A New Digital Season Dawns for Broadcasters

Perhaps you’ve seen the commercials; it’s a new TV season, full of hope, cops, doctors, so-called reality and dumb husbands. OK, maybe it’s not so new.

This marks the first television season where everyone is digital and that, more than almost anything in television history, levels the playing field and presents a tremendous opportunity for the broadcaster who steps off that field.

The first big step in the right direction will happen when a broadcaster realizes that video is not video and that TV doesn’t have to be TV. It’s a lesson that the online community has long ago learned and one that the smart broadcasters will learn now: digital video is data, it’s ones and zeroes (and if you’ve seen some of those fall premiers you have to believe broadcasters understand zeroes) and it can be manipulated the same as any data from a spreadsheet to photograph. Once broadcasters understand that, it becomes easy to treat that data as metadata and begin to embed it with tags and hyperlinks to provide more information about what’s happening during the program on the screen.

The biggest problem is that broadcasters have been behind the innovation curve for so long they probably don’t have the impetus to step off the playing field and leave their network brethren behind. They’re also a prideful bunch who don’t believe that they should change a model that’s been in effect for 60 years.

Rather than realize the potential of metadata to take their beloved and lifesaving product placements and carry them to a whole new level of consumer awareness, broadcasters are content with force-feeding the public ridiculous images of Cisco capabilities during 24. If you want to push a product and please an advertiser, it can be done both more subtly and to better effect with metadata.

Imagine Mike the plumber on Desperate Housewives reaching for a wrench under the sink. Embedded in the broadcast data is metadata from Craftsman. The interested—and perhaps even targeted viewer—could dive into this data and learn more about that wrench. The program—and the broadcast world—stops momentarily while the viewer gets information for a future hardware purchase. And how much more might that be worth to Sears than just a quick cut to a Craftsman logo on the wrench?

Broadcasters are guilty of many sins, not the least of which is an overdose of misplaced pride. In this instance, though, it’s not necessarily the broadcasters’ fault. They haven’t thought this way because the people who aggregate their signals don’t offer the technology that would let them to do this. On the other hand, broadcasters are often responsible for the breakdown in relationships with cable, satellite and telephone providers who already understand the power of interactivity and who are making advanced video-on-demand and network DVRs commonplace elements in their offerings.

True cooperation with outside delivery mechanisms will be necessary to make this happen. The programming stream would need to be unicast, manipulated at the headend where a server would take that stream and send EBIF tags to the set-top box. This type of data manipulation is already on tap for cable networks with the most to gain by further informing their viewers—shows such as DYI and any number of offerings from The Discovery Channel. The opportunities for embedded information are pretty much limitless. With consumer buy-in, programming can even be tailored to provide information based on a viewer’s habits and preferences letting the network DVR do the job of rooting out and suggesting the appropriate metadata.

The cable networks, as has always been the case, will take advantage of this opportunity first. Cable operators, with their inherent interactive capabilities will assure this.

Broadcasters, as has been their pattern for far too long, will be behind the curve. Perhaps, once they understand that television stopped being TV when they shut down their analog transmitters, they’ll realize the value of digital and join the embedded TV movement.

                                        --Edgar Villalpando, SVP Marketing, ActiveVideo Networks