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.
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.
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.
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.
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.