Category Archives: Broadcast Musings

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.

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.

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.

Censorship Of Entertainment: Is It Still Relevant?

Let’s be clear that this is just as much a business-related view as it is a social one. Censorship in Malaysia has been described by our government as a means to preserve our moral standards and racial stability. This covers all forms of communication and the arts in our country.

However, it remains to be seen whether censorship is really working today. Until the arrival of the internet, consumers really had no choice in this policy. Today, while the so-called mainstream avenues for broadcast entertainment are effectively policed we have to ask ourselves whether this is now redundant because of the prevalence of the internet in our lives. Specifically, customers can easily find the content in our channels through many of the internet’s file-sharing sites. This, in the context of Catch Up TV, makes our attempts to put censored TV content on a website look odd. When you do this with your product, you’re basically driving customers to file-sharing sites as a substitute. Or pirate box-set sellers around town. And its a viable one because they’re willing to wait for the satisfaction of the full, unadulterated show, even if they have to pay a small price.

This is not a plea for the ‘if-you-can’t-beat-them-then-join-them’ solution as it is a reminder to respect the omnipresence and neutrality of the internet. Take HBO’s The Wire as a perfect example. It truly is one of TV’s greatest dramas of all time. On Malaysian TV, its censored version seems almost meaningless to adult viewers. The true portrait of Baltimore’s street gangs remains veiled. And you’ll find lots of its best scenes on YouTube anyway for free. What if we were to make it available online as Catch Up TV without censorship? In the privacy of our computers, tablets and our bedrooms, no child can easily have access to it and, with the appropriate user login-in this can also be effectively controlled. The customer is happy and so will the broadcaster be.

For our government, accepting this fact is really to understand what citizens want and to remain relevant as a government created ‘by the people, for the people.’ In reality, everyone wins because file-sharing will be reduced and the allure of pirate DVDs will surely be reduced too. Everyone wins accept the real criminals. And the money the people are willing to spend right now (because they have no where else to go) can be spent on legitimate fees to content providers who pay the government legitimate taxes. Remember, many people are already doing this with iTunes or Apple TV and a few smart workarounds and this only goes outside the country.

Thus, a smart, controlled easing of censorship has many benefits and it’s time we did a thorough study of its merits. This is really the most important hurdle to overcome before broadcasters can acknowledge the need to make any online viewing experience a viable business.

Astro B.yond IPTV – Dawn of a new Era

We just launched Astro B.yond IPTV two days ago. Fittingly, the new service comes with our powerful tagline of ‘The One And Only Line You’ll Ever Need.’ One fibre link, three amazing services. First you get Astro B.yond, of course. That’s Astro’s HD offering with up to 12 channels in beautiful 1080i. Second, you get the PVR feature so that missing a show is never going to be a problem. Third, you get Video On Demand with some pretty diverse content ranging from Disney to Frank Darabont’s series The Walking Dead. Fourth, you get blazing high speed broadband with speeds up to 30 Mbps. Another offering – voice – will only be introduced sometime mid-year. Add the wi-fi router which currently comes free and you get sharing with other devices in the house. iPhone, iPad, MacBook. You name it. But with that it’s pretty much everything a home needs.

The launch opening gambit

Behind the scenes, it’s been a huge effort by the combined team from Astro and TimedotCom, who provide the fibre network with us. In particular, my team has been steadily testing and publishing various TV titles to our Video On Demand service, my principal scope of work. Our Consumer Technology team as a whole has been working non-stop to really get things going in the past few months, plus three days to get the decoders, TVs and Macbooks ready for the big launch itself. Of all the major product launches this one’s been the biggest and most satisfying to be a part of.

My boss, Shahrul, Director of Consumer Technology. With him is Gadget Nation host Adam Carruthers.

I’ve been tweeting about IPTV being the Game Changer that will transform the Malaysian living room entertainment experience all over again. And I mean it. No more appointment viewing on the TV. YouTube 1080p at blazing speeds. Get a connected TV and your surfing life starts cruising along. Living in Casa Desa means it will be a while before I get it but folks in Mont Kiara, Bangsar and Bukit Bintang will be able to enjoy it.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of Astro B.yond IPTV then visit the site here.

Ripples in a growing pond

I’ve had my fair share of Web TV successes. But for years I often thought about and wondered if I could ever get into IPTV, the area I really wanted to be in. When I joined Astro I didn’t even focus on that but things slowly started opening up. Today, I’m knee deep in Astro’s IPTV roll-out with our partner TIME dotCom Bhd. Working with the various departments is a great joy as we slowly but surely craft our highly-anticipated service. Certainly, working with some of my engineering colleagues has taught me so much.

As I’ve enthused in previous posts, the connected TV is where the future of entertainment lies. It’s success is down to the type of business model chosen. There’s the Apple TV streaming VOD on a pay-per-view basis or there’s the Google TV search-ready version.

Or you can be a pay-TV operator and offer your linear channels and a movie library. Our competitor TM made the move over a year ago but I believe Astro’s foray will set a new benchmark.

If you don’t think second-movers can be success stories then obviously you’ve forgotten about Google itself.

For official news on Astro’s venture simply visit here.

Making History Yet Again

It’s been a proud moment amidst the World Cup tournament as Astro is finally getting a fair bit of notice, not only by the media, but by the trade as well. Never before has any country in Asia been able to stream the World Cup live on web and mobile platforms simultaneously for all 64 matches. And we’re only the second in Asia to stream all live on the web.

I guess 2010 has been the perfect year for it, thanks to the emergence of some new technologies and the maturation of others. In the former, the growth of Conviva as a monitoring tool for live or VOD streaming with granular detail has served us well by allowing us to understand the consumer and potentially even engage with them if they faced a problem.

Our maiden effort with Irdeto has seen us deploy a Silverlight player – known as Astro B.player – that features the SmoothStreaming adaptive bit-rate technology that will help audiences so much more in their viewing experiences.

Then there are the usual things that make for essential Live Streaming success: a good CDN, trusted encoders and a web team to put it all in. Powering it in the middle is my Content Hub team. It’s not an easy task to launch a team almost from scratch but the sweat and toil was worth it. Even as I write this, nine editors and video publishers are hard at work pulling in live footage from two matches (playing concurrently, mind you) and pushing out highlight clips quickly to web and 3G mobile.

They are backed up by a daytime team of web producers and overseen by me. The great thing is that they’ve managed to be trained in a short time and picked up new skills as they go, and contributing individually to some excellent team camaraderie.

For the full OnScreen article of Astro’s success, you can read it right here.