A Bold Attempt to Redefine the Broadcast Business at NAB

Just under two years ago, when Charlie Vogt became the head of Harris Broadcast, he came to the new job with a vision formed while working in the IT industry. His basic idea was to move the entire broadcast infrastructure to a software-based “cloud.”

By moving to the cloud, he surmised, everyone will benefit. Broadcasters will face much lower costs, with the era of constantly having to buy new technology coming to an end. Expensive cable installers and costly “truck rolls” to the home to fix every little problem would eventually disappear. In-house programming, ad sales and back-office operations would essentially disappear for operators. Entire networks could be programmed quickly over the Internet by a staffer from a single desktop PC.

Viewers would get their wish of watching anything, anywhere, on any device. They no longer would be saddled with huge costs for channels they don’t watch. They could “pull” any kind of programming on-demand, including a mix of live broadcasts, video-on-demand and pay-per-view.

That futuristic vision has been with us a long time — mainly because it is much easier to understand than it has been to implement. In fact, for years engineers have been stymied over how incredibly complex it is to execute.

Charlie Vogt, CEO Imagine Communications  uses his quarter-century experience in IT as a resource as he plots his company's direction.

Charlie Vogt, CEO Imagine Communications uses his quarter-century experience in IT as a resource as he plots his company's direction.

In the brief time that Vogt has been leader, Harris Broadcast has disappeared. About a year ago, the company was split into Imagine Communications and GatesAir. Imagine is the company dealing with the future of Internet-based broadcasting, while GatesAir is marketing more traditional transmission equipment to radio and television broadcasters. Vogt runs both companies.

At NAB 2015, Imagine will unveil what he says is the next major revolution in television. They call it CloudXtream. In essence, it combines all the programming, management, advertising and back-office systems and moves them to the cloud, which allows media companies to launch and operate new operations with none of the obstacles of the past.

Depending on the operator, interaction with the customer can be as simple as taking a credit card number and issuing a password for authentication. From that, the user can watch anything, anywhere and from any television display platform.

For the first time, Imagine is combining a myriad of new functions in CloudXtream, including a new software-based digital video recorder, which can do “just in time” transcoding of programs for any type of viewing device; and dynamic ad insertion, which makes advertisements for ad-supported programming fit the device and the personal taste of the viewer receiving them.

Imagine Communications was the result of splitting Harris Broadcast into two divisions, the other being GatesAir.

Imagine Communications was the result of splitting Harris Broadcast into two divisions, the other being GatesAir.

“This was my vision when I came here nearly two years ago,” said Vogt. “I was talking about an IT-enabled, software-defined, cloud-based world and here we are in less than two years. I remember sitting in meetings with CBS, ABC and HBO and them asking when are you going to deliver Internet-based à la carte services. Now it’s here. It is all the things for the last 25 years that has helped me have an appreciation for the what the Internet and broadband really does to enable a lot of this technology. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun over the next three to five years.”

Vogt said the biggest change with CloudXtream is the control of the viewing device and the programming is dramatically shifting from the operator to the consumer. “Consumers will have much more control over what, when and where they watch and over the device they use,” Vogt said. “They will determine how much they want to spend based on their own assessment of the content. That is true personalization. We see this as a very cool intersection of social networking, video content and personalization controlled by the viewer.”

Sarah Foss, vice president of product management for Imagine’s business systems, is in charge of the advertising and back-office functions of the system. She said the dynamic ad insertion, or “DAI,” is a game changer that will enable a totally new business model for media companies.

Sarah Foss, VP of Product Management, Imagine Communications.

Sarah Foss, VP of Product Management, Imagine Communications.

“The cloud is the enabler,” Foss said. “We at Imagine are moving all of our solutions into the cloud. Because they inevitably give more functionality, better reliability, greater stability and increased scalability. The first two things that we are launching at NAB are the DVR and ad functionality. We truly believe that in the new world order that the cloud allows content to be packaged appropriately and monetized differently based on the rights you have, where you are and what device you are on.”

Foss differentiated Imagine’s technology from a service like TiVo, which she said uses proprietary hardware and works on a pure subscription basis. “We are working across multiple channels, not on proprietary hardware,” she said. “We are authenticating across different platforms simultaneously and driving it all back to advertising monetization. They are not.”

Imagine’s system uses Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform combined with a group of technologies that Imagine has recently acquired. In February, the company announced the acquisition of RGB Networks, a major step in Imagine’s effort to redefine the way media is delivered, monetized and consumed.

RGB was Imagine’s fourth acquisition in the past year. Like those before it, the transaction improved the company’s experience in video infrastructure, advertising management and workflow solutions. RGB’s staff was on-board with Vogt’s vision and roadmap defined by IP, software and the cloud.

Last year, Imagine introduced Software Defined Workflows (SDW), a service that allows a broadcast facility’s entire workflow to be software-defined; VersioCloud, the first fully integrated IP-enabled cloud playout platform; and Zenium, an advanced workflow management system.

Foss said Imagine’s accumulation of monetization, management and back-office services have been married together to be invisible to Imagine’s customers, who still use their current computer interfaces. The only difference is that the software now operates on the cloud rather than a local computer. Customers license the software from Imagine. There is no physical equipment sold.

“We are not a service provider for this,” Foss said. “We are saying to CBS you used to only manage transmitters. Then you added streams and then headends and it keeps on growing. We are saying all of that is infrastructure that runs your platform. If you put the software that manages all that in the cloud, it becomes incredibly seamless.”

One of the more difficult concepts to grasp about CloudXtream is how flexible it is. It can be used many ways. “The vast majority of our clients want to use it for streaming channels that they can monetize and transcode on-the-fly and verify ads,” said Foss. “Another is to know you have the rights to sell a program on a mobile platform — say an iPad — which may be different from a home TV set. Our potential client is a media company that wants to deliver content to everyone, anyplace, all the time with a blend between subscription and advertising.”

Broadcasters can use the cloud to expand to multiple platforms with advertising and even feed the cloud to their current over-the-air transmitters. Mobile carriers can use the technology to feed mobile devices. New media companies can get into the multichannel channel business at a much lower cost than traditional cable and satellite carriers.

“The uses run the gamut,” said Foss. “It gives clients a way to make money and guarantee they are in rights compliance.” Due to the quickness of creating channels, special programming — for example a day of Easter-related programs — can easily be implemented, as well as any ethic programming.

“In a place like New York City, you can create ethnic channels on the fly and test them inexpensively. If they don’t sell, pull them down,” Foss said. “The cloud is as easy as putting up a web site and pulling it down.”

Cloud technology is being driven by consumers — many of them young people — who now demand the freedom and flexibility to view all forms of media on mobile devices from anywhere. The move is forcing traditional media companies to quickly migrate away from inflexible, proprietary infrastructures and transfer to IP delivery technology.

“It’s shocking how quickly this is moving,” Foss said. “The millennials, who have very few privacy concerns, now have purchasing power and they absolutely want video content on any device. They are willing to engage with the ad right there on the device. This is causing the industry to quickly implement these types of models for this emerging market.”

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