Taming Multiscreen Ad Complexity

Multiscreen Ad Insertion Once a cable operator makes the decision to move into the multiscreen environment, a secondary decision -- to take every opportunity to monetize the infrastructure to the fullest extent possible -- becomes a bit of a no-brainer.

"This is a good news and bad news story," said Jay Chambers, the vice president and chief architect in the office of the CTO for  BigBand Networks. "The good news is that operators are embracing multiscreen and the advertising opportunities around it as well. The bad news is that there are three or four ways in which operators can achieve this."

The implication is that there still are big questions at the conceptual level about the best way to engineer multiscreen commercial insertion. It's a tricky business because, as in the linear world, a lot happens in a very short period of time: Spots must be sent simultaneously to multiple devices, and rules must be in place ensuring that, for instance, a piece of content doesn't end up on a mobile device against the wishes -- wishes that can be enforced by attorneys -- of the advertiser. On top of all that is the need to create an infrastructure that doesn't reinvent the wheel for each of the adaptive bitrate streaming approaches that are used by popular mobile devices.

Earlier this month, RGB Networks took its shot at this tackling this task with the introduction of its Enhanced Video Intelligence Architecture. The company said the suite consists of its Video Multiprocessing Gateway and TransAct Packager. "The architecture is hybrid," said Ramin Farassat, RGB's vice president of product marketing and business development. "We are using TV standards and bringing them into the adaptive bitrate environments."

Specifically, RGB and other vendors are seeking to incorporate SCTE 30, 35 and 130 -- standards developed for the linear world -- into various approaches that are distributed to non-traditional devices over HTTP streams. Sam Blackman, the CEO of Elemental Technologies, said his company is working to meld these emerging and existing worlds. He is working with established ad insertion vendors which, he said, have built a robust a reliable linear insertion system. "Where we think this world is going is MPEG transport stream used to deliver to the multiscreen encoder," Blackman said.

The ad insertion functionality is closely linked to the encoder. Today, Blackman said, an ad being inserted for delivery to one end user device but not another would generate a "slate," or blank,  on the latter screen. In the future, parallel and discreet spots could run on the devices.

In time, the encoder/ad insertion engine could grow to be the main touch point between the legacy and HTTP-based -- the new and old -- arms of the operation, Blackman said. It could feed data on both the legacy and HTTP realms to the digital rights management (DRM) system, the billing system and the operational support system/business support system (OSS/BSS).

In other words, the encoder -- which includes the linear and emerging ad insertion functionality -- can be seen as the overlapping sector of the Venn diagram mapping the old and new ways of serving up content to subscribers.

Still More Complexity

The second level of complexity that must be vanquished is the fact that not all adaptive bitrate streaming protocols are the same. Indeed, they are far from it. The challenge is to enable advertisements that use Microsoft's Smooth Streaming (which is part of Silverlight), Adobe's Dynamic Streaming and Apple's HTTP Live Streaming to run off the same server.

Aseem Bakshi, SeaChange's vice president of engineering for back office said there are significant differences between the three approaches. SeaChange, he said, displayed ad insertion technology at the recent IBC show that served both legacy systems and Apple iPads. He said the company plans to introduce a single module-based solution for the three platforms during the first quarter of next year. These approaches must be able to handle a large number of profiles within each algorithm -- essentially, versions of the protocol sent at different bit rates -- that make them usable by devices with a large range of capabilities.

The bottom line is this is a complex unicast universe in which many things happen very quickly and in which the timing must be perfect. It is less forgiving in the multicast (essentially broadcast) legacy world. "There is a scalability issue," said BigBand's Chambers, who echoed the idea that the industry wants a one-box solution for linear and all the adaptive bitrate streaming protocols. "[In linear-only systems] you are streaming one asset commonly to thousands of subscribers. Now it is something targeted. Ad servers not designed for that kind of load."

The ad servers, then, are much like the industry thinking overall: They all must be upgraded and adjusted to deal with a new reality. The entire rationale behind multiscreen becomes far more strained if steps aren't taken to make ad insertion a key element of the program.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor for Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carl@btreport.net.

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