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Digital salvation for local cable ads

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Inserting ads into programming earned cable networks more than $3 billion last year, and with the increasing number of digital channels, the opportunity to earn more is enormous.
But not if networks can’t get the ads into the programming. Inserting national ads hasn’t been a problem because they are inserted before programs are digitally encoded for satellite transmission. But getting local ads into the stream is expensive and not a technological slam-dunk.
Until recently, the insertion of digital ads into digital programs required that both first be decoded to analog video. After decoding, the ad was inserted into the program and the combination was re-encoded to digital. This digital-to-analog-back-to-digital process was time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive because it required so much hardware. Plus, the picture quality didn’t always survive.
But the technology has been changing rapidly. Last November, a group of vendors offering key pieces of digital ad insertion technology gathered at the Cable Television Laboratories to test cutting-edge digital program insertion (DPI) technology and to finalize adoption of two insertion standards developed by the Society of Cable Television Engineers.
The standards are DVS-253, a tone trigger that tells the local video server when to play an ad, and DVS-380, a standard for how video servers talk to splicing devices.
Two competitors that provide the servers are particularly important to getting the job done: nCube Corp. and SeaChange International. The two companies offer similar yet different paths to the same result. nCube has been working with Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, and SeaChange has partnered with Cox Communications’ CableRep Advertising, demonstrating its system at Cox’s Phoenix location.
James Radmann, operations and engineering director for Time Warner Milwaukee, which serves more than 400,000 subscribers, has been beta testing the nCube system and is enthusiastic about it. Before nCube’s system was in place, in order to insert an ad on the digital tier, he had to rely on encoders that took up a lot of space and were expensive to buy and maintain. With the nCube system, one computer does all the work. “One computer is inserting 40 streams of digital into analog and 40 streams of digital into digital-all 80 of those out of the same computer,” Mr. Radmann said.
He says his company isn’t looking at this so much as an opportunity for savings-even if it is such an opportunity-but more as a necessity as networks increasingly transmit multiple digital channels as one packet of information. For a local multiple system operator like Time Warner Milwaukee to continue to insert local cable advertising without splitting apart every feed, technology like this is vital.
Joseph Ambeault, director of advertising systems, ITV and broadcast for SeaChange International, said his company can do essentially the same thing-and do it with technology used by 90 percent of the industry with just some software changes.”
SeaChange also has concentrated on maintaining video standards, Mr. Ambeault said. “The thing we spent the most time on was video quality,” he said. “Digital video is compressed. The more you compress, the more you take out. You get to a point where the end result doesn’t look like what you put in at the beginning. We worked for two years to figure out how to preserve digital quality, and we think we’ve done that.”
Paul Woidke, chairman of the committee that developed the industry insertion standards for the Society of Cable Television Engineers, and chief technology officer for AdLink, said digital insertion technology creates advertising opportunities that simply never existed before.
“Chevy can advertise different vehicles in different regions without creating additional space or power requirements, because we don’t have to create one analog and one digital ad. I never tried to put a dollar figure on the value of it, because if this technology didn’t exist, we would never have attempted to do what we are doing.”