Tools Keep Web Content Flowing

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

In its early years, Internet Broadcasting had a mere five station Web sites, and managing content and the network was a fairly simple affair.

In the space of a few months in mid-1998, however, the network exploded to 50 sites, and founder, CEO and President Reid Johnson realized the company needed to develop a way to manage the content and the network.

Using best-of-breed existing technology and creating proprietary technology became an essential part of Internet Broadcasting’s national online strategy.

“There are two major challenges in what we do,” explained Chief Technology Officer Dave Abbott, who joined the company right after it launched its third Web site. “The first thing is operating a network. When you have 79 Web sites in a network, you have to be able to share content between them, and you have to be able to have a wall and hide content between them.”

The ability to hide, limit or exclude content is important to the numerous duopolies the company operates as well as to the different levels of licensure that various stations enjoy with The Associated Press.

To handle the complexities of managing content, Mr. Abbott realized the solution had to be created in-house. “If you look at off-the-shelf systems, you might be able to deal with 10 or 16 stations, but these systems couldn’t handle the number of station Web sites we have, with all the different rules from market to market,” he said. “If you layer on top of that all the sales restrictions, it gets cumbersome. Plus, we’ve had over 10,000 advertising campaigns a year. We can’t spend a lot of money to create a reasonably inexpensive ad campaign.”

To create a synergy of tools, workflow and controls, Mr. Abbott said, the proprietary content management system “isn’t rocket science,” but is efficient, responsive and flexible. “This is total elegance in execution,” he said.

And providing the same kind of content management is a moving target perhaps best suited for homegrown software. “The sophistication of our partners and advertisers has taken a big leap forward,” Mr. Abbott said. “Being able to keep up with those demands in a timely and economical manner is a big challenge.”

The other challenge is delivery. “In the news world you’re judged by being there when the big event happens,” he said. “If [Enron CEO] Ken Lay dies, or there’s a huge wildfire, there’s a huge increase in traffic. That was one of our biggest challenges early on: How do I economically find a way to handle those big spike events without overprovisioning myself and bearing all the costs to do that?”

The answer was, and is, Akamai, a leading content distributed network that handles Web traffic for a wide range of corporations. Akamai works by creating a large network of servers-18,000 in nearly 1,000 networks in 70 countries-that can handle the on-demand flow of interactive Web sites. Akamai’s distributed network continues to enable Internet Broadcasting to reliably host the unpredictable traffic inherent in the very nature of news coverage, without having to go to the major expense of growing and maintaining its own IT infrastructure.

“We really pursued the relationship with Akamai when we started to work with the NBC stations and got more established with it when we started producing the Olympics for NBC,” said Mr. Johnson. “We got so big that we realized because of growth and scale, we had to partner with someone who could handle our needs.”

In fact, the economics of Internet Broadcasting rests on its technological foundation. “My strategy is simple,” said Mr. Abbott. “I have a reasonably small staff and infrastructure here, and let the people who are really good at distributing content do the commodity work. We do what we’re really good at, which is content management.”

To illustrate the power of the distributed network, Mr. Abbott gives the example of the flooding in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when local station Web site WDSU.com spiked at nearly 4 million visits per day, 20 times the normal level of Web traffic.

“We never went down,” he said. “Our sites get faster because of the nature of the caching system. The way we construct the pages, the corresponding wave of traffic doesn’t impact the publishing system at all. Akamai acts like a shock absorber to us, and allows us to do what we do best.”

Mr. Abbott pointed out that, on its own, a local TV station wouldn’t enjoy the synergies of a network operation. “What happens when, for example, you have floods in Lancaster, Pa.?” Mr. Abbott asked. “What are the chances that the local ISP could serve that traffic? Unlikely. A small market can’t monetize the technical employees. It’s hard to bring it together at a local station with any level of sophistication.”

Evolving With Users

Internet Broadcasting is able to spread the cost of developing its custom-built content-management tools across the network, making it economical for small and large local stations.

“We’re a turnkey system for [small stations], and their cost of entry is low,” Mr. Abbott said. “At the same time, the larger markets get the same benefits. The larger systems have some form of automation, and we can also integrate with that.”

“New styles of journalism” evolve, he said. “We’re very cognizant of new trends, such as citizen journalism and getting people able to be interactive with search and commenting on stories.”

He said he wants to build the one-to-one user relationship to create a relevant, localized experience in news, weather and everything else associated with the local TV station brand.

“We’re working in tandem with what the TV stations are doing to respond to this changing landscape,” he said. “We are going to provide the tools that will provide the end user with the best local experience they can have, from weather to traffic. We want to make sure our tool set matches the needs for all those markets.”