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Forget House of Cards: TV providers need a House of Steel

7 September 2017
Forget House of Cards: TV providers need a House of Steel

While I by no means condone the Machiavellian tactics undertaken by Congressman Frank Underwood to become president in Netflix’s award-winning drama House of Cards, the TV series itself is a lesson in how to make compelling TV for today’s audiences.

It’s no secret that the tectonic plates underpinning the traditional TV market are shifting. And it’s a shift that’s disrupting a $100 billion market. Put simply, the TV market is now a free for all, characterised by intense competition and a tsunami of M&As.

This evolving market is being shaped by the convergence of new technologies and the consumer power wielded by Generation “I” (for the ‘i’ of iPhones and iPads, and for the capital “I” of Individuals): those consumers, often referred to as Millennials or Gen Y, who grew up with the internet. People who are taking control of their media, and choosing more personalised services with more tailored content options.

While some traditional pay-TV providers are partnering with telcos (think AT&T/DirectTV, and Vodafone/Kabel Deutschland) to compete with tech behemoths such as Netflix, Amazon, YouTube TV and now Facebook Watch, media giants such as Disney, Viacom and Time Warner (HBO, CNN, WB) are facing their own challenges in the battle for eyeballs as they navigate the choppy waters of the B2C model – often for the first time.

Against this backdrop, many content owners and media companies are faced with a dichotomy: a lot of viewers want to consume their content, yet they do not have the resources required to support a lot of viewers. Take HBO for example: during the premiere of the 7th season of its most popular show, Game of Thrones, the HBO Go and HBO Now apps crashed due to heavy traffic. The social backlash was immediate, even though HBO fixed the problem midway through the premiere.

In the competition between media companies, service providers, tech companies, and aggregators, everybody is looking to develop the next generation of ‘must have’ IPTV – only we will not call it Internet or IPTV or online TV anymore, just TV. In the same way that every TV and every phone today are ‘smart’, every TV experience will soon be connected.

Any business wanting to succeed in this disrupted market must build their service on top of strong foundations: in this case, four pillars. Each pillar is so crucially important that if one is missing or too weak, the entire house comes crumbling down.

The content pillar
No surprises here, content is of course king.
451 Research found in a recent survey that 33 per cent of online TV and streaming subscribers chose their platform based on the original content offered, and that 50 per cent of consumers chose availability of movies as their top reason for settling on a given streaming service.

Over the past few years, the growing success of streaming-only shows like Orange is the New Black (Netflix), Transparent (Amazon), and The Path (Hulu) show that these services are Hollywood’s new showcase. Online content has gone a long way from the webisodes and web series of the dot-com bubble era.

So if you own content, make sure all of it is available. And if you don’t, make sure to either develop original programmes or get rights to it. And of course make sure that your platform allows you to support all types of content (live, on-demand, time-shifted) and allows you to keep the content offering fresh and personalised so that consumers can easily find and consume the content they want.

The infrastructure pillar
In the past most pay-TV operators relied on managed networks to reach subscribers’ homes, while broadcasters relied on on-premise hardware to distribute their signal from local broadcast stations. Delivering TV in this era, over non-managed IP networks, requires a complete re-working of the broadcast infrastructure.
Fortunately, large investments in new hardware and software are not necessary thanks to the cloud.

A public cloud model is robust and provides scalability and elasticity, giving service providers the ability to increase or decrease capacity to better support traffic spikes and heavy usage.
Think about it as the TV cloud. Anybody wanting to play in this market will need to either build a TV cloud or license the capacity from a vendor who has built one. It’s the only way to guarantee availability and quality of service to millions of consumers. Plus leasing a share of a previously built TV cloud is the only way to slash costs dramatically.

The software pillar
Pay-TV operators have traditionally invested heavily in proprietary and expensive network and broadcasting hardware because there was no viable alternative. A move to the cloud shifts the focus away from expensive hardware to software – as is the case in so many industries today.

However, putting TV software components together is not for the faint hearted. It is one thing to be able to connect a satellite dish to a transcoder or monitoring server, but an entirely different thing to normalize content or metadata on the cloud or to develop and approve an app in the app store. Apps for set-top boxes, smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, and browsers are just the tip of the software iceberg, which goes deep, when talking about the possibilities with the cloud.

Software facilitating a next-gen TV service must also include metadata normalisation, user management, entitlement and access control, security and digital rights management (DRM), audience measurement and analytics, integration with commerce and monetisation platforms, mobile device management, self-help portals, and much more. There is no way around it, the software necessary to satisfy consumer demand includes millions of lines of code that orchestrate dozens of software components.

There are only a handful of software vendors who own and continue to develop these types of software. The traditional hardware providers have failed to turn themselves into TV software shops and are now paying a big price if they aren’t exiting the market altogether.

The future of TV, like a lot of other things, is in software, and it is fundamental to get the right software in place from the right vendor. From the four pillars perspective, software is the load-bearing pillar.

The service pillar
Service in this context has two flavours. First, there are one-time services necessary to customise the software, integrate it with Operation Support Systems and Business Support Systems (OSS/BSS), localise it and brand it. Second, there’s the need for ongoing services to manage the content, infrastructure, and software to ensure a continually high-quality offering. The goal is a true TV-as-a-service offering, provided by a vendor. This frees up content owners and pay-TV operators to focus on what they do best – creating content in the case of the former, and marketing packaged triple or quad play consumer offerings in the case of the latter.

When dealing with any third party, the service you receive is critical. Choose a company with a professional services team flexible enough to deploy the platform best suited for your budget and needs, and an operations team that can help operate it with the reliability you deserve.

A full house
There will be winners and losers as the TV industry embraces a new normal. When the dust settles, only the businesses built on four strong pillars will remain standing.
Given the complexity involved, partnering with a third party for help in launching a new service or modifying an existing one is vital for all but a handful of providers such as Netflix and YouTube. These companies have invested billions of dollars each and have amassed teams of over 1,000 engineers to build their offerings in-house – something that others will struggle to emulate.

I am tempted to finish, in the immortal words of Frank Underwood, by adding that “I couldn’t possibly comment” on what will happen next…But of course I have and I will. The reality is that to compete with Netflix’s House of Cards, the rest of the industry must develop houses of steel.

By Shay David, co-founder, president and general manager, media and telecom, Kaltura

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