NCTA: New tech opens gates for sports nets

The National Show, the yearly cable industry convention held by the National Cable Television Association in Atlanta this week, is proof positive that the cable industry is ready to transform itself beyond the TV screen, giving sports programmers new ways to reach consumers and monetize content.

Cable isn t just TV anymore, says Phil Simpson, SeaChange International director of product marketing, On Demand Solutions. There s VoIP, broadband, mobile and the telco industry is going through the same thing.

Advances in broadband streaming technology, next-generation DVR-related developments, and switched video technologies that will give cable operators more channel capacity for more sports networks were all on display.

We have more than 2,000 channels that we help distribute around the world, says Bruce Haymes, PanAmSat SVP, corporate and strategic development. And many of them want distribution to the 20 million-plus non-English or Spanish speaking people living in the U.S.

Among those channels? Russian hockey networks, Pakistani and Indian cricket networks, and Greek all-sports networks. By taking advantage of compression and distribution technologies that are removing bandwidth constraints cable operators and telcos can continue to add new digital and HDTV channels to their lineup without rebuilding cable plants.

The big switch
Satellite services provider PanAmSat sees switched video services opening up the floodgates for sports networks geared to foreigners living in the U.S. who want to see sports and other networks from their home country.

Switched channel technology continues to be a growing trend among cable technology providers. The advantage of switched technology is that it uses IP technology to let cable operators add channels to their lineup without needing more capacity. For example, instead of requiring 15 channels of capacity on a cable system to deliver 15 Pakistani TV networks the channels exist at the headend but are pushed out to the viewer only as requested. Big Band Networks rolled out its fourth-generation switched broadcast technology and it now includes the ability to switch HDTV programming and also create mini-carousels of channels.

Letting cable operators add channels without requiring more capacity is important for niche sports networks like Setanta Sports. Setanta s channel is available via DirecTV but it has yet to land a cable deal because operators say they don t have enough bandwidth. Shane O Rourke, Setanta Sports president, North American Operations, believes switched technology and pressure from telcos that have cable operators looking for more service offerings, will help his company nail down cable deals.

Switched network technology, however, is still a couple of years from wide-scale deployment for cable operators. You ll hear a lot of talk about switched video networks but how many cable operators have actually deployed them?, says Matthew Goldman, director of technology for Tandberg Television. The need to distribute HD content exists right now.

Tandberg Television s booth was a potpourri of cable technology as the company s acquisitions of GoldPocket Interactive, N2 Broadband and Skystream Networks give it one of the most comprehensive product suites in the industry. By bringing together Tandberg s compression technology with N2 Broadband s streaming technology and GoldPocket Interactive iTV technology (as well as Skystream s IP delivery solutions) Tandberg can provide a single source for a seamless content distribution system.

We now have everything integrated together and are pushing to the next level so that we can get the advertising models moving forward, he says.
The company is already moving forward with next-generation encoding, with a system that can handle both MPEG2 and MPEG4. And it s hard at work on an interactive TV application for an un-named regional sports network that will let TV viewers highlight players on the screen and pull up statistics and other information.

The changing set-top
A visit to Scientific-Atlanta s booth quickly showed just how the center of the consumer s cable TV experience, the set-top box, is moving beyond simple TV. Not only are DVR s becoming standard issue but other features, like built-in DVD burners that can burn DVR-stored content to DVD is also just around the corner.

Dave Clark, Scientific-Atlanta director, product strategy and management, Home Entertainment Solutions, says the big challenge is helping cable operators and content owners figure out the new business models.

And there are some whoppers. Scientific-Atlanta has developed a system that will turn set-top boxes into mini DVD replication plants. By tying its technology into the VOD system viewers can not only watch the move but also purchase it, have it burned to DVD (and have the burner etch in the title) and add it to their permanent collection. Movie studios and other content owners will be able to distribute movies without having to pay for packaging and replication, says Clark.

Both Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola demonstrated even greater cellphone/set-top box interactivity. In the near future subscribers will be able to control their set-top box via their cellphone and also push video out to the phone from the DVR.

Net gain
Broadband streaming providers also stepped up with new services for sports networks. Narrowstep, which provides broadband streaming back-end technology to Web sites like cycling.tv and sail.tv, offers its telVOS system for TV over IP or broadband.

There is a huge opportunity to send more sports content out over the Internet, says Osh Richardson, Narrowstep VP, sales. The average connection speed is going up all the time.

Richardson says his company s technology makes it easier for content owners to monetize content. Subscription, ad-based, PPV and e-commerce are all possible options for a new sports broadband network.

We ve found that the subscription model typically sees a buy rate of about 1 or 3%, he says. The one exception is golf which can get up to about 8%.

Ensequence, a provider of interactive TV technology, struck a deal this week with MLB.com that will let MLB.com subscribers watch up to six games at once on a PC. The mosaic technology takes advantage of the company s authoring and broadband client technology. The client sits in the media player or set-top box, says Joanna Mason, Ensequence senior product manager.

For now the service is limited to broadband-only but cable operators that deploy Ensequence technology could port it over to their video service. Mason says the company is also actively talking with other sports leagues interested in deploying similar services.

The mosaic will be available to MLB.com subscribers next week. Other features include fantasy player alerts letting users know when their player is up to bat or pitching in a certain game as well as in-depth statistics and highlights.

Another mosaic provider was ICTV, rolling outs its ActiveVideo system. Unlike Ensequence s technology, which is moving TV content to the Web, ActiveVideo does the reverse. It takes content created for the Web and converts it into MPEG2-based material. That gives cable operators and programmers a way to more easily build telescoping commercials and click throughs via the TV remote to e-commerce or even classified ads.

Look for more NCTA coverage later this week from SVG columnist Harlan Neugeboren.