Mobile Streaming May Be The ITV We Never Got

With mobile technology and streaming video services now in so many hands, the potential ad formats raise some interesting questions. For instance, in a live video broadcast going to devices with many interactivity options, how engaged do you want the viewer to be during the ad pods? If they have the opportunity in an interactive ad unit to dig deeper into more content, links and other distractions, might their engagement with the advertiser actually pass beyond the ad pod itself and distract users from the main content? It is something that the folks at Rhythm NewMedia found themselves contemplating when devising a new ad technology for live stream to tablets and smartphones. The LivePods platform dynamically serves video ads into the brakes of a broadcast going to handsets.

But unlike simple pre-rolls, these ad units are highly interactive. Rhythm NewMedia was one of the pioneers of such ad units on devices. You can find their player on many of the major broadcaster apps and mobile Web sites. Until now the platform was designed around on-demand video that could wait to start or restart while a user engaged the ad. Bringing the same kind of interactive functionality to a live stream was harder than it looks, says CTO Jim Morris. “We needed to put advertising into a stream that was ongoing, and since it was live the stream was seen by many simultaneously. So how do you put an ad into that environment in a scalable way that supports millions of users and also can be targeted to each user and allow interactivity with the ad?”



Rhythm says LivePods solves for all three problems. It allows the broadcaster content and the ad to be served from the content distribution network. But at the same time the client is connected to the player so that ads can be served that are specific to the user or target. “The real hard part is putting the custom ads in at a scalable level,” says Morris.

CEO Ujjal Kohli admits that the amount of live streaming onto devices is still a small fraction of on demand use. Parsing that audience into viable segments for targeting is still a ways off. But in sports and live concerts they are already seeing considerable interest on the part of both publishers and consumers. And with the scale, Rhythm will be able to layer onto those stream the same targeting the company already uses on its existing network of premium broadcasters.

But how interruptive does a live broadcaster want their ads to be? This is a variation on a question raised in the early days of testing interactive TV. Sure, a person can hog the remote on an offer or go bring up additional information, but in doing so you just send the user outside the embrace of that lean back viewing experience. Kohli acknowledges it is an issue they tossed about. “Where we are headed is to capturing interest rather than engaging interest at that moment,” he says. “Things can happen later.” For instance, the ad might include a calendar entry to remind them of the sponsor later when they want to fully engage the ad. One of the advantages of a mobile device playing video is its full-screen dominance. You can't resize a window or click away easily while the pre-roll plays. But this absence of practical multitasking also poses that conundrum of how distracted by an ad a publisher really wants a user to be.

I will be curious to see long-term whether devices actually invite a resurgence in the share of TV content viewed live. After all, the time-shifting that has changed prime time as we have known it is driven in part simply by the physical intransigence of the TV. If people have more opportunity in more places and times to catch live broadcast over personal devices I wonder if it shaves off time-shifting a bit. My own feeling is that over the next three to five years we will see TV rituals will be changed radically by devices, and the advertising opportunities around them will finally become more personalized, targeted and interactive.

This is something much closer to the failed dream of ITV that was sitting in skunkworks for decades without coming to fruition. One of the weird problems with ITV was that it demanded interactivity that was quite personal on a medium that often is shared. It is a real question in ITV scenarios who is holding the remote and making the decision about what online programming prompt or ad to activate. You are hijacking the experience for everyone in the room. Smartphones actually helped solve for that problem already with personalized second screening. Individuals in a room can look up other teams scores while watching a game or go to a Web site for an advertiser brand or answer an on-air call to action. Live broadcast over devices solves for ITV in another way. It isn't a matter of bringing interactivity to traditional TV devices so much as bringing TV to the devices where interaction is actually more likely and versatile.   

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