission] rate do you choose?," he asks.

"You are probably looking at about 15 versions before you are making most people happy." Besides deciding on what bitrates you want to support (28, 56, 80, 128, 300 and/or 500 kbps?), you also have to choose who will host the video (and who deals with any problems). There is also the expensive choice of how many streams you'll need, and where to get the best deal on them.

Because hosting your own streaming is not easy, he advises not to do it yourself, "because there are people out there who will do it," like The FeedRoom or Globix. But, he advises not to go with the first tender. "You can get some very good deals if you tough it out," such as one where someone else handles all the encoding and streaming, etc., with no up-front costs, using revenue sharing instead.

"There is still the problem of expense, and who is going to pay you," he adds. Essentially, the hardware maker, the ISP and the Telco all get paid, but the content creator "gets thanked." The most common business model is one where: "We get our brand out there. But that's not going to pay our staff."

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APTN currently puts out about 20 video clips a day from its New York office and O'Hearn is not convinced that people will pay for higher quality, at least not outside the porn industry, "but what they might watch is different content." He doesn't believe that news will be a big driver in helping broadcasters make money online, but entertainment (especially movie delivery) and gaming could be.

"It's not about the brand, it's about the content," he says. "Material must be compelling, convincing and complementary. It should be more than just print, more than TV and more than radio."

For example, at this year's Academy Awards, ABC covered the whole of Julia Roberts' post-Oscar press conference, and he believes this sort of enhanced or complementary services, which help drive traffic between the TV and Web services (in both directions), can also make money.

O'Hearn's advice to other news organisations and broadcasters is: "Get someone else to do it, have someone else pay for it, and enhance your on-air content. Then you'll have broadband content someone will pay for."

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Feeding Time

The FeedRoom delivers on-demand video to multiple platforms, such as the Web and mobile phones, and produces Web sites, does datacasting, satellite broadband and syndication. "Create once, deliver anywhere," explains Webster.

It works with NBC, Tribune, AP, Reuters, and other US broadcasters, and all the main staff come from a news background, to "give people news when, where and how they want it," he says.

It has a production facility in New York, and encodes video from 37 other stations in the US, including lots of material which can't get broadcast on TV.

Unlike many video sites, its main site streams right away. "We believe you have to push as well as pull," he says. It delivers about 750,000 streams a month.

It allows users to personalise the information they want to see, and to select from lots of different topics, such as fashion, health or technology. Viewers get different ads depending on which channel they choose to watch. The commercials on the site have a high click-through rate (about 14%). "We can target content and advertising because we know who is watching."

Video is encoded at 56kbps and 200kbps. It also does a lot of work with Flash, as it takes up less bandwidth. "You can do a lot with it, and it helps cover buffering so you always have something to watch," he says. It is also working on live applications

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"The world's going to be all about metadata," he says. All assets are treated the same (as data), just delivered to the right place in the production environment. The production staff edit on the network. The system is scalable. It does 43 sites with 20 "Predators" or producer/editors (out of a total of 70 staff). "We can essentially produce five sites with one person," he says.

The network allows the efficiency of scale. Users can look at all the assets in different newsrooms around the country, around the clock. When everyone has moved to servers, it will become even easier, as they still have to ingest a lot of analogue material. "With everything centralised, it is easier to have creative, editorial and brand control," he says.

He believes that too many tools available now just replicate the linear way of working. "We need to be able to do anything, at anytime, on the desktop. We need to be cheap and efficient. We are forced to innovate and find new ways of doing this," he says. The FeedRoom generally uses very cheap, off-the-shelf technology.

It uses basic encoding cards, Final Cut Pro ("which is far better than it needs to be for what we do"), Apple G3 and G4 PCs, plus Media Cleaner Pro (which he doesn't think highly of) for encoding. The most expensive technology is the asset management system (from Artesia). It also uses Omneon networking.

The combination allows them deploy assets to multiple sites very easily, he claims. It can deliver a story to all its sites in two minutes.

It is developing more interactive ways of storytelling. "The way we tell stories in the future will be as different from TV as TV is different from radio," he says. "Text, video and sound are just tools to tell a good story and new media allows you bring all this together." It allows viewers to take different paths through a story, depending on what interests them, and turn to text for greater depth if the video and audio content hooks them.

"Our goal is to bring a TV-like experience to the user everywhere, when and how they want, with interactivity. On the Internet today, and on television and mobile devices in the near future," he says.

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