Hollywood Crafts Online Video Standards

The Web lacks a standard way of organizing and playing media files, let alone gearing the playback for the growing variety of TV, computer and mobile screens. That's the problem the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers hopes to address in a new standards effort it will kick off this month.

The move could be the first of several steps addressing issues in Internet video and music for users, content producers, distributors and consumer electronics companies. The news marks the second major gambit from entertainment and technology companies in recent weeks to make it easier to access premium online content across a broad range of systems.

A new SMPTE committee dubbed Broadband 23B will meet for the first time on October 27 in conjunction with the SMPTE's annual technology conference in Hollywood. The group aims to address formats that would cover movies, television programming, online programming and music regardless of the broadband distribution platform.

When someone plays a DVD, a master file indicates where to find and start related video, audio and image files and how to synchronize them. A similar process happens when media is played from a Web site today, but each site tends to handle the problem in its own way, said Wendy Aylsworth, engineering vice president of SMPTE in an interview with EE Times.

The new effort aims to create a standard for the process. It also hopes to define a standard for tailoring the content to the resolution and size of the display requesting the content.

Although the effort began with one SMPTE member requesting a standard, "there are now content, distribution and consumer electronics companies saying they agree there is a need here and supporting this work," Aylsworth said. "Content aggregators and distributors are already feeling the pain of different services handling this problem in their own way," she added.

"It's not yet clear whether this effort will be confined to one or two standards on file packages and formats or whether it will extend to areas such as compression" and perhaps digital rights management, said Aylsworth, a senior vice president of technical operations at Warner Brothers who helped spearhead work on the digital cinema standard.

Anyone interested in the Broadband 23B effort is welcome to join the first meeting without registration at 5:15 PM, at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. However, the meeting's proceedings will remain private to SMPTE, and membership in the SMPTE standards community is required for ongoing participation.

The success of Apple's iTunes as a source of movies and TV shows has prompted studios to back their own outlets such as Hulu. Last year Cable TV giant Comcast launched its own Internet video site, Fancast. Observers say content owners and service providers are increasingly concerned about Apple's dominance in online distribution.

"More media than ever is flowing to consumers outside traditional TV and cinema channels, and currently, it can only be accessed on a limited subset of services and devices because there are no interoperability standards," said Aylsworth in a prepared statement.

In September, reports emerged that a broad group of studios and tech companies had formed the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem. DECE aims to ensure content from multiple sources can play on any device. The group is not expected to announce details of its plans until the Consumer Electronics Show in January. However, observers said it could embrace a wide range of issues regarding interoperable formats, codecs and digital rights management schemes. The group includes Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount Pictures and Comcast Corp, retailer Best Buy as well as tech companies Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Intel, Toshiba and Verisign.

"They are creating a business model for themselves, not a standard," said Aylsworth. "Hopefully they will contribute some ideas to the SMPTE process and use whatever standards we come up with," she said.

The standard would likely be implemented as software or firmware that would run on client devices such as cellphones, TVs and computers, she said. SMPTE standards typically take about a year to reach publication.

By Rick Merritt, EE Times