Rights to OMN technology to be given to public TV
On behalf of public TV, stations in New York and San Francisco plan to accept the gift of Kontiki, an economical online video distribution technology used by the BBC iPlayer, AOL and Open Media Network.
Two years ago, Mike Homer, a onetime Netscape exec who developed the system, sold Kontiki Inc. to VeriSign for $62 million but donated perpetual public-service rights for Kontiki to the nonprofit OMN so it could be used for public media, said OMN Executive Director Linda Lawrence.
Public broadcasting “is coming perilously close to losing” Homer’s gift, said Dennis Haarsager of Washington State University, an OMN fan who said he has toned down his advocacy in his new role as NPR chairman.
Homer began beta-testing OMN’s online video portal (www.omn.org) in 2005 and planned to keep it going until he could put the technology in the hands of the public broadcasting system, Lawrence said.
Plans changed when Homer fell seriously ill last year. His family members turned their philanthropic attentions to finding a cure for the rare degenerative brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, that is now killing Homer. That disease, like mad cow disease in cattle, is caused by prions — infectious protein particles also said to play a role in Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.
OMN has agreed to transfer its assets, including nonprofit rights to Kontiki, to WNET and San Francisco’s KQED, said Lawrence. WNET has been overseeing most technical operations for the OMN portal since fall, she added.
Boston’s WGBH also wants “to advance ideas for leveraging OMN for public media,” said President Jon Abbott in a statement after meeting with Lawrence.
Kontiki, which uses a peer-to-peer setup to minimize server costs, is well suited for delivering the huge digital files of HDTV program downloads, said Ken Devine, v.p. and chief technology officer at WNET in New York. High-def downloads could differentiate pubTV’s online video from the small, low-quality pictures offered by YouTube and other streaming sites, Devine said.
But Kontiki is also capable of handling click-and-watch streaming video, the Web’s dominant mode today, Devine added.
Radio, with its much smaller files and lower server costs, has less to gain from systems like Kontiki than public TV, Haarsager told Current.
“Homer always thought that [OMN] didn’t really count unless PBS bought into it,” Haarsager recalled. “That was his personal metric of success.”
What will PBS think?
Devine disclosed the OMN acquisition as PBS prepares to announce elements of its online video strategy to the stations.
PBS is “very interested in taking a closer look at the assets” of OMN, said Jason Seiken, PBS senior v.p., interactive.
The pubTV network aims to “exponentially increase the amount of video on station websites and PBS.org,” Seiken told Current last week. “Coming up with a video solution that meets the needs of stations and producers is our No. 1 priority at PBS Interactive,”
With online technology advancing rapidly, PBS will need to store top-quality program masters and convert them when needed into file formats used by the latest and best delivery platforms, Seiken said.
In talks with technologists, he said, it became obvious that pubTV needs “a solid, well-architected” back-end system to store and keep track of thousands of video files. This infrastructure could underlie a variety of front-end players carrying the brands of stations or series.
Public TV needs both streaming and download platforms, Seiken said. Though streaming is the state of the art in online video, he’d like to give viewers the option of paying for download-to-own programs.
Like Devine, Seiken puts a priority on picture quality. “I don’t think it works for the audience to give them a tiny little window to watch video,” Seiken said. “Our goal is to give them the quality they have come to expect from television.”
Though PBS has negotiated a “very favorable” price for streaming services, the costs rise for high-bitrate streaming, he added.
Homer’s Kontiki technology addresses server costs by sharing the distribution workload with viewers’ computers. As in other peer-to-peer networks, computers that have received a program file are enlisted (with owners’ permission) to send out fragments of the same programs; the packets then converge in the computers of other viewers who request the shows.
But unlike Napster and BitTorrent, the onetime bad boys of peer-to-peer music and movie piracy, Kontiki was built from the start to respect copyrights and allow only designated headends to upload programming.
When Kontiki Inc. was developing its video distribution technology, Homer was concerned that public TV would not have access to the right technology when it’s needed, Lawrence said. “Mike thought, ‘I can see how this is going. I’m going to get this started for them. I understand what the architecture needs to look like . . . and what’s happening with consumers.’ ” When pubcasters are ready to jump to new systems, she said, the technology will be ready for them.
After the 2005 Integrated Media Association conference, Lawrence said, Homer met with Haarsager, Stephen Hill and others who proposed a shared digital infrastructure for pubTV and radio. Despite the advocates’ urgings, neither PBS nor NPR warmed to Homer’s donation.
“This was a guy trying to give a gift to public television, and he couldn’t get anyone to take it,” Devine said.
Seiken’s predecessor as PBS web chief, Cindy Johanson, and her NPR counterpart, Maria Thomas, told Current in 2006 that users would reject OMN because it made them download and install client software on PCs.
The downloading task doesn’t stop iPod lovers from installing iTunes on their computers, responds Dan Goldman, WNET’s new web chief.
The hassle of downloading software will fade away, Lawrence expects, as Kontiki becomes a virtually standard feature of new computers—as Adobe Flash is now, with a foothold inside more than 700 million computers. Verisign and Adobe announced last year they will integrate Kontiki and Flash into each other’s products.
Disclosure: Current is published as an independent journalistic service of WNET.
Web page posted Jan. 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current Publishing Committee