Sporting chance

Taj Television and the Middle East’s pay TV platform providers are investing in core business systems and storage solutions as they compete for both viewers and advertising revenue.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  September 5, 2002

I|~||~||~|Long before online retailers saw the benefits of continuous uptime, the broadcasting industry was already delivering a 24x7 service. Without it, all they had was a blank screen, which in turn meant no viewers, no advertising and a failed business model.

“In the broadcast industry, data does not necessarily have to be 100% accurate all the time, but it has to be in the right place at the right time,” says Colin Sherriff, vice president of engineering & MIS at Taj Television.

Taj is relatively new to the broadcast industry. Established in January 2001 by Bukhatir Investments, the Dubai-based company delivers 24x7 sports coverage to viewers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka through its Ten Sports channel. To ensure that its 30 million viewers receive uninterrupted coverage of Taj’s broadcasts, which are currently dominated by cricket, the company has invested in a number of solutions, including broadcast specific servers from Quantel, a tape library from StorageTek and a digital video archiving system from ManagedStorage International.

When content is filmed it is stored digitally on disk systems to allow easy editing and playback. For example, Taj’s production server has nine ports with 50 M/bytes of bandwidth each, enabling a number of users to concurrently edit content in real time.

“We have a number of ports on the production server, which allows us to replay content and edit it. The edit suites can use that material at the same time and re-edit. For example, with cricket you are re-editing content into highlights packages at the same time as showing it. Through our set up, the edited material is ready to transmit immediately,” says Sherriff.

Once edited, material passes to the transmission server for broadcast. The release of the material is automatically controlled by Taj’s playlist and, once content has been aired, it is sent to an archive server.

“We have an automated system that co-ordinates the transfer between the servers. It can push any material from the transmission server into the archive [server], so we can erase the content from the [transmission] server. If the playlist requests something that is not on the transmission server it will automatically pull it back from the archive and onto the [transmission] server,” explains Sherriff.

Archived content is stored on a StorageTek L700 tape library. Unlike video, on which the company can store a maximum of three hours worth of programming, the tapes hold around seven hours of content. This reduces Taj’s storage footprint and cuts costs. “The L700 tape library… is high capacity. It can hold nearly 700 LTO tapes, each with a capacity of over seven hours of digital video. That gives us 5000 hours of video storage,” comments Sherriff.

Furthermore, because the digital tape system is automated, retrieval times are accelerated and the chance of human error reduced. “Archiving digital content on to tape gives us the ability to metatag it for easy retrieval. Metatags allow us to add labels to segments of video that detail duration and style. Simple instructions can be used to access the video easily at a later date. So, if we want to run a short advert featuring wickets from the previous day’s game, we can pull them from the archive quickly and easily,” Sherriff explains.

||**||II|~||~||~|The desire for automation spreads further than Taj’s storage solutions. As such, the company has deployed proprietary software from Encoda for the management of programme rights and billing.

“What we are trying to do is automate as much as possible. We use business software for generating playlists for our channels, managing the purchase of programmes and the booking of commercials. To do that with a few people and a whiteboard takes time whereas business applications allow you to do it automatically,” says Sherriff.

“Being a start up, we are trying to keep things nice and simple so we can manage them. We have new staff that are relatively untrained so the only way we can keep it simple is to use automation. However, we use digital technology because it gives us a real competitive advantage in the broadcast market,” he adds.

While content generators are beginning to boost their competitive advantage with automated systems, the region’s pay TV platform providers have already deployed core business systems to streamline their operations.

For example, E-Vision, Showtime and Arab Digital Distribution (ADD) all have some sort of core business application at the heart of their operations. ADD uses its MQS database to hold its entire subscriber base and to deliver batch information to the company’s billing and access partner, MultiChoice Middle East (MCME).

Piety Gonsalves, IT manager at ADD, explains that although the process could be automated yet further by enabling real time data transfer between the two companies, he is loathed to do so until MCME finishes upgrading its IBS database from Unix to Windows 2000. “It would be a waste of money to build a real time interface between the two,” he says.

“ADD subscribers receive a card with seven days free viewing on, so this gives us plenty of time to transfer the information to MCME and for them to check the customer’s finances and so forth,” he adds.

ADD has also web-enabled its database to automate communication with its dealer network. Although the presentation layer is web-based, dealers actually connect to ADD through a virtual private network (VPN) to ensure security. Via the connection, they can enter subscription details directly into the database, check user accounts, register user complaints and calculate bills.

“MQS is supposed to work by having a small server in each dealership. However, by using a VPN, all the dealer needs is a PC and an internet connection. This reduces costs for the dealers and for us,” explains Gonsalves.

Although the dealers were reticent to use VPN connections at first, the majority have now converted. “There was some resistance when we first started out, but now if you tell them the system is down for half an hour there is chaos because they know the advantages it provides,” says Gonsalves.

||**||III|~||~||~|Showtime has also created a business-to-business (B2B) platform for its dealers. Built on Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Server operating system (OS) and closely integrated with its recently upgraded IBS database, the dealer network links the pay TV platform provider with over 200 dealers and branches spread across the Middle East & North Africa.

“Our B2B platform is tightly integrated with our database. A dealer can fill in a contract for a new customer, upgrade a customer, change packages and everything else online. Whereas the old process could take anything between 24 to 72 hours, the automated process now takes approximately five minutes and reduces the margin of manual error,” explains Khosrow Afrasiabi, IT director for the Middle East & North Africa, Showtime.

After its recent upgrade, during which Showtime helped IBS develop a large number of APIs for its database, the company has added an online payment gateway to its infrastructure. Emirates International Bank provides the processing end of the solution and an in-house developed component carries the business logic, which allows the system to calculate, including exceptions, how much should be charged. The gateway also allows Showtime to process credit card data instantly.

“We can process a transaction within the database in real time. We no longer have to do batch processing at the end of the day. This means customers get the service immediately, rather than at the end of the day when we processes the payment,” explains Afrasiabi.

Both pay TV platform providers have information web sites for consumers. ADD is considering rolling out B2C online payment capabilities to their subscribers while Showtime’s B2C offering is currently being tested. Afrasiabi says it will go live soon.
However, both companies claim there are problems with offering consumers online payment for their packages.

“Online payment is difficult in this industry because if a customer wants to subscribe monthly, then we have a problem because the bank says we have to have a written statement from the customer. There are limitations,” says ADD’s Gonsalves.

Cable TV provider, E-Vision, is also working towards online subscription, but is currently focusing on adding value to the information it provides online.

“The first thing we will look at is a locator feature where potential customers can find out whether or not they are in the cable area. We will be looking to add online payment in the next six to 12 months,” says Rashid Ali, sales & marketing manager, E-Vision.

In addition to internet initiatives, pay TV platform providers are integrating their web sites and core business applications to their customer contact centres in an attempt to boost service levels.

||**||IV|~||~||~|E-Vision leverages its relationship with parent company Etisalat by housing its customer support team in the PPT’s contact centre. “We have a fully automated interactive voice response (IVR) system at Etisalat’s contact centre. We have an automated bill reminder system, which will automatically call you to remind you to pay your bill, and other things, such as a fax back option,” says Ali.

Earlier in the year, ADD began implementing Pan Cyber’s IVR system in its Middle East call centres. Designed to handle basic customer interactions, the first phase of the deployment provides around ten services to users, including complaint booking, account information and a host of information services. The second phase of the IVR rollout will allow users to renew subscriptions and access a greater range of services, while the third will see the implementation of a computer telephony integration (CTI) layer. Gonsalves says CTI will give call centre staff a 360-degree view of the customer should they leave the IVR and come through to the call centre.

“As soon as a caller comes through to the IVR and presses zero to talk to an agent their information will be retrieved from the database and pop up on screen. This will tell the agent who is calling and from what option they left the IVR system,” he explains.

“This means the agent can see all of the customer’s information and where they have got to, which means that they do not have to go through all the details again. They can also greet the customer by name. All of this accelerates the process and improves customer service,” he adds.

However, Showtime’s Afrasiabi says CTI is not possible everywhere in the Middle East due to the region’s infrastructure. “For example, there is a lack of ISDN lines in Saudi Arabia so customer identification is not always possible,” he comments.

Despite these limitations, Showtime is looking to boost integration between its core systems, its call centre and other customer delivery channels by building an enterprise-wide intranet. The intranet will integrate with all of Showtime’s systems.

“The intranet will provide information for the correct people. We will be able to use it for a number of different things, from generating reports for senior management to improving our customer contact centres’ CTI telephone system,” explains Afrasiabi.

“For example, if there is a sandstorm in Jeddah, we will be able to check the status of the call centre and if we need to we will be able to direct calls elsewhere over the intranet,” he adds.

Although Showtime is committed to developing the intranet on Microsoft .NET, the finer points of the project have yet to be decided. For example, Afrasiabi is unsure whether the company is going to use Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server or a combination of .NET and ISS.

“We haven’t set a deadline for it yet. The design for it and the requirement specifications will take another one month and once that is done it will take between three and four months to come up with a production version,” he says.

As Taj TV and the pay TV platform providers deploy increasing amounts of technology to automate their business processes and improve customer service, one thing is clear: specialised broadcast technology and IT are merging.

As Taj’s Sherriff says, “the difference is blurred because all of your systems need to be functioning all the time. If this doesn’t happen then you just cannot operate in the broadcast industry.”||**||

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