Business TV: With New Applications Come New Opportunities

By | March 1, 2004 | Editor's Note, Government, Telecom

By Susan Trott

Remember when business television (BTV) was only synonymous with talking head CEOs relaying corporate information to their staff? Well, times have changed. Although the one-way broadcasts associated with such executive talks still occur, BTV’s trend is moving toward two-way interactive, multimedia broadcasts that look more like well-produced TV programs. Moreover, BTV is no longer the sole preserve of Fortune 500 companies. With equipment and transmission costs dropping, it seems everyone is doing it.

There is new wind in the sails of the market," says Larry Steinman, president and CEO of BTV+, a BTV content producer and distributor based in Mississauga, Canada. His words are echoed by Joe Amor, vice president and general manager of Microspace Communications. "We are seeing new players and new industry segments using BTV," Amor says. So why is BTV experiencing this expansion? "The business market is becoming truly global," says Gary Champion, vice president of Globecast’s Business Television Services Group in Europe. "To compete globally, you need truly global corporate communications. Nothing delivers this better than satellites."

Changes in BTV

Without a doubt, the hallmark of BTV’s renaissance is new and innovative content. "In the past, BTV meant watching the CEO’s annual address via satellite," says Amor. "Today, the person originating the BTV broadcast may be the senior vice president of marketing talking specifically to his people, or human resources briefing its managers on a new corporate policy. Moreover, these targeted talks may take place every month, week, or even day as needed. Finally, many companies are giving their audiences ways to talk back– either by phone line or Internet messaging–making these sessions interactive."

A key part of this new content is effective video. If a new troublesome transistor on a circuit board is under discussion, chances are the BTV originating camera will zoom in on that part so viewers can see it better. "Today’s BTV is much more about ‘show and tell’ than it is about sermons," Steinman says. "This is why it is increasing in popularity."

The second reason for BTV’s expansion may be falling equipment costs. Receiving stations that once cost $10,000 now cost a third of that. Meanwhile, the use of digital compression on satellites has cut bandwidth prices substantially, as 10 or more digital channels can be fit into the space previously occupied by one analog broadcast. As a result, there is more ad hoc use of BTV and smaller companies are able to set up multiple-site permanent installations.

The combination of more innovative content and lower costs explains why smaller companies are adopting BTV. "Historically, BTV networks were only established by large corporations who rolled out hundreds of sites at a time," says Amor. "Today, we are seeing networks established by small businesses with just a dozen sites. Small business people now know that BTV via satellite offers them major advantages. Rather than a cost-center, they see BTV as a business-builder."

The fourth factor driving BTV’s growth is productivity. When compared to the cost of travel, conducting meetings and training via satellite, BTV is much cheaper. "We’re seeing an increase in training content, everything from live product manager or interactive training using tools such as One-Touch, to on-demand training through video," says Mike Tippets, senior vice president of marketing and product strategy for Helius." As well, communicating via BTV keeps employees at their jobs, which reduces lost time. Finally, BTV is a safe alternative for business people who do not want to fly in this terrorism-tinged times.

Homeland security is also boosting the BTV market. Companies like Thales Broadcast and Multimedia have noticed a significant uptick in government and homeland security applications, in relation to the BTV market. "In 2003 some of our best customers have been in the government or homeland security areas," says Howard Barouxis, director of sales for Thales Broadcast and Multimedia. "In 2004 we anticipate even greater activity in this area." For instance, industry sources say that the BTV spectrum is being used by the U.S. government to relay video from unmanned Predator drones. Satellite bandwidth is also in demand for mobile truck-based communications centers, such as the Bickford Linx and the Raytheon First Responder.

Finally, the intrinsic flexibility of satellite broadcasting is itself a reason for BTV’s growth. "This is the beauty of satellite business television," says Keven Cahoon, vice president of Globecast America’s enterprise group. "We can serve customers large or small anywhere on the planet, whether for one-way video broadcasts or two-way multimedia."

Globecast America itself is a testament to innovative BTV content applications. The company entered the private satellite market through an earlier acquisition of Bonneville Broadcasting, a company founded in the 1980s by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), so that Sunday sermons from Salt Lake City could be beamed live to Mormon congregations worldwide.

The Hot Stuff

Two words sum up the hottest BTV application: Internet Protocol (IP). As business embraces the value of IP-driven multimedia and realizes that delivering it over the Web is fraught with problems, more and more companies are deploying IP applications over BTV.

In turn, "what we’re seeing with the advent of IP enablement is the ability for BTV networks to provide much more than just marketing, training and internal communications," says Bryan Allen, president and COO of Convergent Media. "For years, many BTV companies have not used their satellite networks for mission-critical functions. Now they’re seeing that satellites can do much more for them using their existing infrastructure."

"The flexibility of IP is creating an amazing increase in multimedia training content," says Tippets. "People aren’t just talking at their staff anymore; they’re interacting with them via satellite, using voice, video and IP-driven data applications." A case in point: "During the Compaq-HP merger, HP CEO Carly Fiorina relied on satellite-delivered BTV to keep HP and Compaq employees in the loop about the deal’s progress," adds Cahoon. "This helped keep morale up, and created a sense of real communication between Fiorina and her employees; one that bypassed all the media hype around the merger."

This said, IP is not the only new force in BTV. Digital signage is also a compelling new application that is boosting carrier traffic. Digital signage refers to custom video and audio channels used in retail locations. Typically, this content is seen on large screen plasma displays and heard over store personal address systems. It gives the customers something to watch while they are waiting in line. As well, digital signage/branded radio/TV can be stored in information kiosks throughout the store for on-demand use. There is "an increase in interest around digital signage," says Tippets. "It lets us use our core business television network to provide a subcategory of digital signage called customer information. This is a type of display that could tell the customer which line to stand in or where to go to find products or services."

Say that you are at a hardware store and need to know how to fix a broken window? No problem. The store’s information kiosk is loaded with satellite-delivered "how-to" videos that you can access immediately. Of course, the videos recommend which in-store products to buy, which is great for the retailer. But the customer wins as well, because they get the information they want in a place where they can get the products they need. "We’re seeing tremendous, super-high-quality video content, says Tippets. "One of the advantages is the ability to move rich media. With the flexibility, power and bandwidth of satellite, you can move high definition content. You’re not limited to Powerpoint slides or whatever can run over a Web channel."

Ideally, such promotional channels can follow the customer home, provided they are sufficiently well programmed. As a value-added retail service in Europe, Globecast is gearing up to offer digital branded radio channels on the BSkyB satellite service. "Most DBS subscribers can tune their TVs to a digital radio channel via satellite," says Champion. "Our goal is for them to enjoy our branded radio content so much, that they will tune it in at home: complete with ads and features promoting our clients."

"Digital signage transforms BTV from a cost center to a major marketing tool," says Allen. "That’s a significant transition." And BTV is becoming an increasingly important tool for smaller companies as well. In fact, some BTV networks are even reaching at-home workers, via DBS systems such as DirecTV and Echostar.

"We broadcast BTV programs on the DBS provider’s Pay Per View (PPV) channels during the day, when there isn’t much demand for theatrical movies," says Allen. "Security is maintained by using the standard PPV authorization system and the specific IP addresses of the users’ set-top boxes." Globecast is using a similar tactic, but employing a split- screen approach. At the receive end, the subscriber sees a video window of the speaker, a graphics window displaying Powerpoint slides, and a text crawl at the bottom of the screen. This crawl is a two-way Internet chat session, which the user participates in via their own Internet provider.

Finally, the occasional use BTV market is "as healthy as it’s ever been," says Steinman. "We just opened a fourth TV production studio four months ago, to keep up with the demand." As with full-time BTV, today’s ad hoc broadcasts continue to push the content boundaries. For instance, Harrah’s casinos regularly link up via Convergent Media’s BTV facilities, for live giveaways of prizes ranging up to $250,000 to the company’s regular clients. "These giveaways integrate Harrah’s individual properties into a single national entity, which is great for building brand presence," says Allen. "They set Harrah’s apart in the customers’ minds, while big cash prizes enhance customer loyalty."

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