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June 2007
Volume 10 / Number 6
Feature Articles
Richard "Zippy" Grigonisw

Content and the Long Tail

By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis, Feature Articles

The concept of The Long Tail first caught the public’s attention when Chris Anderson wrote an article about it that appeared in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine. The terms refers to the many not-so-best-selling special interest items (“offbeat” videos, books, music CDs, etc.), that appeal to a small number of people, but cumulatively represent an immense market that can now be served, thanks to the low costs of inventory storage and distribution made possible by the Internet.

The Long Tail first wagged in the book, music and video markets. In particular, Video on Demand (VoD) has been a part of digital cable systems for about six years now, and should explode in popularity when the inherently interactive IPTV gains market share.

For those of us wanting to see reruns of Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57) and Way Out (March to July 1961) that little-known, creepy and amusing competitor to The Twilight Zone hosted by Roald Dahl, the whole idea of serving the Long Tail sounds terrific. Still, there are concerns over whether any provider can maintain increasingly huge databases and whether conventional user interfaces are up to the task of navigating zillions of pieces of content in a reasonable time.

Bang Chang is Director of Product Marketing for Servers and Storage at SeaChange International (news - alert) ( a major player in open software and server solutions for Video on Demand (VoD) and IPTV. They have agreements and relationships with Comcast, Verizon, Cablevision, Cox, Time Warner, NTL, Virgin Media, NTT, and most of the cable operators in China.

“Our emphasis is on On Demand services,” says Chang. “We deal with telcos, but mostly MSOs [Multi-Service Operators]. Much of what we provide is middleware, but the company started providing VoD servers. That business expanded into providing back-office software on top of the servers. That in turn expanded into middleware, which is essentially the client/server applications running on the subscriber’s set-top box and on the network operator’s server- side. We also have a product line that handles static and dynamic advertisement insertion to content.”

“Demand services are now actually very mature,” says Chang. “The technology has been around for five or six years. Personally, I have On Demand from Comcast. Indeed, I believe that most their digital subscribers use the VoD service. It’s very popular. There’s also a big VoD initiative with Time Warner, Cablevision and almost all of the rest of the operators. Verizon is also getting into this space, and it’s competing very intensely with the cablecos in this area. Japan’s NTT is also pushing VoD services. We see it in Europe too, and all over the world. At the moment, most of our current business is from North America, but that will change.”

“Right now the amount of content these systems handle is manageable,” says Chang. “The best-of-class service offering offers about 6000 hours of content, which consists of two-hour movies and 30 minute TV shows. So the average system currently holds about 6000 titles. The current user interface is adequate to handle all of this in terms of search and navigating among the titles. Interestingly the access part is a lot more ‘concentrated’ than you might at first think. There are formulas and graphs for revealing access and usage patterns. If you think of this classically, you see a curve. Along the Xaxis are titles ranked by their popularity in decreasing order. On the Y-dimension is the number of concurrent viewings of those titles. When you plot that you get a very steep curve.”

“As I said, the viewing pattern is very concentrated,” says Chang. “It used to be quite distributed. About 80 percent of the viewings would concentrate on 50 percent of the content. But as the amount of content increases, the ‘viewing window’ or subset of content in which people are very actively interested does not increase as rapidly as does the amount of content. So right now the rule of thumb is as follows: 20 percent of the content accounts for 80 percent of the viewings. Yes, it’s the classic 80/20 rule. The workload on the systems remain manageable.”


Interfacing with the Long Tail

“Our SeaChange Interactive group was just awarded a patent for a product called Channel Overlay,” says Chang, “which is basically an accessible search function, where you can jump to ‘hot’ channels that are relevant to what you’re watching or what you’re doing. So say you’re looking for an ESPN program. Channel Overlay will detect channels that are relevant to ESPN, such as Fox Sports. The same principle can be used to make it easier to navigate to such long tail programs.”

For Long Tail players to succeed, tremendous analytics and ease of participation will be key. Some of these challenges have been met by FeedBurner (news - alert) ( a fascinating company that promises to turn the media world on its head.

Rick Klau, Vice President, Publisher Services at FeedBurner says, “At a high level, we manage content for publishers of all sizes,” says Klau. “We currently work with between 300,000 and 400,000 publishers around the world; the vast majority of them are independent publishers that would fall into the ‘Long Tail’ category. So in addition to managing content for USA Today, Dow Jones, Reuters and a number of the largest publishers in the world, in terms of sheer numbers the vast majority of our user customers are bloggers and podcasters, which we would also traditionally think of as the Long Tail.”


It’s All in the Details

“What we do for these people is to help them understand what the size of their audience is,” explains Klau, “how many people are reading their content, and how and where are they reading their content — on a website? In an aggregator? Are they subscribed to the delivery of that content? Are they clicking through to visit the website? How are they interacting with that content? And then, for many of them who want to monetize that content, we help them by providing access to our ad network, which groups publishers into channels and we have a sales team who are out there meeting with agencies who want to reach targeted audiences in those channels.”

“Publishers who decide to use FeedBurner direct the requests for their content through FeedBurner itself,” says Klau. “That’s done by their RSS feed. RSS is now a complement to email and other online advertising. When they do that we’re able to monitor all requests for that feed and our analytics and algorithms evaluate all of those requests to better understand how many subscribers there are. Last summer we acquired a web analytics company and we released the integration at the end of Q4 2006, so that in addition to measuring feed consumption we also now have a mechanism where we can monitor traffic to websites.”

“Our core service is free,” says Klau. “A publisher who simply wants to know how many leaders and subscribers they have, and which content they’re reading and what items they’re clicking on, would pay FeedBurner nothing. It’s those who want to monetize their content and participate in the ad network who share revenue generated with us.”

The economics of next-gen, dot-com businesses are always interesting to say the least, but this time around it looks like the world will really be transformed by an apparently simple idea magnified by broadband network-based technology and scads of eager users.

Now, where’s that old episode of My Mother the Car. . . ?

Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.


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