Why Live Linear Streaming is still King

netflix-samsung

Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos controversially said in October 2015 that, in 10 years time, he felt linear TV will be dead. Surprisingly, the response to that was muted except for certain observers like nscreen Media which posted an analysis to the contrary. The publication rightly pointed out that recent Pure Play OTT services that have launched with a heavy linear focus, showing it is still a valid proposition (in the context of this post, I’ll be referring it as ‘live linear’ since non-live channels that are programmed from a VOD playlist, do exist).

The industry trend has been to also introduce ‘lite’ OTT packages that actually focus on live linear streaming, catering to potential ‘cord-never’ customer segments. And don’t forget that TV Everywhere services still get great audience engagement from the linear channels that are streamed out – people want to watch TV on the go almost as much as they watch time-shifted content (from my personal working experience anyway).

But back to the Pure Play examples. These include Sling TV which was launched by parent company Dish TV, offering a variety of linear channels from Pay TV providers. Another giant weighing in is Sony Corp with Playstation Vue, which offers  a large variety of linear channels as well. Both services also provide VOD content.

Pluto.TV with lots of live linear and play-listed channels to choose from, and each with its own programmed schedule, is also making waves. The company just announced 20 new channels from content providers such as IGN, The Onion, Legendary Digital Networks, Newsy and World Poker Tour. In Europe, France’s highly anticipated Molotov service promises over 100 free and paid channels contained within a stunning user interface. It’s the latest to be launched and it definitely won’t be last.

Next year Hulu is promising a new live streaming-plus-on demand bundle designed for the younger generation. According to several reports, Hulu is negotiating with the various studios and content owners to stream ESPN, Disney Channel, Fox News, FX and others.

So it is hard to believe – from the current trend – that linear viewing is dying. The problem has not been that live linear is out-dated, live linear as we know it has not evolved into the interactive, intelligent lean-back experience it could potentially be. The Pure Play providers are proving it.

Sadly, broadcasters are still struggling to hold on to terrestrial viewing and the all-important revenues they¬† derive from it. Many are holding on to their golden geese of premium live sports, news channels and exclusivity. There’s no denying that these continue to represent the main reasons why people won’t churn away from TV so easily. Many broadcasters are grappling with ways to monetize TV Everywhere, especially if they are AVOD-based. It’s a constant battle to keep CPMs up.

But they should not ignore the huge potential being afforded to live linear streaming, with its ability to offer targeted advertising and interactivity. Initiatives like HbbTV promise a set of standards that result in the best of terrestrial viewing with broadband-based interactivity (ranging from companion device pairing to multi-audio and subtitling). However, the ‘h’ stands for hybrid and that is what it is: a transient state. A compromise that leverages legacy technology. Ultimately, terrestrial TV’s limitations mirrors a decaying castle under siege. At some stage it will simply give in. A fully connected world delivers too much potential to be ignored. The problem is that we don’t know when this utopian state will happen. We know that it will happen though.

Ted Sarandos was representing an iconoclasts view of the world. Ironically, Netflix has become an icon of SVOD in the way broadcast was, and still is, to the Baby Boomer generation. It’s premature to share his ebullient views but we know that live linear has a valuable place at the moment.

In my next post, I’ll even talk about why I think these two bastions of live – sports and news – are under threat. But for now, broadcasters can still breathe a little easier.

What A Difference A Year Makes

It has been almost a year since I traveled down south with the family to start a new adventure. It was a perfect alignment of the ‘stars’ for me, as they say. Having enjoyed my product development & management stint at Astro, it was time to really focus on being a product owner, in the commercial sense. At the same time, Telstra’s near-full acquisition of Ooyala became the vital piece of a puzzle to develop its trajectory from merely being a platform provider for media companies to a fully-managed media services provider. A B2B service provider. And they really needed people.

It was interesting to note that this meant the role up for grabs was that of a Solution Manager, not just a product manager. This would mean the challenge of managing multiple products. Looking back, I couldn’t be happier. In my current stint, it’s been an amazing, educational ride for me as I expand my horizons each day, developing my dream B2B solution for customers who want to play in the Online Video space.

My current job involves putting Pay TV content into this device, for your enjoyment.

My current job involves putting Pay TV content into this device, for your enjoyment.

In the STARS portfolio acronym, you could define companies (or products) in stages like Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth and Re-alignment. You always want to be in a company that is an A – a company on accelerated growth trajectory with morale on par with the company’s growth trajectory. And this was where Telstra was after David Thodey had guided it from the R phase successfully.

Being part of a team where the portfolio includes Connected Stadiums, Digital Marketing, Smart Camps, Professional Media, Media Networks and even Content & Advertising partnerships was a Dream Team for a budding Online Video team (just the three of us to begin with) to be part of. The exposure to these other forms of media experiences helped guide our perspectives each week when we got together.

But the small Online Video Solution team had a long way to go. We had to engage with vendors – our partners as we called them. We had to write our business documents to formulate what our business case would be. And we then had to define the solution for stakeholders to understand what our product would be or how it could be sold, plus to whom. Finally, in May, our public launch in Australia was a first and proud milestone. Telstra’s Online Video Solution offers Brands and Enterprises a way to upload, manage and publish video content, with bundled CDN offerings and even an add-on for Live Event streaming to provide a complete, end-to-end solution. All you need is a website and a place to embed our free HTML5 video player.

To know more about what I’m currently doing, just visit our official pager here.

Delivering Malaysia’s First Multilingual TV Guide

We finally did it. After a year of active project planning, development and delivery work, the Astro Byond team that I was part of delivered Malaysia’s first multilingual TV Guide and quite possibly the only TV Guide in Southeast Asia available in four major languages (English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil). You can check it out here (sorry it’s in Malay for now as the English version isn’t out yet).

In a culturally-diverse nation like Malaysia, providing vernacular options are a must. Prior to the project, we also decided to refresh and deploy a new User Interface. There were plenty of challenges to overcome. The major ones were:

1. Tight timelines. This is always the case but could be argued to be a matter of opinion! The timelines had to include several interations of software development so that we could not only get used to the new layout, but also verify the language text (or ‘strings’ in tech speak). This was compounded by an expanded Video On Demand catalogue that contained several different business models, primarily SVOD and TVOD. Netflix only uses one SVOD model while Apple uses TVOD. We don’t have that simplicity for various reasons. So for our VOD service for example, we literally had dozens of test cases to run through.

2. Transliteration Spacing. Everywhere that text appears on-screen is a graphical widget that needs to be flexible to accommodate our 4 languages comfortably. Mandarin’s character-based script is more economical than English and Malay’s Roman-based alphabets. Malay words tend to be longer. Tamil uses vowels and fonts but is structured in such a way that the words are even longer than Malay. The result was a careful balancing act whilst trying to maintain aesthetic standards.

3. Delivery and Testing. This is not just about accepting the development work but going through rigorous processes that identify and eliminate bugs across different types of set-top boxes (STBs). In addition, the whole process of Alpha and Beta testing is necessary so that customer feedback is solicited and used for improvements. Doing this on STBs isn’t as easy as simply doing an App software update on your iPhone! Trial user identification, communication/management, survey automation/collation and management reporting are essential steps in the process to ensure that stakeholders are aware of issues.

4. Marketing. The product management team had to ensure that enough materials – product literature and screen-shots – were able to be generated to support the go-to-market efforts by the Marcomms team. Vetting drafts of the artwork was essential and compounded by the fact that four languages needed to be checked in their own context.

We had some amazing colleagues who led and managed the entire programme to its fruition, of which I was pleased to just be a part of. But the result was that our work with our primary partners NDS was deemed a success on many fronts. It’s been an incredible journey planning and rolling out what is a major improvement that will be enjoyed by over 3 million customers. It certainly gave me a perspective on the gravity of the work, and the excitement that we hoped to give our customers with something new and improved. The work isn’t over yet. Having set the benchmark in a multilingual guide makes future product releases just as demanding. But that’s what it means to be part of the Byond team here at Astro. Going beyond what the competitors can offer and make our products as compelling as possible.

Why Content Discovery Is The New King

Oliver Stone apparently had his most fun making Alexander, detailing the Macedonian’s mercurial campaigns that culminated with the invasion of India. It was the height of Alexander’s conquest. Like Alexander, linear Pay TV is facing an inflection point as it reaches the apex of its offerings. After HD, the PVR and 3D, the next offering is apparently 4K, but don’t let that fool you as consumers know when overkill has arrived in their living rooms. Today’s consumer is too busy trying to figure out how to make use of the 150+ channels they subscribe to. Aside from battling the influx of pesky OTT players trying to outflank them, Pay-TV operators are simply trying to give customers a reason to pay exorbitantly high subscription fees.

The notion that content is King is no longer being touted. It is a given. It is a price-of-entry requirement. A hygiene point. Now the new, must-have is Content Discovery and your Pay-TV set-top boxes need to get connected to the web real quick. But overall, if your organization doesn’t have Content Discovery as a strategy, it could be on as rapid a decline as Alexander’s armies were after the Battle of Hydaspes. Sky Deutschland is one of the many operators (like Astro) that’s doing it now.

Content Discovery encompasses the following:

Search Engine. Usually productized in as Global Search, this powerful feature allows anything in the PVR to be searched from keywords entered. Both linear, PVR recordings and VOD catalogues should be included, and this can be powerful if aided with an advance EPG. Search, then Record. Simple as that.

Recommendation Engine. This is the where users will increase consumption. Content-based recommendations will ensure users get the most out of a vast catalogue but it is also important to note that a true, personalized recommendation engine (one that knows your past history) is deployed.

Social Recommendations. Using the wisdom of the crowd could be important. What if you could log-in using a Facebook account and share your Top 5 or Watchlist with others? And what if your OTT device or Set-Top Box told you that such content being shared by others was available already?

This is the future of TV as we know it. Don’t boast about content anymore. Shout out discovery and your customers will have one less reason to cut the proverbial cord.

Now anyone can fly… and watch

Hunt for your downloads now. Not wi-fi networks.

Hunt for content now. Not wi-fi networks.

The big news just out is the introduction of Sky Go Extra, the successful OTT offering from UK broadcaster Sky. For a small fee of just five pounds a month, customers can now enjoy the option of downloading their favourite content for offline viewing later.

Why a lot of viewers will love this is because it satisfies the biggest complaint they have about their OTT services – the lack of service portability whilst traveling overseas. When you’re overseas, the rights to view your Pay TV subscription via OTT is usually forbidden, so that latest episode of Mad Men Season 5 will just have to wait till you fly back home. For some, it also means added costs in those darn long-haul flights where the episode or movie might be available but you have to rent a tablet just to view it (and not many of us fly business and get that tablet provided for free).

Another bonus with offline viewing is that (if the timing is right) you get to download your content in HD and play it back in HD. You’re no longer at the mercy of dodgy wi-fi networks in cafes or moving trains or even in the airport lounge that’s sharing its network with too many other users.

Operators too, might just save on CDN costs as they face more predictable consumption forecasts and manage their bandwidth commitments. The theory behind this is that you forecast a delivery to a customer just once; this is better than streaming where you need to factor in ‘replay’ or ‘repeat’ viewing behaviours.

So it all bodes well for Sky and I’m sure the addition to ARPU will be more than just marginal. To paraphrase the tagline of a home-grown airline, perhaps now anyone can fly… and watch content they’ve already paid for.

I know I’d look forward to that.

Astro delves into Social Cinema

A movie poster provides the info and link to the rental screen

Pushing the boundaries of video on demand has always been my mantra. Last week, I was proud to again be part of a great team that created another history-making chapter. We took our staple Astro First brand, and extended it to Facebook.

How’s that history-making? Firstly, let me tell you what Astro First is. Astro First is actually what we call NVOD (Near VOD). A series of linear channels that screen movies (one for each channel) at scheduled intervals. You subscribe to the movie (and channel) of your choice within a 48 hour window period and you watch again if you have time or continue at the next slot. Users with a PVR box and no internet connection subscribe to the service via SMS.

Despite its low-tech approach, Astro First was phenomenally successful when it launched last year, primarily because it offered the convenience of viewing local movies within 2 weeks of their cinema release. Subscribers loved it as they saved money going to the cinemas and hefty additional ticket fees. We enabled it on our VOD Store this year on Byond PVR boxes with the ease of remote-enabled purchase.

However, our initiative on Facebook has huge implications: Firstly, Now ANYONE can watch Astro First titles by simply purchasing it from our Official Facebook App and watching it immediately from a PC or Mac. In fact, after making some tweaks, you can a watch it on a whole lot of mobile or tablet devices simply because we make the browser the prime viewing platform (it’s a web app, not native ‘store-based’).

Secondly, it’s revolutionary because it allows all the Facebook features like posting comments or sharing of key moments (curated by Astro) from the player page, generating interest from friends as well as ensuring much of the content inside is viralized. This actually helps content providers or studios leverage the full effect of Facebook in spreading ‘love’ for a particular movie.

Warner Bros actually made the first leap into this ‘social cinema’ experience when the Dark Knight was released 15-months ago. I believe Malaysia is the first country in Asia to try this out. It’s early days yet so we don’t expect a tidal wave of users to come in. What we expect is to delight customers with more ways for them to consume their favourite content. Currently the app is Geo-filtered so only Malaysians will be able to enjoy the service. Hopefully, this will change in the near future and enable more Malaysian movies to be viewed by Malaysians abroad.

Launching On-The-Go

Astro’s foray into a multi-screen experience begins

In the previous video I shared you would have seen Irdeto’s Cedric Monier waxing lyrical about the wonders of multi-screen experiences, including great interactivity, features like ‘book-marking’ – watching a movie on one device and then taking off from where you left on the next one, and others. It was actually a great pleasure to meet Cedric when he visited Kuala Lumpur to guide Astro on its development of Astro On-The-Go (our own multi-screen product).

Well, that was months ago. Somehow, it seems like yesterday. Just two days ago we finally launched it to the media at our favourite venue again: the Double Tree Hotel. Barely 14 months after we launched Astro Byond IPTV, here we were, ensuring another product got off to the best possible start.

Astro On-The-Go aims to make watching our DTH content easy simply by allowing it to appear and be synced to our PCs, Tablets and Smartphones. Should you own an Astro Byond PVR and have access to our new VOD UI, you’ll be able to make purchases into your box. They’ll then appear on your devices too.

The current launch doesn’t include Android devices and iPhone. The latter will be targeted in the next phase over the next few weeks. That should be launched within months. But the buzz that reverberates from within the company is great and we’ve got an amazing marketing campaign that will really put it into the minds of consumers. Plus, we’re all keen to see if the VOD viewing behaviour here is just like what’s been observed in Europe and the US – that linear viewing actually consumes the bulk of video consumption online. That and many others. The journey continues.

When TVs are Smarter than Content Aggregators


As if their struggles weren’t enough, apparently it’s now going to be even harder for half the world’s population over fifty to win the battle against obesity. That’s because the new generation of Smart TV’s certainly haven’t made their job easier. Chief weight-loss adversaries include the Samsung L8000, which offers a multitude of Apps and richness in content delivery. Plus, cool Social TV interaction. I had a chance to sample its goodness when we got one in the office recently. Cool apps like Skype (must use with the Freetalk camera) make it great to use for video conferences or virtual classrooms but I also had a chance to sample the app provided by our local newspaper The Star (to see if I could avoid buying a paper copy from now on). No luck. Either the feeds went down or they intentionally want their app’s articles to just have a little more text than the headlines. Okay, maybe they want you to pay for it but it was never made explicit. The app was a tease, plain and simple, with no effort by the app owners to really provide a freshness and low-hanging fruit to port over to either the sale of a full digital copy or in-app purchase to full version.

Granted, it is probably easier to monetize video content on Connected TVs than other OTT solutions like tablets or the PC. And broadcast operators have it easier. The Netflix App is straightforward and delivers the same content. Non-broadcast media companies will find more challenges getting their Apps to be adopted and to monetize what is essentially still a new platform for them.Still, is this for a want of trying? If you can’t make a decent proposition on a Smart TV, don’t. Find a strategy or avoid the space and the hit to your reputation from a dead app. Given that app stores are getting noisier, you’ll just be adding to that. So get a product managers now and give him/her a mandate to make Connected TVs more compelling to a paying audience.

And once you do, avoid partnering up with Weight Loss centres. That’ll be a losing business for sure.

What keeps Pay TV ahead? It’s simple

Just putting aside all this talk about platform and technology for one moment, what with all the doomsayers’ talk of cord-cutting, the new year is really time to put Pay TV’s future in context. What really keeps us in the commander’s seat is content. It’s what we’re good at. Somehow, we seem to often make it difficult to see things that easily. But it’s also, really, what the consumer wants in the first place.

My last two favourite TV dramas are The Wire and Mad Men, by HBO and AMC, respectively. In terms of story and setting both couldn’t be further apart from each other. Baltimore’s current drug gangs and port authority workers are poles apart from the well-heeled 1960s Madison Avenue pitchmen. But both share an incredible ability for vivid story-telling from the creators, with a sense of drama and detail that excites and attracts with hypnotic ease. Thanks to The Wire, I bought the companion book and am a new fan of George Pelecanos novels. Thanks to Mad Men, I have the season box sets on Blu-Ray, just to marvel at behind-the-scenes goodies in their HD glory. Without the risk-taking of acclaimed channels like HBO and AMC, they may never have actually seen the light of day, let alone make the critcs’ ‘great’ list or win all those Emmys and Golden Globes.

The Wire creator David Simon probably sums up what Pay TV channels (and the business in general) has to say about its style of storytelling: “And if you decided, at any point – as many an early viewer of The Wire did – to change the channel, then so be it. But on HBO, nothing but the stories themselves was for sale and therefore – absent the Ford trucks and athletic shoes – there is nothing to mitigate against a sad story, an angry story, a subversive story, a disturbing story.” Simon goes on to elaborate that “The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way, to slow themselves down and pay attention, to immerse themselves in a way that the medium had long ago ceased to demand.”

And that’s what creates the premium content that continues to be absent on free-to-air. All Pay TV needs to do is to continue to exclusively deliver such premium content and keep it exclusive for as long as possible. Television filmmakers will no doubt continue their march to this platform as the preferred stage to develop great dramas.

Till that stops, there’s no reason to cut any kind of cord.

Google Goes After The Big Guns

Broken just weeks ago is the stunning news that Google is possibly going to move into the Pay TV industry. The Big Guns like DirecTV and Dish network have probably been shifting uncomfortably in their Philip Starck executive chairs as the rumour spreads like wildfire across the online community. It coincides with the launch of the impressively high-speed Google Fibre in Kansas City, Missouri and across the river to Kansas City, Kansas too.

Frankly, I don’t know which is more ambitious. Google Fiber or a Google Pay TV product. With the former, the thought of creating Fiber-To-The-Home networks is prohibitively expensive unless you’re a telco driven to doing it to offer content services as well. America’s vast distance make this a great hurdle for Google, let alone any company attempting it. But a Google Pay TV business seems far more likely to benefit from this initiative as the Search Engine giant could deploy its YouTube service on top of a STB device, add Android Market apps and then unleash the benefits of Search within such an eco-system.

This could make for one of the more compelling products when it is fully-launched. Stay tuned.