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Video services

MIPTV: View From the Other Side

CANNES, France -- MIPTV -- Telecom carriers, infrastructure vendors, and software companies like Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) are all excited about the potential of IPTV and video on demand (VOD), but there's equal excitement from the content side of the fence, as the more than 1,400 exhibitors at this year's MIPTV event in Cannes are showing.

While a handful of the more familiar names from the telecom world, such as Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), and Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453), are here showing off their technology, the vast majority of exhibitors are TV, film, and video content companies, marketing a staggering range of programming. (See Ericsson to Demo Mobile TV.)

Those content firms are looking for buyers, partners, and distributions channels, and during the five-day event there are numerous presentations, discussions, and keynote speeches about the potential of IPTV, streaming video over the Internet, and mobile TV. Basically, the content firms have just had their distribution horizons expanded beyond anything they could have imagined only a few years ago.

But the excitement is tempered by concerns about content rights management, revenue models, contract negotiations, and the near- and long-term future for the program makers, especially the small independents.

Trailing technology
Talking to independent content producers here, it's clear that IPTV is feared as much as it's revered, with the main concerns centered around content distribution rights. "As usual, technology is way ahead of the law," says Lawrence Goebel, president of California-based Imagination Worldwide LLC, one of the thousands of small independents here.

His company is a member of the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA) , which has formed a legal committee to look into the content rights opportunities and pitfalls for its members.

Goebel and other IFTA members say the introduction of Internet-based distributors and telecom service providers creates a conundrum. On one hand it offers a more direct link to content consumers worldwide, compared with the limited potential audiences reached through existing video and TV channel distribution deals. "Perhaps for the first time we might have an almost direct link to the consumer," but if the consumers decide they don't want the content, "that could also be a very humbling experience."

The big issue for Goebel and his ilk, though, is understanding the nature of contracts that include Internet and IPTV distribution rights. Even if the nature of a deal is understood, there's also the unknown financial return. "How much are these deals worth? How do you monetize them?"

Independent content providers are worried they could sign away much more than they realize and could end up helping someone else get rich off their backs.

But while they wait for advice from the legal committee, Goebel and others know that waiting to strike a channel deal with the big studios, while enticing, if it's an option, can also end in disaster: waiting for the big players to do something generally means you've missed the boat, he reckons.

In your interface
Schematic , a company that specializes in developing on-screen content displays and interfaces, showed just how flat and un-engaging many current screen-based video and entertainment interfaces are.

The firm's executive creative director, Dale Herigstad, showed off a deep, 3D-like screen design created for Japanese ISP So-net 's IPTV service that's delivered and managed by software integrated into a set-top box. The initial screen view is split in two -- one half for the current TV channel of choice, the other for a menu of news and information content, all supplied simultaneously over the same broadband connection.

The content is then highlighted and accessed using directional navigation using a TV remote control, with the consumer finding content and menus with a simple up, down, or sideways arrow control.

While the interface is both functional and attractive, there's a catch. Herigstad confirms that the simultaneous content delivery and rich graphics built into So-net's interface require a broadband connection largely unavailable outside Japan and Korea, where fiber and VDSL access networks already provide bandwidth connections of up to 100 Mbit/s.

In other markets, more traditional content interfaces are required, such as the designs Schematic has done for online movie site Vongo (which can only be used by broadband customers with an IP address recognized as being from the U.S.) and the subscription news site CNN Pipeline . What Schematic's design for So-net shows, though, is that the future TV experience will be radically different even from many of the IPTV interface prototypes shown at telecom industry events.

Slingbox heads for Europe
A brief mention for Sling Media Inc. : CEO Blake Krikorian, who is here trying to convince content owners and broadcasters that his Slingbox, which allows people to watch their regular TV channels over broadband connections anywhere in the world on multiple devices, isn't the devil's tool. He said the attitude of many legal people in the broadcasting and content industry was that "because its empowering to the consumer it must be bad!" (See Sling Media: We're Good for Cable.)

He revealed that more than 100,000 units have been sold in the first 9 months of its availability in the U.S., and that a European device will become available sometime in the next two quarters.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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