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Comcast Bulks for Baltimore Ad Trial

An "addressable advertising" trial the ad sales arm of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is prepping for the Baltimore area will be bigger and bolder than the project the operator recently wrapped up in Huntsville, Ala. (See Comcast Advances With Targeted Ads.)

While the earlier trial, where Comcast teamed with OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV), involved about 8,000 digital subs, the Baltimore effort, with Invidi Technologies Corp. (see our profile), will include about 10 times that number, according to Paul Woidke, the senior vice president of technology at Comcast Spotlight.

The MSO, which is again teaming with Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), expects to launch the Baltimore test sometime in the third quarter.

"It will be a much bigger trial, much more massive in terms of the total number of households and set-top boxes that will be involved," Woidke says. With that added scale, "we can expect to have greater learning with broader demographic groups than we had before."

But conducting a trial in a smaller market with a smaller number of subs was by design. "You don't start off by launching with a manned mission to Mars. You have to do a few other things in space before you go to Mars."

But Comcast's coming mission in Baltimore will also rely on a similar method -- switching ads at the set-top. Under that scenario, multiple ads are delivered to the box in a given spot window, but only the commercial in the batch that's deemed the most "relevant" to the household, based on anonymous demographic data, is sent through to the viewer.

Comcast Spotlight and SMG have not firmed up how many networks will participate in the Baltimore trial. The Huntsville pilot involved eight networks. "It won't be any less, that's for certain. It could go to a dozen or so. It won't be a significant change."

Among some other differences, Comcast's Baltimore system uses Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) set-tops, headends, and the vendor's PowerKEY conditional access system. Comcast's Huntsville system is based on the Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) digital platform. Another technical variation: the OpenTV SpotOn platform used in Huntsville employed "L1" switching, whereby the content and the ads are switched within the same multiplex. Invidi uses "L0" switching, which means the spot is carried in a different multiplex than the primary programming.

Sold on set-top switching?
Although Comcast used set-top switching in Huntsville and will use a variation of it again in Baltimore, that doesn't mean the MSO is dead set on using only this technique as it expands into other trials and, eventually, commercial deployments.

"We have not closed our minds to technologies or to vendors by which addressable advertisements will be delivered to subscribers," Woidke says.

Comcast, and other MSOs, are also expected to take a much closer look at addressable advertising in a switched digital video (SDV) "unicast" environment, which enables individual streams to be sent to individual households. Today, however, cable SDV streams are delivered as a multicast, or to a service group -- generally a few hundred homes or set-top box "tuners."

But cable SDV unicast is probably at least three to five years away.

"In my opinion, we will end up doing addressable advertising through switched digital video unicast, because it happens be my belief that it's the technology which, in the long run, the cable industry will standardize on."

For its part, Comcast has disclosed plans to deploy multicast SDV in 15 percent of its systems this year, following some initial trials in Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Denver area. (See Comcast Spreads the Love and Comcast Reveals SDV Test Beds.) Among other MSOs, Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) already has SDV deployed across the board, and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) has installed, or is in the process of installing, SDV in at least 18 divisions. (See TWC 'Starts Over' in HD .)

"We know that our subscribers are more and more strongly demanding to have control of what they see, when they see it, where they see it, and having control over it while they're viewing it," Woidke says. "The only way that will truly happen with the breadth of programming that we televise is in an SDV unicast environment. But the one that is most readily and mostly deployable right now is switching in the set-top box."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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