The concept of the ‘three-screen strategy’ – delivery of content to multiple screens over a single infrastructure – is currently much talked-about. But what is a meaningful ‘three screen strategy’?
“Three-screen distribution continues to be essential, and continues to move closer to fulfilling its potential,” says Mike Nann, director of marketing and communications at Digital Rapids. “‘Follow-me’ capabilities are essential to a successful strategy, with mobility of content across viewing devices enabling viewers to pick up and continue what they’re watching while on the move.”
Duncan Potter, chief marketing officer at Edgeware, is even more effusive, describing three-screen as too restrictive a term in a world where the range of available devices is ever-expanding.
“We need to be thinking in terms of [multiple] screens as we are already beyond three screens with other types of devices and services rapidly emerging to take advantage of specific access methods such as the iPad and game consoles,” he says. The emergence of adaptive bit-rate streaming will only accelerate the trend, he says. For Potter, a multi-screen strategy must be focused on the consumer rather than the technology, flexible enough to “ride the next wave” of consumer electronics innovation, and must provide absolute freedom of choice.
Adam Nightingale, regional director of Europe at Irdeto, agrees with Potter that there are more screens than three, highlighting the growing prevalence of tablet computers, for example. “However, in the rush to be one of the first to offer the consumer content over multiple devices, [service providers’] three-screen strategy has often been unstructured and ‘siloed’ due to internal divisions between the broadcast and ‘new media’ or broadband departments,” he says. For Irdeto, a meaningful strategy for delivering content across multiple devices means adopting a unified infrastructure for all screens, rather than a separate strategy for each screen or device – mobile, tablet, PC and TV.
The desire to serve multiple screens to meet consumer requirements is clearly there, leading operators to move to create a single unified headend, according to Alon Weinberg, product marketing manager, content discovery at *** . “What we are now seeing is that operators are choosing to deploy one platform for all, rather than viewing each device as a separate platform they are unifying the headend with cross-platform content management, offer management and domain management so you can purchase a VOD asset on the set-top box and have it available on the PC as the entitlement is registered to the domain rather than the device,” he says.
It’s left to Steve Christian, vice-president of marketing at content security provider Verimatrix to sound a note of caution. “It’s easy to reflect on some of the fads and mis-steps in the video revolution of recent years, where initial theories were turned into accepted industry dogma by mere unqualified repetition rather than hard practical business success. Remember media centre PCs, short-form mobile video, advertising-only delivery models?” says Christian. To succeed, three-screen delivery will have to provide a close-to-transparent consumer experience, a flexible approach that maximises the potential of each delivery platform, a coherent revenue mode and a cost-efficient back-end infrastructure.
So what are the challenges in delivering content to multiple screens over a single infrastructure, and what does a single infrastructure mean in that context? For Christian, the key thing is for operators to maintain “a holistic view of the real business problem they are really addressing”. Employing a single infrastructure does not mean a common network, single file format or even single protection technology. “Given the diversity of device demands – at the high end and at the low end – the infrastructure concepts we believe will be successful are those that accommodate incremental extension, broad partnerships and well-architected integration platforms,” he says. From Verimatrix’s point of view, digital asset and usage rights management and preventing revenue leakage are especially challenging. At IBC Vermimatrix will highlight its VCAS 3 platform, which provides security for multi-format adaptive streaming video over the internet, as well as the MultiRights framework to deliver multiple forms of content security from a single headend.
“One main challenge is support for known and understood protocols that function effectively across all of the various areas of the internet,” says Edgeware’s Potter. Service providers are faced with multiple adaptive streaming technologies to support, for example. A further problem is the added burden on the network, possibly leading providers to “look at some form of content restriction”.
“From a head-end point of view, creating content for all three screens on a single, flexible encoding platform – and possibly even within the same encoder concurrently in real time – offers significant advantages in efficiency, productivity and costs,” says Digital Rapids’ Nann. Nann says that Digital Rapids entire product range was designed with the needs of multi-platform distribution in mind, and at IBC the company will highlight its StreamZ live streaming encoders, Stream ZHD encoding systems and Transcode Manager. The company will also show its MediaMesh content delivery system.
For Yann Courqueux, chief marketing officer at Netgem, which has recently developed smart-phone applications including an EPG and remote DVR to support place-shifting, the biggest single challenge facing operators is “to ensure a consistent and seamless user experience within a branded EPG across each screen”.
Not all the hurdles to be crossed are technology related. Irdeto’s Nightingale points out that creating a strategy for the implementation of a single infrastructure can be an organisational struggle. For Nightingale, a single infrastructure means “the automation of the workflow process, from ingestion to delivery, to get content to customers using a single system”. This will deliver cost efficiencies as operators only have to manage and monitor a single workflow rather than several.
Malcolm Latham, senior marketing manager at Motorola EMEA, highlights three areas that service providers need to address – content, community and control. Consumers need a way to easily and quickly discern from the array of content choices that are relevant to them, they want want to interact with their social networks to enrich the content experience via sharing, recommendations and discussion, and they want to personalise their experiences and control the functionality available to them. “Service providers must simplify and personalise the consumer experience while ensuring the integrity of the content and the rights of the content creator or owner,” says Latham. Motorola recently introduced Motorola Medios, which Latham says is designed to allow cable and telco operators to evolve current infrastructure and network assets to capitalise on the business opportunities enabled by the internet era of TV.
What types of applications will service providers will look to deliver? Edgeware’s Potter suggests that many providers will look to migrate to a CDN-type model, monetising services by offering enhanced Quality of Experience to subscribers who pay a premium. “Integrated service providers that own infrastructure and can monetise their service to both subscribers and content providers are in a very strong position to benefit not only from their own content, but also from the OTT providers by offering differentiated Quality of Experience,” he says.
Willem Verbiest, vice-presdient of multimedia solutions at Alcatel Lucent, also believes that the CDN will be a key service offering for network operators. “You have CDN offers that take care of the delivery of content in a cost-effective way,” he says.
For Irdeto’s Nightingale, service providers can extend their offering by adding PC-based services that integrate the broadcast offering with the online offering, like online EPGs and remote PVR programming. “After this primary requirement is met, service providers will most likely want to look at other devices like mobile phones, but should focus on the devices that have the highest penetration in their particular market,” he says. For most of the technology companies surveyed for this article, service provider will look to develop existing services to multiple devices, place-shifting ability, integration with DVR recording across multiple devices, and increasingly, social-networking features.
Clearly, multi-play service providers may be better-placed to benefit than pay-TV-only providers or content providers. However, the latter still have the opportunity to deliver content over-the-top to IP-connected set-tops, mobiles and PCs via the internet. For Motorola’s Latham, OTT content providers pursuing a direct relationship with the consumer will force network operators to offer more personalised services over converged networks in order to compete. “While this threatens traditional service providers if left unaddressed, market dynamics also represent a significant revenue opportunity for service providers if they transform their current business models to meld the strengths of their existing offering with the strengths of the internet-based offerings,” he says.
However, existing strength in depth can confer key advantages over newer entrants, according to NDS’s Weinberg. “The more traditional, integrated service providers stand to gain a lot if they implement the technology in a smart way – they have the money to invest in content and technology and they currently own the subscribers,” he says.
Netgem’s Courqueux concurs. “Those providers best placed to succeed in a three-screen strategy are those that offer good content, a well-known brand and wide distribution, to date these are typically the service providers,” he says. “However, it is also these operators that are most at risk from aggressive OTT services.” Service providers therefore need to act quickly before further competition emerges.
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