CEO Jack Perry says in addition to developing the platform that stations will be able to use to deliver their programming via broadband to interconnected TV sets, tablets and smart phones in their markets, his company is also lining up national programming to supplement whatever programming the participating stations choose to put on the platform. Preliminary testing on stations is slotted for next month, with the goal of a commercial rollout by January’s CES.
Syncbak, the technology company backed in part by the unlikely tandem of NAB and the Consumer Electronics Association, is working with several TV station groups on an over-the-top TV (OTT) platform that will enable stations to deliver programming via broadband to interconnected TV sets, tablets and smart phones, according to Syncbak CEO Jack Perry.
And going beyond its technology roots, Perry says, Syncbak is also lining up national programming to supplement whatever programming the participating stations choose to put on the platform.
According to Perry, the platform is being developed at Syncbak headquarters just outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and at two stations in Cedar Rapids, Sinclair’s Broadcast Group’s KGAN and Quincy Newspapers’ KWWL.
Perry says that he expects to have the system up and running for preliminary testing on about 50 stations by the middle of next month. If all goes well, it should be ready for testing with programming in September or October and then for a commercial rollout in January, just in time for the Consumer Electronics Show.
Perry concedes the timetable is ambitious, but, he says, “we have been doing the groundwork for a couple of years.”
In addition to Sinclair and Quincy, cooperating station groups include Morgan Murphy Media, Northwest Broadcasting, Citadel Communications, Communications Corp. of America and Allbritton Communications, Perry says.
“He’s got an interesting product that can help broadcasters compete,” says Brian Brady, CEO of Northwest Broadcasting, who has taken an equity position in Syncbak. “As broadcasters, we have to be active participants in getting to the other screens. I’m committed to figuring it out and doing something with it.”
Sheldon Galloway, VP of Knight Broadcasting, a duopoly partner with Communications Corp. of America, says that Knight and CCA have been testing Syncbak’s basic authentication system on stations in two Texas markets — Waco and Tyler-Longview.
“If we were able to get the rights for all our [network and syndicated] programming, the concept of using the Internet to drive people back to TV stations is pretty interesting,” he says.
As envisioned by Perry, stations would use the Syncbak platform to offer broadband users within their markets an array of local and national programming — linear channels as well as individual shows — supported by advertising and subscriptions.
The programming would be restricted not by technology, but by copyrights. Stations would have to secure local broadband distribution rights for whatever programs they put on the platform. Generally, they have the rights only for their newscasts and other programs that they produce themselves and, perhaps, some syndicated programs. They don’t have the rights to network programming.
Dell Parks, VP, engineering and operations, Sinclair TV Group, calls Syncbak an “exciting” technology, but says that he doesn’t necessarily share Perry’s vision.
“It could allow us to have some interactivity with our viewers and provide us with another way of sending content to them,” he says. However, whether the technology is the basis for a full-blown OTT business remains to be seen, Parks adds. “We can dream of a 100 ways of using the technology. Let’s find one way that really works first.”
In addition to NAB, CEA and Northwest, Syncbak’s investors includes Equity Dynamics Inc., a venture capital firm headed by John Pappajohn, and a handful of wealthy individuals, Perry says, noting that the company has just completed another round of private financing, raising more than $5 million.
OTT services go “over the top” of cable and satellite by delivering TV programming to TV sets through broadband connections and Internet-connected TVs, gaming consoles and proprietary set-top boxes from companies like Roku, Apple TV and Boxee.
The OTT phenomenon is being driven by the penetration of broadband access in U.S. homes and the proliferation of Internet-connected TVs — CEA expects some 13 million to be sold this year.
Syncbak was founded last year to develop a system that would “authenticate” online viewers as local — that is, confirm that they live within the stations’ market.
Such a system is key to stations interested in the TV-over-Web business because they must obtain local broadband distribution rights from networks and syndicators. To even have a chance of doing that, they must promise that they can restrict the programming to their markets.
“All the local broadcaster really wants is territorial exclusivity and our technology gives them that,” Perry says.
The Syncbak system uses a sliver of a station’s over-the-air TV signal to deliver an encrypted authorization code to receivers — Internet-connected TVs, desktops, tablets and smart phones. Only receivers within the stations’ coverage area, of course, could receive the code.
The code tells the receiver exactly what programming it may receive according to the instructions of the broadcasters.
Syncbak is now leveraging the authentication technology to develop a turnkey OTT system that that also includes software for back-office program management and the user interface — a Syncbak “cloud” where programming can be stored and accessed by viewers as they would on a DVR — and rack-mounted hardware that generates the authorization signals and the online video for installation in stations.
“When we started to solve the problem of how do you get the linear broadcasts authenticated, we realized that what we have here is really a platform so that a local broadcaster could become kind of the a mini cable headend — an over-the-top guy delivering all kinds of content to people,” Perry says. “As long as they have a connected TV and we can authenticate them, then [stations] could deliver anything they want.”
An important feature of the Syncbak system is audience measurement, Perry says. “Every moment of viewing … is going to be measured, which we think will set the stage for innovations on the broadcaster side of things.”
With the local authentication tool and the promise of maintaining market exclusivity, Perry says, stations have a shot of persuading their networks and syndicators to give them the right to distribute their product online locally.
So far, the networks have been reluctant to give their affiliates such local rights. But Perry is undaunted. “What we have learned from ivi and FilmOn … is you can’t just take other people’s property and put it on the Web,” he says. “What I’m saying is, look, I will build an authentication system first and then we can have that discussion about local rights.”
Last year, startups ivi and FilmOn challenged the broadcast networks by streaming their O&Os on the Internet without permission. The networks raced to court and won injunctions shutting down the two services.
While waiting on the broadcast networks, Perry is trying to convince popular cable networks and others to provide programming that would supplement the broadcasters’ local fare.
One source of programming, he says, will likely be MHz Networks, a Falls Church, Va.-based broadcaster that delivers 10 channels of international programming, including Al Jazeera English, in the Washington market over two TV stations, WNVC and WNVT.
“We have a great relationship building with [CEO Fred Thomas] and we expect great things out of that,” says Perry.
Thomas could not immediately be reached for comment.