Multicasting Reality Check

Much has been made of multicasting—a digital-era TV station’s opportunity to shoehorn extra digital channels and one-way data delivery services alongside its main HDTV channel. Motivated by the possibility of additional revenue streams, broadcasters hoped these extra channels and datacasting capabilities could help offset the millions they’d have to spend to launch HDTV. Heck, they might even turn a profit.

Has that hope been realized? To get a sense of how multicasting is performing, Television Broadcast spoke with leading broadcasters, engineers and content producers. Here’s what they told us.

Now that HDTV is sweeping across America, multicasting is coming into its own—at least on the broadcast side. “There are a great number of stations multicasting today,” said Ardell Hill, a senior vice president in Media General’s broadcast division. “The majority of broadcasters I know of are carrying their networks in HD, plus one or two secondary digital channels.”

“Tribune and Raycom stations are carrying music video services,” said Jim DeFilippis, senior vice president of FOX Digital. “Some are broadcasting an SD news channel, or an SD weather channel. Others simulcast their main HD channel in 4x3 SD—for cable or repeater pick-up. Some stations, which are operated as a duopoly, carry the other station’s channel in SD on their multicasts.”

“Hundreds of stations are currently multicasting,” added Mike Ruggiero, chairman of ATV Broadcast and the ALL TV Companies. They are the people behind Motor Trend TV and the Spanish-language LATV, both of which are being promoted to broadcasters as secondary digital channel content.

“The CW and MyNetwork TV, Weather Plus, LATV, World Championship Sports Network, and The Tube Music Network are leading the pack supplying programming to hundreds of stations,” Ruggiero said. “Motor Trend TV launches the broadband component of their multiplatform automotive content model later this year and launches as a 24/7 multicast network early in 2008. Many stations have news channels and other makeshift weather channels. As more TV broadcasters upgrade their digital transmission capabilities, they all will be multicasting some form of content.”

Launching multicast channels is one thing; motivating people to tune in is another. In response to this challenge, NBC Weather Plus offers over the air, for free, the kind of in-depth weather coverage viewers normally get only if they subscribe to a cable or satellite service. Meanwhile, The Tube is airing videos aimed at the 35-and-up demographic, a group not being served by MTV. Similarly, Motor Trend TV targets car buffs, while LATV reaches the often-underserved Latino community. In all instances, there are compelling reasons for interested viewers to tune in.

As for the CW and MyNetworkTV, like any conventional broadcaster, they have to compete on content. If people want to see them on secondary digital channels and have the equipment to do so, they’ll tune in. But this is neither good nor bad, as far as assessing multicasting goes. Viewers don’t care where they are tuning to as long as they get to see the programs they want. At least that’s how the argument goes.

Someone who does not buy this argument is Mark Cuban, chairman of the HDTV service HDNET and owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team. A strong proponent for maximum-quality HDTV video, Cuban is no fan of multicasting.

“Technically, of course, it’s an option,” he wrote to TVB in a recent email. “[But] as a business decision it’s incredibly shortsighted. As HDTV becomes ubiquitous in homes, so will the expectation of HD-quality pictures. Multicast signals will always look inferior to full HD signals. I’m not so sure advertisers or consumers will be accepting of inferior quality.

“HDNet and HDNet Movies are broadcast at full bandwidth” over cable and satellite TV, Cuban added. “We would never allow our content to look like crap and be multicast.”

Other content providers disagree with Cuban’s damning assessment of secondary digital channels. Take former MTV and VH-1 executive Les Garland: As president of The Tube, he thinks that SD-quality video is easily good enough to keep his viewers happy. “Today, because of the unique relationship with our broadcast partners, The Tube Music Network is available to more than 15 million cable homes,” Garland told TVB. “It’s a big plus that the are millions more potential Tube viewers out there watching free over-the-air in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Interestingly, more than 25 percent of our viewer email comes from audience [members] who are watching over-the-air.”

So where do secondary digital channels fit into a conventional broadcaster’s market strategy? “Our primary partner stations are similar to the powerhouse AM radio stations of yesteryear,” Garland replies. “In most cases, they enjoy solid ratings and serve their markets well. Now, because of digital technology, the station has an opportunity to launch an ‘FM station’ and with the launch comes the real opportunity to monetize their digital bandwidth.” That’s where The Tube comes in: It is “one of those ‘FM stations’ for broadcasters looking for differentiated music television entertainment,” he said.

Cuban isn’t convinced. Taking up Garland’s radio analogy, he said, “If a broadcaster wants to be the low-end distributor of content, I guess [it may be a business]. In other words, multicast TV will be like AM radio. It will be the home of content that is perceived to have less value, but by aggregating enough of it, there could be a business there.”

So what constitutes the winning formula for launching a moneymaking secondary digital channel? “Quality programming with local avails to sell,” Ruggiero replied. “Low or zero licensing fees with local content windows where stations can experiment with local concepts that have the ability to create a local buzz.”

“Turnkey multicast networks like LATV, WCSN, The Tube and Motor Trend TV provide high-quality, 24/7 programming at no cost to the broadcaster,” he added. “Broadcasters can produce their own content for multicast, but this increases costs at a time when broadcasters have to hold the line on expenses and focus on new sources of revenue. Broadcasters also need to focus on retransmission consent to open the cable distribution of their multicast networks.”

With the explosive growth of YouTube and the launch of broadband TV services online, some critics are wondering whether multicasting is too little, too late. Their concern is that everything that can be provided over-the-air in SD quality can also be delivered in broadband, without requiring viewers to go out and buy digital receivers.

This said, many webcasters would jump at the chance to be secondary channel content providers, according to Ruggiero. “I don’t know of any webcaster who wouldn’t want to be a linear channel in addition to being a webcast,” he noted. “Webcasting became popular simply because these Web channels could not find a place to be carried on cable systems and therefore defaulted to the Web.”

On this point, Cuban agreed. “Webcasting doesn’t deliver content to consumer TV’s,” he wrote. Multicasting does. It remains to be seen whether secondary digital channels can pull in enough viewers to attract serious advertisers. Should this happen, will advertisers pay for secondary TV spots by cutting back on their primary channel advertising? Only time will tell.

Despite this debate, at least multicast broadcasting can claim to have gotten off the ground. In contrast, datacasting over DTV has yet to prove itself. “This is one multicasting application that has panned out to be less than it was expected to be,” said Media General’s Hill. “Although I [know] of a few attempts, the only datacasting models working that I am aware of are very specific and I believe narrow, subscription-based models. For the moment, [the idea of] datacasting is still ahead of its time for the marketplace.”

There are a number of reasons why over-the-air datacasting has yet to take off. First, the ever-expanding capacity of conventional telephone, cable TV and cellular wireless networks has kept pace with consumer demand, blunting the need for a new source of transmission spectrum. Second, DTV’s one-way one-to-multipoint distribution is not ideally suited for data, which is better served by two-way, point-to-point carriage. Third, broadcasters have so much on their minds that pushing headlong into datacasting is low on their priority lists.

Stay tuned for future developments.