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Executive Roundtable: Brandon Burgess On Mobile Video

He has been president and CEO of ION Media Networks for less than two years, but Brandon Burgess has already put his stamp on the company formerly known as Paxson Communications, which owns and operates 60 broadcast TV stations that reach more than 90 million homes.

Under his watch, ION initiated a series of strategic program relationships with content suppliers like Warner Bros., Sony, CBS, NBC Universal and RHI Entertainment. It bought a couple of stations. It spearheaded the formation of a multimedia network for children.
But from an industry-wide perspective, Burgess’ most far-reaching action may be his role in helping to start the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC), a new industry alliance of commercial and public broadcasters committed to the development of mobile digital television.

OMVC’s current members include station groups operating more than 420 commercial TV stations. Those that have signed on include Belo, Fox, Gannett, Media General, Meredith, Post-Newsweek, Gray Television, ION (of course), the NBC Telemundo stations, Sinclair, and Tribune, among others.

The coalition also has the support of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), the non-profit corporation representing more than 350 public television stations. In addition, OMVC is backed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Maximum Service Television (MSTV).

Membership in OMVC is open to U.S.-based TV broadcasters and “related constituents dedicated to advancing mobile digital broadcast television.” The organization is technology-neutral, although it hopes to help usher in a single standard in order to benefit the industry a whole.
Two systems are now competing for U.S. broadcasters’ attention, both based on the ATSC (Advanced TV Systems Committee) standard and its VSB protocol for transmitting digitally over the air. Harris and LG electronics have teamed to develop MPH (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld), and Rohde & Schwarz and Samsung have demonstrated A-VSB.

Many believe that OMVC’s role during the next 18 months leading up to the digital transition of Feb. 17, 2009, will be critical to the emergence of a mobile video standard for the United States that could allow broadcasters to claim the mobile space as their own, and to create services that will generate revenues for broadcasters rather than for competitive industries that are also eager for a share of the mobile video market.

TVB’s Peter Caranicas asked Burgess about OMVC, and about what opportunities lie ahead for broadcasters—who sit on top of a priceless portion of spectrum—if they can successfully claim their piece of the mobile pie.

TVB: What triggered the formation of OMVC?

Burgess: Mobile video is a big issue for broadcasters that hasn’t fully come into focus, so we formed OMVC to work on it. We started some months ago to meet with station owners and talk about utilization of spectrum and viewer fragmentation, both in the home and outside the home. We posed the question: Shouldn’t we finally get our thoughts together on taking advantage of fact that broadcasting is inherently a wireless delivery system? That seems to have gotten lost in the mix over the years.

There seems to be more talk about must-carry and retransmission than there is about wireless, which is understandable, because that’s where the core business sits at this particular moment in time. But, in parallel, we did some market research in terms of consumer usage and consumer devices, which we share on our website [www].

TVB: How big is the universe of devices?

Burgess: There is probably a device universe out there that is more than double the installed base of televisions. These are video-capable and range from handheld video phones to laptops to devices in mass transit and cars. We would put into that device universe everything that moves and has video playback capability.

TVB: Playback of broadcast video?

Burgess: Any video. It could be stored video. Basically, these are video playback locations through which broadcasters—under the way their business is currently structured—don’t have the ability to serve consumers.

Unless we really focus on this, we’re ceding that huge marketplace to other providers that are really doing little more than coming into our spectrum neighborhood, on UHF spectrum, and doing the exact same thing that we should be doing, which is to try to find ways to use our part of our spectrum for mobile delivery.

TVB: Like Qualcomm?

Burgess: Qualcomm is right in our neighborhood with their spectrum, Channel 55. That’s prime UHF real estate and they’ve done a nice job utilizing it. There’s no reason, we see, why broadcasters shouldn’t be going in a similar direction with part of their capacity.

TVB: So what is OMVC’s game plan?

Burgess: We basically just put a little road show together to put a spotlight on the mobile opportunity, and we met with pretty much 95 percent of commercial station owners around the country ...

TVB: Who do you mean by we?

Burgess: Myself, David Glenn [ION’s president of engineering], and we hired a consultant. Our message is, “We have wireless capability, and there’s a lot of devices out there we could be serving if the industry gets together around an agreed-upon standard and a technology we can all employ to do that.”

TVB: So you’re technology-neutral.

Burgess: Correct. We don’t advocate a particular technology. That’s an important feature of it. We came together with the viewpoint that we just want to be able to have a technology that has the best chance of wide deployment. Avoiding fragmentation in the technology choice is going to be an important part of deployment.
If we pick one standard and another broadcaster picks another, and another picks another, and so on, then the hardware manufacturers aren’t going to know who to manufacturer for. So the coalition has an important mandate, an opportunity to help create a unified technology.

TVB: How do you work with ATSC and NAB?

Burgess: There are three groups that have publicly expressed their support in working with us. One is the NAB. [President/CEO] David K. Rehr and [Senior Vice President of Science and Technology] Lynn Claudy have been helpful and are closely involved with us.
As for ATSC, the television standards-setting entity, we want to have a very transparent relationship with them so that hopefully whatever we come up with will be standardized.

The third group is MSTV and [President] David Donovan, who does a lot of testing work for the broadcast industry, including HD standards testing. He was deeply involved in setting the specification for the over-the-air boxes that are going to be deployed for the transition. He did a lot of the work around the white spaces testing and the interference testing, and he’s going to help us on the mobile side.

TVB: Does OMVC have staff and funding?

Burgess: Hopefully we’ll go from a coalition of the willing to a coalition of the capable [laughs]. Currently we are going through the process of putting an organization together. That’s all I want to say about that right now. We have some attorneys working with us to formalize the arrangements. We have completed a vote on an executive committee—a group of eight from our membership. It will be a board structure, so everyone will ultimately have a vote on important issues. Then, to keep the ball moving day-to-day, we’ll have a smaller executive group that will make day-to-day operating decisions, and of organizing technology and business subcommittees.

TVB: Do you anticipate membership dues to finance the organization?

Burgess: Not at this phase, although if we go to a full organization, hiring somebody, there would be a small cost associated with that.

TVB: Are you satisfied that vendors in this space are participating in the ATSC’s process for setting up standards?

Burgess: Well, it’s certainly a lot better than it was a few months ago. I like to think that the coalition being formed had something to do with the fact that on the deadline, 10 proposals were received. This was a positive sign.

We need to keep the pressure on them, both in trying to put people through the process, as well as keeping the timeline tight, because things can get bogged down in the standards-setting process for long periods, and we really don’t have that much time.

TVB: How much time do you have?

Burgess: It would be nice to have something to show when the transition occurs. For technology standards that’s a very tight timeline. But the other reason to move swiftly on this is that other solution providers are not standing still. There’s a lot of jockeying going on around delivering mobile, and there’s a lot of very competent and well funded players out there that are working on their own infrastructure and their own business plan.

TVB: So your goal as an organization is to put broadcasters at the forefront of this technology.

Burgess: Yes. Particularly because we think, inherently, we should have a built-in advantage. I mean, we’re on the air with a wireless product as we speak. It’s just not characterized that way often enough.

Plus we have a big installed-base advantage. We have multiple towers in every city. Our members have lots of installed base in terms of tower location, equipment, and broadcast infrastructure. And we have content, both local and national.

In order to turn on a portion of that pipeline for mobile, all we really need is the missing link of an agreement on what is relatively inexpensive middleware technology.

TVB: That sounds simple, but look at all the pitfalls encountered in setting standards over the years.

Burgess: Well, hopefully the coalition in and of itself shows that we’ve done something. I’ve been told this is largest group of stations that have rallied behind anything in the history of broadcasting. Certainly since I’ve been involved. It has come together in a very short period of time, so I think we’re well on our way.

That’s not to say that the tricky part won’t be keeping everybody on the page. But I think that most people have understood that, from a standardization standpoint, from a technology standpoint, the industry is going be better off rallying behind a unified idea.

TVB: What’s OMVC’s position on products that have been shown, including the MPH system from Harris and LG, and the A-VSB system from Samsung and Rohde & Schwarz?

Burgess: We’ll work with anyone who approaches us to test with us and points out the merits of their products. The two you mention are the two that are most tangible, both in terms of their actual capability as well as the efforts of the companies behind them.

There’s at least one other, the Qualcomm MediaFLO system, which is not a broadcast-based solution. It’s a proprietary closed system. It’s a good product. They’re far along. It’s very expensive to build, expensive to maintain. They don’t have content. It’s a good solution, though. I wouldn’t want to deny that.

Then you have some half-baked solutions, or solutions in progress. You’re going to have several platforms out there jockeying in this space, and the companies gearing up to bid for the spectrum the government is going to auction.

It’s a pretty competitive environment. A lot of money is chasing it, so it seems to me that, given that broadcasters already have the spectrum, have the installed equipment, and have the content, they are well positioned, if we move swiftly, to get a fair share of the pie.

TVB: How important is this new market for the future financial health of broadcasting?

Burgess: I think this is an essential piece of the broadcasting future. Media consumption is no longer limited to the living room and there’s a universe of devices—probably 300 million—that could be the key [to moving beyond] being just a linear broadcast provider to the living room, which is becoming an increasingly limited business model.
I say that with great respect, because it is currently our only business model. I’m not excluding myself from that. We rely very heavily on our core business. I just think we need to find a way to supplement that in areas where there’s large consumption, and a large user base, where other suppliers can’t easily follow us.

For example, if you have a connection to the car, that is not something cable can easily compete with. Within the coalition, I’m one of the more passionate ones about leaving the core of our business model going forward.