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July 2006 Archives

[Updated: the link now points to a version that includes the graphics contained in the print version of the article]

This month's issue of Broadcast Engineering magazine contains an article I wrote for them while I still worked for IBM. The article discusses some critical things to consider when planning for digital asset management (DAM) within broadcasting. As the article says, the road to DAM is paved with good intentions but most DAM projects never realize their full potential.

Bite... just right!

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I'm a big fan of Bite TV, even though I admit I never watch it. Well, ok, almost never. Although I'm not part of the core demographic that Bite is targeting (18-34 year-old males), still, what red-blooded male could resist their Miss Hooters Canada 2006 coverage? But what I am really a fan of is Bite's business model. The 14-month old operation is probably unique in the Canadian media landscape in that it is a company that was built from the ground up with new media in mind, yet at the same time is a player in the traditional (or 'old') media world, having a category 2 specialty channel license from the CRTC. As Jeffrey Elliott, the President and CEO of Bite Television Inc., told me, "It [new media] is built into our DNA".

Perhaps it's a surprise that Jeffrey Elliott is the driving force behind Bite TV. He's a middle-aged, second-generation broadcaster. He's a graduate of Ryerson's Radio and Television Arts program from the days when that program focused on traditional broadcasting. His pedigree includes time as a senior executive at Alliance Atlantis and Netstar. Yet Elliott is obviously not your conventional broadcaster nor is he mired in traditional technology (his wife calls him "Captain Gizmo"). At a recent lunch, we spent much of the time talking about Slingbox and other gadgets. What gives Elliott an edge is that he combines conventional broadcast knowledge with a new media vision.

Elliott and his partners spent a couple of years developing the Bite concept, long before it hit the 'air'. What makes Bite so special (and probably unique) is that it holistically embraces both traditional and new media, delivering content through a digital TV station, wireless mobile broadcasting, the internet and video-on-demand. Beyond those distribution channels, through which they can monetize their content, they freely distribute some of their content to such sites as MySpace and YouTube and use the viral nature of these sites and their audiences to do their marketing fort them.

What's special about the content Bite offers, and the obvious inspiration for the name, is that the content is 'bite-sized'. The audience targeted by Bite spends more time online than they do watching conventional TV. These consumers are well known for their multi-tasking tendencies. Bite's slogan "Where A.D.D. is A.O.K." reflects the fact that this consumer isn't oriented to 30- or 60-minute program viewing. And, of course, the nature of mobile viewing lends itself to short-form content much better than it does to traditional longer-form programming. Bite's content is perfect for at-home internet viewing, mobile consumption, and even for a quick-fix hit on a conventional TV set.

Bite is a serious business, but it doesn't make the mistake of portraying an outwardly serious image. Their whole presence, and indeed much of their content, reflects an irreverent attitude, perfectly in sync with an audience that isn't looking for 'establishment'-produced content. Bite's content model is "sexy, edgy and irreverent". Their programming schedule is a mix of user-generated content, content produced in-house, and acquired content. Bite wants to empower their viewers to be content creators and, to that end, makes their studio facilities available to media students.

Bite's short-form content can't be mixed with the traditional 30-second commercial spot. Recognizing that, Bite worked with Molson to create custom short ad spots just for Bite. In Bite's irreverent style, their web-page identifies their sponsors with the phrase "Sponsors - they pay for this crap!" On the internet, Bite had a click-through rate of 13% in a recent campaign, well beyond the typical 4-5% rate. Elliott attributes that to the ability to target their specific (and, as it happens, tech-savvy) demographic with relevant advertising content. Elliott feels that conventional broadcasters and, for the most part, the advertising community, don't yet understand the potential impact of alternate media. But, he says, "there's going to be a break-away online hit. Someone is going to create a show, a series, that is totally off the radar, and it will become one of those things that will take off". When that happens, Elliott says, it will be "a wake-up call" for those industries. That, I think, will lead to a stampede of others to try to get to where Bite is today.

Bite... the future of TV.
Although it's hard to imagine now, in the early days of personal computers sound capabilities didn't exist (of course, neither did hard drives and the displays were monochrome!). Technically, the computer always had a tiny little speaker that could emit beeps, but that was about the extent of it. It wasn't until the late '80s that add-on sound cards became commonly available, though only some owners bothered to install them. There really wasn't a compelling need for sound -- nor was there a lot of sound-enable functionality available. And, of course, the operating systems of the day provided only limited support for sound. By the mid-to-late '90s, integrated sound capabilities became commonplace and today I'd be very surprised to see a new non-server computer being sold that didn't have this feature. Of course, contemporary operating systems provide complete support for sound.

Today, TV tuner cards (and external USB devices) are becoming more and more common. Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) version of its operating system provides integrated support for such devices, though it is only generally available as a pre-load from computer vendors who install it together with the necessary TV tuner hardware (installed add-on cards or integrated componentry) on their machines. Many of the machines sold by Hewlett-Packard, for example, are MCE machines including many of their laptop models.

The consumer editions of Microsoft's new Vista version of Windows provide integrated support for TV tuners. This means that consumers won't need to have MCE in order to make use of TV tuner capabilities. This wide-spread support across Windows for TV tuners signals Microsoft's belief that TV-enabled computers are the way of the future. Of course, MS has a vested interest in this -- they want their software to be the media hub in the home.

Given that Vista will provide TV tuner support, I think we're likely to see a repeat of the sound card experience and we will see a shift toward integrated TV tuner capabilities as standard equipment on all new PCs. In five years' time, the idea of a non-TV-enabled personal computer might be as foreign to us as the idea of a monochrome and sound-less PC is today.
When we talk of radio we are usually referring to the communications medium (sound broadcast to a receiver via radio waves), the receiver itself (a stationary or mobile radio set) or the content (radio programming). In discussing the latter, the content, that we tend to be unambiguous. If we listen to a song on the radio, we say that we are listening to the radio. When we listen to the same song on a CD or as an MP3 file, we do not say we are listening to the radio. It we listen to a recorded version of a radio program, we are likely to refer to it by its format (MP3) or as a 'podcast'. It's clear, then, in our minds and in our conversation, that the scope of the word radio is limited to that medium and the message - but only when that message is conveyed by that medium. Of course, the obvious exception to what I've just said is internet radio. In the case of internet radio, we are using an alternate communications medium (internet protocol (IP) packets) and a different receiver (some sort of IP-enabled device, most commonly a computer). Nonetheless, we are clear in how we express our relationship to this new version of radio: "I am listening to radio over the internet" (not "I am listening to the internet"). If we listen via the internet to a program streamed by a conventional radio broadcaster, we would call it a radio program. However, the same content, if streamed or downloaded as a discrete element, becomes a podcast or MP3 file in our vernacular. If it's being streamed as part of a continuous music stream, we think of it as an online music [streaming] service, not radio. The term "radio", then, is used in clear and generally unambiguous ways.

The usage of the word "television", on the other hand, has been getting muddier and muddier as time goes by. In the beginning, the sole delivery mechanism for television was via over-the-air radio frequency (RF) waves from a station's transmitter to a viewer's home antenna. From there, the signal was delivered to a single receiver (the TV set). TV was the medium; TV was the message; TV was the device.

Along came cable TV, where multiple antennae at the cable company's headend replaced the consumer's own antenna. The signals collected (aggregated) at the headend were retransmitted to the consumer over the cable company's network. Today cable companies acquire their signals in a variety of ways (antenna, satellite, fibre optics) and the retransmission is shifting from analogue to digital, but the basic concept remains the same: cable TV replaces the antenna in the consumer's home. Satellite TV is functionally equivalent. Similar means are employed by the satellite operator to collect and aggregate the content. That content is then beamed up to a satellite which, in turn, transmits the content back to earth. Like cable TV, satellite replaces the home antenna. Along with the wide-spread adoption of cable and satellite, we've also seen a proliferation of TV sets within the home. Today, both cable and satellite offer a vast array of content that would never be available to viewers who only had a home antenna, either because the signal in question doesn't reach their antenna due to geographic limitations or because, as is the case with many digital stations, there is no over-the-air broadcast of the content to begin with. Nonetheless, TV remained the medium, the message and the device. And, until very recently, that was pretty much the state of television: a signal, received either over the air, by cable, or by satellite for subsequent delivery to a fixed-location TV set.

Of course, we've long had VCRs, and with them the ability to record TV content for subsequent viewing. VCRs introduced a minor disruption in the flow, but they haven't fundamentally changed the transmission mechanisms or the devices upon which we eventually view the content. If we bought the same content on tape (for example, a season of Friends episodes) we might, when watching the tapes, say that we are watching Friends, or that we are watching a tape, or... that we are watching TV. Compare that to listening to a CD - in that case, we would never say we were listening to the radio. Why? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

The first reason is that recorded music pre-dated radio. With the introduction of radio, recorded music was broadcast for the first time, but the recorded music itself was, and continued to be, available in its own right. TV content, on the other hand, was born for the most part with the television (the medium) and that content was, for the longest time, only available by way of that medium. Only within the last 15 years or so has it become possible to "own" TV content as a discrete element that existed outside of the TV set. Consequently, for 40 years I Love Lucy was a TV show, it was TV content, it was always very closely associated with the medium for which it was created. Today I can watch an I Love Lucy DVD on a stand-alone DVD player - no TV set or transmission involved - yet the experience remains that of "watching TV".

The other reason is because how we think about our audio devices has evolved over time but that's not the case for television. In the early days of audio components in the home folks talked of listening to the phonograph or, perhaps, the wireless. These were separate, disconnected components. When we first interconnected them, via what came to be known as the "hi-fi" and was subsequently displaced by the ubiquitous "stereo", we identified what we were listening to either by the medium ("the radio", "a record", "a tape") or the device ("the receiver", "the tuner", "the turntable", "the tape deck"). Sometimes we would say we were listening to the "hi-fi", or, now, "the stereo". These devices have a distinct name (hi-fi / stereo) that is different than any of the components they connected; they have a distinct role as a audio switching and amplification device.

The modern TV is very different that that of yore. Previously, the TV set included a tuner, a display device (the picture tube), and an internal amplifier and a speaker for sound reproduction. When we first added VCR functionality to our homes, we didn't introduce a new switching device the way we did with the hi-fi/stereo. Rather, we piggy-backed on the existing connection (possibly a built-in cable connection or a matching transformer) and the TV remained a dumb appliance. The VCR, in fact, was the switching device. Over time, the TV set did evolve and came to incorporate multiple input connections and it took on the switching function. But - and this is where TV differs from the audio world - we still called this new enhanced device a TV set. Consequently, we are "watching TV" whether we are watching 'broadcast' television, a video tape or a DVD. So, when we say we are listening to the radio, we generally mean just that - we are listening to a radio broadcast on a radio device. We don't say we are listening to the radio when we are in fact listening to a CD. However, when we say we are watching TV we may mean one of many different things. Perhaps if the leap from stand-alone TV set to switching-capable audio-video entertainment device been more dramatic, as was the case in the audio world with device integration occurring only with the introduction of new built-for-purpose hardware, we would now have a name that accurately describes (or at least differentiates) the device from the medium in the TV world. But we don't. So, while radio refers to a transmission medium, a reception device, and to the specific message that travels between transmitter and receiver, TV has a much less-clear definition. It refers to a transmission medium, a reception device, and a specific message that travels between transmitter and receiver. However, it also often refers to any content viewed on a TV set. More confusing yet, we now tend to refer to any video content on any video device as TV.
Take a 'mobisode' broadcast to a cell phone as an example. By any traditional standards, the cell phone is not a TV set. Arguably, as well, the transmission isn't a TV transmission since it does not use any of the conventional TV transmission mechanisms. As for the content itself, what make this TV? The content shares similar properties to TV in that it is comprised of both an audio and video signal, and it may in fact be content that is shown on TV as well. But what if it isn't? What if this is content that is produced exclusively for the mobile device? Well, certainly we've adopted the practice of referring to such content as TV - and perhaps justifiably so.

So what about the internet? Certainly any content that was produced for television that is subsequently consumed on the internet is still television. What if that content resides side-by-side with home videos at any of the many content aggregation sites such as myspace.com, YouTube or even iTunes Video. Does that mean that the famous video of Bowiechick playing with her new webcam constitutes TV? Having been uploaded to myspace and YouTube, it now co-exists in cyberspace with other uploaded content including commercial television content. Other than the original intent for which they were created, such content is more alike than different. And if Bowiechick's video aired first on America's Funniest Home Videos, would it then have a greater claim to being television even though the content was identical? What if it was available on myspace first, then aired on AFHV? Does its status change such that it now becomes TV but wasn't before?

Clearly, the definition of what constitutes TV is anything but clear. It's a transmission medium, a device, a term for a specific type of audio-video content, as well as a generalized term for audio-video content. I may "watch TV on my cellphone", but I don't "watch my cellphone". Likewise, I may "watch TV on the internet" but I don't "watch the internet". I'd sound redundant, though, if I were to say "I am watching TV on my TV" but how else do you accurately describe the experience of watching a television broadcast (as opposed to, say, a movie DVD) on a standalone TV set and differentiate that from, say, watching a mobisode on my cellphone? Gone are the days when simply "watching TV" was an unambiguous description of any activity. Today, TV is the medium, TV is the message... TV is the experience. Our definition of TV must be broad, but we must also qualify carefully what we mean when we speak of TV to ensure we are clear on which 'TV' we are discussing.

If the deal is real...

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So what does it mean if Bell Globemedia acquires CHUM?

Well, first and foremost, we have to ask: is this (merely) an expansion of holdings or a consolidation of networks? In The Future of Television in Canada report (IBM Global Business Services), I predicted that we'd see consolidation in the television space. And since BGM doesn't currently have any radio holdings, that's one area where we won't see consolidation from this deal.

CHUM brings a history of innovation and multi-platform programming to the mix.

CHUM, too, is less vulnerable to disintermediation than CTV today due to CTV's high dependence on foreign (U.S.) programming.

Obviously, there's some overlap. CHUM has a strong music TV presence with Much, while BGM (via CTV) has the nascent (and unconventionally implemented) MTV Canada.

No doubt the CRTC will want to attach numerous conditions to this... it will be very interesting to see what happens, especially in light of the timing of this as it coincides with the new techonlogy and TV reviews.