IPTV/VoD: The open fourth platform

Rome wasn't built in a day...

The immediate way to populate IPTV platforms with content is to use the sea of back-catalogue archive material that sits gathering dust in broadcasters' cupboards and that which is on the internet. Normal broadcasting convention dictates that the only content available is what is scheduled for transmission rather than the full breadth of everything that has ever been produced. There is a larger commercial benefit to media companies in digitising their archives as it means what had normally reached the end of its shelf-life can be still generate money.

The economics of digital distribution mean that on-demand platforms can offer a range of content that older incumbents can never hope to match unless they decide to offer IPTV as well. Allowing people to innovate almost guarantees a wave of creative new services and content created by third party developers and brands that is unstoppable – user-generated content (UGC) also makes a massive contribution that cannot be ignored.

We all know content is king, and an open platform means truly unlimited content from all over the planet. Tens of thousands of TV and radio channels, hundreds of thousands of movies and TV programmes, vaults of music tracks and videos, thousands of flash movies and web applications and tens of thousands of games. Let’s build an international multimedia network that anyone can add their own channels and content to that can join together any type of IPbased service with any other. If we combine truly universal access with the ability to access niche content from the most specific of genres, and make it simple enough for a child to use, there is nothing that any existing TV platform can do to match it except join in.

The vested interests of dinosaurs and those that work for them would mean they would have you believe that the only type of content that people want is football, movies and sex. Not so. Yes, they are extremely popular, which is why they are so highly fought over, but they are not the be all and end all of television even if the conventional rules of popularity still apply regardless of the technology they operate within. This is the only world these people know. The people that repeat this trite rubbish tend to have very little comprehension of on-demand systems or acceptance of change.

IPTV is seen as a serious threat to them so they play the infamous and highly effective FUD game ("fear, uncertainty and doubt"), in order to maintain control and feed precious egos that would suffer should their lack of knowledge come to be known. After the latest movies (which are in short supply and are drip fed), the most popular content for on-demand services are porn, music videos and back catalogue TV programmes. Ask anyone you know what they would watch if they could – the chances are most will say some bizarre bmovie or old TV-series they miss.

Just imagine how history would have panned out if Churchill took people's advice and shut up, or if Bill Gates decided in advance that IBM would never buy his operating system – where we are now is the same situation as there are critics galore claiming they see a bleak future this whole IPTV craze. The best and most revolutionary ideas are defiant and disruptive, and so is the case with IPTV. Creating an open platform is about as defiant and disruptive as you can get, which is why there will be massive resistance until the market forces mean incumbents have to adapt just to survive.

Offering vertical niche content is one way to slowly build many unique audiences that can be consolidated at a later date into something much bigger. Niches are something that big boys can’t offer because their economics don't allow it – it's strategically prudent to attack your enemy where his defences are weak as it helps you to find a way to invade and poison the core.

But we need balance when it comes to offering such a breadth of content, primarily being the questions of how viewers find their way around these huge libraries and how we make sure children don't access unacceptable material. The internet is the wild west of the content world – the openness of the platform and the ability of anyone to publish information means there are very few effective controls on who can access what.

Bringing the openness of the internet to TV requires forethought and a structure for tiered access with PIN codes and age ratings. These in themselves won’t stop everything, but they will be an important first step. Security for people is just as important (if not more so) as it is for systems and data.

As 30 seconds browsing the internet shows, not all content is presented too well, and that is putting it lightly. Sky has a very strict QA procedure for red button applications on their platform which is colloquially known as SSSL ("triple SL"), which is at the other end of the scale.

Reaching for truly universal access and lowering barriers to entry means that there is no amount of support staff that will be able to cross-check every piece of content put out, and we don’t want to be policing every little thing either.

Preserving quality is a crucial principle and a massive commercial risk – not everything is going to be good, nor will it all play by the rules. On systems with simple navigation, its imperative is to do as much work for the subscriber as possible at the back or head-end transmission centre so they can move around easily and spend their money liberally.

The answer to this particular problem relies on using community recommendation and rating schemes that use popularity as a guide to what to display on people’s screens, filtered through their personal preferences. For those that doubt, Google is based on popularity, as are the music charts.

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