With technology barriers starting to fall, broadcasters are piling into internet video on demand. David Woodexamines the programming and production techniques the new medium is likely to adopt.
With technology barriers starting to fall, broadcasters are piling into internet video on demand. David Woodexamines the programming and production techniques the new medium is likely to adopt.

In 2000, just before the new media bubble burst, optimistic future gazers were mooting all sorts of possibilities for internet broadcasting. Five years on and that talk is beginning to be replaced by action as content players from the BBC2 to Channel 4 to Sky and ITV begin to make tentative moves in internet broadcasting.

As the technical and cost constraints start to be removed, so the bigger players and many more besides are beginning to offer video over broadband. And they are looking to cash in on an online advertising market that is far healthier than it was five years ago.

But what kind of programming can Ofcom's estimated 8 million UK broadband users (by year end) expect to see? The BBC's first experiment with broadband video on demand has already been hailed a success after 35,000 people watched the first episode of the second series of The Mighty Boosh, streamed on the broadcaster's website a week before its airing on BBC3.

But despite the high number of requests for the Baby Cow-produced show, viewers seemed reluctant to stick around for its duration - the average viewing time being 11 minutes of the half-hour episode.

Some content producers argue that rather than "catch-up TV" the new medium is better suited to services that are shorter in length and made specifically with the platform in mind. Take ITV's Men & Motors broadband PC trial subscription service which launches next month. Oliver Slipper, commercial director of Premium TV (PTV), which is producing the service for the ITV digital channel, insists: "Rather than just replicating TV output on another platform it's all about offering unseen, uncut, exclusive footage."

Because it's limited to over-18s Men & Motors can offer stronger material for shows such as King of the Cage, its "ultimate fighting" series. Slipper adds that content, particularly for the PC, has to be short and sweet. Adult services (PTV produces Playboy's broadband service) are the classic example, he adds. "It's all about being able to find very niche stuff, from toe sucking to girl-on-girl action."

Most bite-sized broadband TV services tend to be factually based, but there are exceptions. Salmondays.tv, for example, broadcasts soap for the internet in the form of "mobisodic" short dramas. The term was coined from attempts to develop short-form drama on mobile platforms by companies such as 20th Century Fox. Earlier this year the studio offered Vodafone 3G customers exclusive 60-second clips promoting 24, timed to coincide with the launch of a new series on British television.

While broadband content may develop a grammar all of its own, it currently uses the same production techniques as the making of DVD extras: shooting extra footage on set for a "making of" or using cutaway or X-rated content which doesn't make it to the final cut.

Flextech is currently working on a streamed broadband preview for Telewest's Blueyonder broadband service of Trouble show Bump 'n' Grind, for which producer Princess specifically shot extra footage. Flextech head of interactive Jason George says it was cost-effective to produce as it uses the same talent and studio time as the show.

Televirtual managing director Tim Child, meanwhile, believes the platform will require a more far-reaching revolution in production technology. "You're likely to see the emergence of virtual production techniques, more acceptable on PCs where users are used to artificial, simulated worlds," he predicts, adding that this is already happening in Call TV, where production costs are stripped to around£250 an hour.

"If you remove live-action studio time and use computer-generated virtual production, 3D avatars instead of real talent and synthetic voices it could be done for around£50 an hour," Child says.

While there's still an element of crystal ball gazing, the production models emerging from some IPTV early adopters demonstrate the type of content broadcasters, narrowcasters and distributors are likely to employ.

What can IPTV do for me?

Turn your show into a global brand

GMTV and Blinkx.tv

Those of us who can't quite drag ourselves out of bed for a sugary slice of breakfast TV GMTV-style can now dip into the broadcaster's upbeat brand of news and entertainment any time, thanks to a recent deal with video search engine blinkx. Blinkx.tv is a video version of search engines like Google and Yahoo. For some months now the GMTV site has been providing visitors to its website with four to five GMTV video clips per day. Now, the deal with blinkx brings that content to the attention of viewers around the world.

"When we get big stories such as an interview with Tom Cruise a worldwide audience is interested - blinkx opens us up to people who don't even know that GMTV exists. It means that broadband customers the world over can find our programming," observes GMTV head of new media Nog Sawdon.

Blinkx founder Suranga Chandratillake explains: "As the internet took off Google and Yahoo were created to help us sort out relevant content. And as IPTV takes off users need something similar to help them find the video content they want."

Chandratillake adds that the technology behind blinkx uses metadata (text embedded in content to tell you what it's about) and sophisticated video and speech recognition technology to facilitate image and keyword searches.

Blinkx.tv's service also allows users to set up their own "smart folders" which will continue to gather video on subjects of interest. "Instead of a push medium like TV, IPTV will enable us to design our own channels," Chandratillake predicts.

Create channels for niche audiences and monitor their profiles


For many internet broadcasters small is beautiful. That's certainly the view of Narrowstep, a broadband narrowcast specialist that broadcasts a wide range of niche sport channels such as high.tv (extreme sports), revs.tv (motorsport), cycling.tv and Uefa Cup channel globalsport.tv, as well as various educational and city-based services. High.tv is its flagship service, with a schedule that features a wide range of on-demand sports programmes from aquabiking to extreme snowboarding, Brazilian marathons and climbing in India. Most programming is divided into 20 to 25-minute programmes supplied by the event sponsors, the most recent including the O'Neill Downhill Extreme 2005 (snowboarding off cliffs) and PWA Jeep Hawaii Pro 2005 for windsurfing fans.

Chief executive Iolo Jones got the idea when he was working with Cisco in New York and tried (and failed) to organise a satellite link up for a Six Nations rugby union international. Now his company broadcasts 40 broadband channels worldwide, charging a one-off£10,000 set-up fee and a monthly licence to clients for its encoding and internet broadcasting technology.

On average, users view video content for 38 minutes per sitting, streamed at broadband speeds as low as 56Kbps up to 1.8Mbps and beyond. Individual channels are run on a wide variety of commercial models as dictated by their owners, largely through advertising and pay-per-view for special events.

Says Jones: "We can provide advertisers with real time data about our audiences. Because it's a one-to-one unicast we know exactly who's watching - something they don't get currently from broadcast TV."

Give your music fans an instant back stage pass


Due to its short-form nature, the music video is ideally suited to IPTV platforms, while concert streaming has been popular with music fans - even in its infancy. A record 9 million fans braved the slow links and dodgy connections to Microsoft's website back in December 2000 to watch the live streaming of Madonna's Music tour performance at Brixton Academy.

Now broadband is more widespread and connections have improved, i-concerts hopes to bring fans a whole host of online music and videos.

The subscription-based service offers streaming of live and pre-recorded performances to telco broadband platforms and was launched by VoD rights specialist Transmedia and music distributor 3DD. It has a cleared library of on-demand music content including live TV shows, music concerts, videos and documentaries about music, genres and favourite artists.

Its initial slew of 300 hours of programming includes Robbie Williams: Live from the Albert Hall, Avril Lavigne - Try to Shut Me Up Tour and charity gigs such as the 46664 Nelson Mandela Concert featuring Queen, Beyoncé, Peter Gabriel and Ms Dynamite.

Says 3DD chief executive Dominic Saville: "It caters for everyone, offering music across all genres. Like iTunes you can find just about anything, adding another layer of experience to what is a fast changing market."

Provide your viewers with a catch-up TV service

HomeChoice; BBC

"As a licence fee payer I'm always immensely pissed off that schedulers can dictate what time I watch programmes," complains Jonathan Sykes, managing director of content and strategy at Video Networks, which runs on-demand TV service HomeChoice.

Of course, it's not a problem for the 15,000 subscribers signed up to his broadband TV on-demand service. Available in 2.4 million UK homes, the channel line-up offers a seven-day catch-up service for channels such as BBC, ITV and C4, with over 100 hours of TV from Top Gear to Little Britain and Coronation Street each week.

HomeChoice also has its own entertainment offering, C1, with a library including shows such as Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Futurama. It also has specially designed pay movie channels with over 1,000 films, kids services and over 3,000 music videos. And because it's delivered over broadband internet connections, all on-demand services come with full DVD-style interactive functionality allowing you to pause, forward or rewind at will.

HomeChoice, NTL and Telewest are to be joined by the BBC which next month will begin a three-month trial of its Interactive Media Player, offering 5,000 individuals with PC broadband connections the ability to download 190 hours of BBC TV and 310 hours of radio during any seven-day period, including drama such as EastEnders, Cutting It and Holby City to comedy such as My Family and gameshow Weakest Link.

A fly in the ointment

While issues around limited capacity and consumer take-up have been resolved, the industry now faces another challenge - the ability of broadband services to negotiate rights from their reluctant owners.

GMTV's head of new media, Nog Sawdon, says the issue is a perennial headache. "The technology may be there but we don't have the rights issues sorted yet. At GMTV we don't shoot our own pictures but source material from many different providers and clearing rights quickly is a huge problem."

Iolo Jones, chief executive of broadband service provider Narrowstep, adds: "For broadband services to make the most of the potential of their archives, rights need to be cleared across all platforms, but restrictions are the rule rather than the exception."

Jones points out that often actors and directors have contracts which don't cover residual rights, which then have to be sought. Music is a particular problem area, he says. Even in areas such as sport, where Narrowstep packages a wide range of content, music often has to be changed because of the complexity of securing broadband rights.

Jones adds: "There have been occasions where we have needed to clear rights with every member of an orchestra or every member of a band."

You might think content owners would jump at the chance to offer broadband rights to help develop a new platform with new revenues, but, in some cases, broadband is seen as jeopardising existing business.

For example, if a channel was suddenly made available on broadband, it could affect the price that a distribution platform like Sky would be willing to pay for it.

Concerns over the growing amount of piracy - particularly among the Hollywood studios - has also played its part. But Anthony Lilley, chair of Pact's interactive media policy group, points out that by resisting broadband distribution the film studios only encourage piracy.

"It's the lack of a legitimate broadband download service that drives piracy," insists Lilley, who argues the traditional system of film release windows will collapse over the next five to 10 years as studios offer films to broadband users on the day of release.

One upside of the growth of piracy is that it has also driven advances in digital rights management systems, observes George. "When large numbers of people get hold of pirated copies of the first episode of Doctor Who on the internet before it has been broadcast, it tends to encourage content owners to do something about it."