Splicing Local Ads Into Digital Channels: Part 1
by Leslie Ellis // May 19 2003
As subscriber counts for digital cable services continue to rise, so do the reasons for offering local advertisements on digital channels. More boxes mean more eyeballs. More eyeballs mean more potential to attract, say, the ads of the local garden shop to HGTV, or those of the local golf store to the Golf Channel.
Already happening, right?
Alas. As with so many moving parts in the “digital transition,” the old ways don’t blend with the new ways. It turns out that inserting local ads into digital channels isn’t the same as inserting local ads into analog channels.
Here’s one example: The video servers that hold today’s local ads did save cable operators zillions in space and operational expenses, tied up in those cantankerous video tape recorders of yore. Yet, those servers don’t yet splice their contents into the channels of the digital tiers.
That’s because the methods to trigger and launch an ad into a digital channel are still under construction. That brings us to this week’s translation: Digital Program Insertion, or “DPI.” In essence, DPI describes how to splice pieces of digital video into other pieces of digital video – like an ad into a TV show. It grew out of the SCTE’s Digital Video Subcommittee, and straddles two technical standards: ANSI/SCTE 30 and 35 (coffee recommended.)
Understanding DPI requires a brief stroll through past and present workings of analog ad insertion. Remember those “doodley-doot” sounds that used to precede the cutover to the 30-second spots of local advertisers? About 15-20 years ago?
Those four, quickly-uttered beeps, known as “cue tones,” came from individual networks. They conveyed commands to those banks of video tape recorders, telling them to start playing a grouping of 30-second local ads. Near the end of local commercial break, the beeps came again, telling the VTRs to stop, and switch back to the network feed.
After a while, though, the tones became Pavlovian. They taught viewers to walk to the kitchen, or to the bathroom, or to do whatever we do when we don’t feel like watching Big Al repeat that he really does sell carpet cheaper. So, the tones were moved to a spectral area that TVs can’t hear, known as “subcarrier audio.”
That’s pretty much the way it is today, except that the tones cue up the spots housed on video servers, not on VTRs.
Analog cue tones came from the same technology that makes the beeps when you dial digits on your telephone. They’re known as “DTMF tones,” which stands for “Dual Tone Multi-Frequency.”
DTMF tones mean about as much to a digitized, compressed stream of video packets as an orange means to a bicycle. Bits just don’t have the right ears for analog cue tones.
Inserting digital ads into digital programs requires two things, fashioned in principle by the SCTE standards. One is a cue trigger, inserted by a “cue message injector” into the MPEG-2 bit stream. The trigger comes from those digital networks interested in providing local ad avails.
The second is a “splicer,” necessary to find the right places to jump into, and out of, an ongoing digital bit stream, as it makes its traverse from headend, to set-top box.
There is an alternative to DPI, but most technologists greet it with that scrunched up face that says “well, yes, maybe — if you’re rich, or nuts.” It involves taking each incoming digital network back to analog, inserting the ads at the right time, then re-encoding the channel back to digital.
And, for HDTV channels, there is no “going back to analog.” It’s DPI or nothing.
Small handfuls of program networks are starting to work with digital cue tones. An increasing number of equipment manufacturers are springing up around splicers; many will participate in the fifth in a series of tests at CableLabs next week. All of that qualifies as useful momentum.
If it seems like this stuff should’ve happened four or five years ago, recall that the digital viewership ticker started in 1995 — and it started at one. Understandably, advertisers like maximum eyeballs. To them it’s a question of what has more potential: Those two in 10 cable homes watching digital services, or the other eight, watching analog cable?
Nowadays, digital cable subscribership is plowing slowly but steadily into a range that makes it more interesting to advertisers. Even if digital video penetration plateaus at 50%, that’s still about 30 million sets of American eyeballs.
That’s a primer on DPI, and why it registers as “important stuff people are working on in the background.” Next time, more on how digital content gets spliced into digital bit streams.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Set-Tops and July 2006: A Primer
by Leslie Ellis // May 05 2003
Technologists involved in digital set-top policy were doing a happy dance (internally, of course) a week ago, gladdened by the FCC’s decision to relax a technical deadline that would’ve hit, and hit pretty hard, in early 2005.
The language of the FCC decision is tricky, because it starts with a double-negative, and ends with terminology: Cable operators are no longer not allowed to deploy integrated set-tops after January of 2005. Now, they’re no longer allowed to deploy integrated boxes after July of 2006.
Translation: The FCC’s decision means that if you’re a cable operator, you can keep on deploying the types of digital set-tops you’ve been deploying, until July of 2006. Maybe forever, if you show meaningful progress on the work with consumer electronics manufacturers to embed set-top functionality into digital TVs and other wares – otherwise known as “the plug and play agreement.”
The types of digital set-tops cable providers are deploying today are what the FCC calls “integrated devices.” What’s integrated about them is the security — the electronic padlock is inside the plastic housing. Known in tech lingo as “conditional access and encryption,” and productized as the duo of “PODs” and “POD slots,” the padlock protects premium video services, so that only those who pay for them, get them.
In today’s digital set-tops, the padlocks come from two primary suppliers: Motorola, and Scientific-Atlanta. Motorola’s is called “DigiCipher.” S-A’s is called “Powerkey.”
Set-tops deployed after the July 2006 deadline need the padlock on the outside. The box gets a secure receptacle. That’s the “POD slot.” The card goes by “POD.” POD stands for “Point of Deployment,” although rumors abound that cable’s marketers are diligently noodling a replacement name that is hopefully less reminiscent of a horror film.
The NCTA puts the incremental cost at $72, per unit, to incorporate the card and slot. A cost hammer that heavy would almost certainly hit cable customers in the wallet. That’s the rationale driving the need for meaningful progress on plug and play, so as to remove the deadline entirely.
Old Standard, New Deployment
The specifications and standards that make PODs work aren’t new. In two months, three years will have elapsed since the industry, through the CableLabs “OpenCable” effort, met the FCC’s deadline to enable set-tops with separable security for entrance into the retail scene.
However, about as many retailers are stocking cable set-tops with removable security as cable operators are stocking pickled eggs. It just never got off the ground.
If you’re wondering why, answer this question: If somebody put $300 in your pocket, and told you to go crazy at the electronics store down the street, would you buy: a) the DVD player, b) the digital camera, c) the MP-3 gizmo, or d) the cable set-top box with a slot for a removable security card?
However, a standard is one thing. Deploying the fruits of it, in volume, is another. Whether the plan is to prepare for PODs in plug & play devices, like digital TVs, or to prepare for PODs in set-tops, here’s an item from the Department of the Obvious: They’re new. They’re new for operators, and for manufacturers. They’ll need nurturing.
Nurturing differs from one new thing to another. Does the digital scrambling system in the headend have the right accoutrements to shuttle its secrets back and forth with a card, instead of an embedded chip? Does anything change in field installs, or customer care?
And don’t forget this: Is OCAP middleware part of the project?
OCAP, or OpenCable Applications Platform, isn’t discussed in the FCC’s deadline extension, but it warrants discussion. If it is part of the plan, who will write the modules you’ll need? What has to happen in the headend, for handling of OCAP-based applications? Software means ongoing code revisions, which could involve several unaffiliated entities. Are existing organizational structures ready for that, and is there a strategy for handling version control?
Relaxation Doesn’t Mean Relax
Procrastination is a powerful potion. No one knows this better than people who write for a living. We go so far as to consider procrastination a tool of the craft, much in the same way baseball players consider their various talismans tools of luck. Something useful will come out, we hope, right at that moment when the terror hits, and we realize we can’t dally any longer. (Manifestations vary; mine is the suddenly alphabetized spice rack, or the completely reorganized hall closet.)
But this POD thing is the aperture to a new working environment. It’s surrounded by technological foreshadowing — of the “digitally transitioned” world. Getting relaxation on a deadline, with the tacit implication that meaningful progress is anticipated in the meantime, doesn’t mean to relax.
This is an extension delivered with both eyebrows raised, hands on hips, and one foot tapping expectantly on the floor.
Suddenly, three years and change doesn’t seem that far away.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.