HD Today: Direct Delivery
Posted Aug 1, 2005

There's been a lot of talk in magazines about distribution of HD content, focused primarily on a few select pieces of hardware. But there are rumblings of change that will cause a dramatic shift in the way video gets distributed. Are you ready?

I've worked on a PBS cooking series for eight seasons now. A few years back, we were the first to record an entire season live to hard drive using off-the-shelf hardware and nine external hard drives. It greatly sped up editing, but in the end, the shows were still mastered to tape. They went to an uplink facility, bounced off a satellite at a scheduled date and time, and all the stations that wanted to air the show hit record on their downlinks at that scheduled time. The entire distribution chain is based on fixed schedules.

Viewers interested in the show are limited to the version we edit for PBS. It follows strict guidelines on sponsorship, length, frame size, frame rate, etc. Viewers rely on their local PBS station to carry the show, which it may or may not. Viewers either have to sit down and watch it at its appointed time or time-shift it with a VCR or Personal Video Recorder (PVR). It has worked like this for many years.

But imagine you could create a show, even with your new HD gear, edit it as long or as short as you want, include commercials or sponsorships, and publish it on your own schedule to an audience that signs up for direct delivery—perhaps even subscribes!

The music industry already is undergoing dramatic changes. The shift to Internet delivery is far a more significant change than the shift from "brick and mortar" stores to Internet retailers that preceded it. We are finally dealing with commerce for the content itself, independent of the packaging. Consumers get what they want, when they want it.

That same demand is driving the market for PVRs and on-demand services. Although we're still a long way from networks offering shows directly to us in some iTunes-like interface, I anticipate a shift that will require studios to focus much less on the packaging that is network TV. It will take the broadcast industry quite some time to adopt this model. But we, as individuals, can adapt much faster and take advantage of it now.

Software mogul and industry veteran Philip Hodgetts has started a blog in which he recently wrote eloquently on the subject of new distribution paradigms. He explained how blogging evolved into RSS (really simple subscription management) feeds, which notify anyone interested in your content when you write something new. This evolved into audio blogs, and then podcasting, where the audio blog is automatically downloaded into your player without any effort on your behalf—after you subscribe, that is. Most podcasts are simple, and little more than verbal blogs, but some are well-produced. It's like having your own radio show automatically delivered to the hard drives of interested audiences worldwide.

Now let's apply this concept to a video program. Hodgetts provides an example: "Star Trek: Enterprise has been canned. The last season had 2.5 million viewers an episode with a budget of $1.6 million an episode. If each viewer paid 75¢ for the episode, delivered directly to their ‘TV storage device' . . . then the producers would turn a profit of $200,000 an episode . . . That same content can also be delivered to Enterprise fans anywhere in the world."

Imagine that. Your own copy of the show, delivered to your PVR for 75¢. An entire season would cost about $20. Add $13 for blank DVDs so you can record and keep your collection for just $33. For the audience, this is $57 cheaper than the retail version of the shows on DVD, which currently sells for $90. The producers are also making an extra $200,000 an episode.

But how do you handle such massive digital distribution? One solution is BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer system that lets everyone who has downloaded a file contribute to the pool of sharers. Primarily used for big files (legally, too), this means that the person originating the file is not forced to provide 1,000,000 downloads. He or she provides one; then half of two; then one-quarter of the third, etc. Everyone online contributes to the next download. This makes the most of how current broadband systems work—downloading is several times faster than uploading. It also means you don't need anything special to serve a file quickly to millions.

The best part is that you are free to create content as you see fit. You can use 24p throughout your production chain to reduce the file size. You can deliver with surround-sound audio. You can even deliver HD.

So, what about that cool show you've always wanted to produce? It could be all about woodworking, gardening, or anything you are passionate about. Maybe a short film is burning inside you or waiting on the shelf in a script you wrote years ago. We've already seen how the Web can be used to get people together and interest them in programming. The time is coming when you can be your own production studio, handling everything from script to delivery.

While there isn't yet an iTunes store for your video, it might be coming faster than you think. Are you—and your programming—ready?