• NDS Leads $20 Million Investment in BlackArrow for Advanced Advertising

    Amid all the coverage that online video advertising receives, it's also important to remember that advanced advertising in on-demand and pre-recorded TV continues to evolve. News today that NDS, one of the largest technology providers to multichannel video programming distributors ("MVPDs") is leading a $20 million Series C round in BlackArrow, a provider of advanced advertising solutions, is a reminder of progress. Last week I spoke to Todd Narwid, VP of New Media for NDS and Dean Denhart, BlackArrow's CEO, to learn more about the deal.

    To put the deal and its upside in context, it's important to first understand there's a big difference between how online video advertising against free streams in the open Internet works vs. how advertising against VOD and DVR programs in paid, subscription-based services run by MVPDs works. In the Internet world, there are pretty well-established standards, allowing significant interoperability among sites and ad servers. While measurement challenges persist, the act of getting video ads inserted where they're supposed to be is now pretty straightforward.  

    Conversely, in the MVPD world, the first challenge is just getting ad serving systems approved and deployed. Because ads are served from within the MVPD's own infrastructure, new ad servers must be tested and integrated with existing video delivery infrastructure residing in distribution centers often called "headends" in the cable world. Unlike MVPDs' broadband deployments, much of MVPDs' TV delivery architecture pre-dates the Internet and therefore is heterogeneous and often difficult to integrate with. In addition, there are the tens of millions of deployed set-top boxes which also differ in their capabilities and openness. MVPDs have made significant progress in creating their own standards and in deploying advanced services, but as anyone who's ever tried to implement any kind of advanced service in the MVPD world can attest, it's hard work and has ground down many promising technology start-ups.

    When I first wrote about BlackArrow, on its launch in Oct, '07, I liked its vision of delivering advanced advertising in VOD and DVR programs, but I noted the above challenges gave it a steep hill to climb. Since then, BlackArrow has made progress, deploying with Comcast in Jacksonville, FL and with other operators (though Dean isn't able to mention them due to MVPD restrictions). Still, MVPDs have so many priorities and their resources for testing and integrating new technology are limited. Further, there's a lingering sentiment that MVPDs have only made a half-hearted attempt to really monetize VOD and DVR.

    Given these circumstance, the NDS deal appears to offer BlackArrow a lot of upside. As one of the largest technology providers to MVPDs globally ("conditional access" systems that provide secure MVPD video delivery are its main product line, among others), NDS immediately gives BlackArrow both credibility and significantly improved sales and support reach, particularly outside North America. The companies also announced a joint solution offering, which will be key to realizing actual sales  Importantly, NDS gives BlackArrow improved financial footing for what promises to be a very long-term process of deploying advanced advertising by MVPDs. Conversely, for NDS, as Todd explained, BlackArrow provides the monetization piece of the puzzle that MVPDs need to create business cases to help them justify NDS's advanced technology delivery systems.  

    For MVPDs, who are witnessing the rapid adoption of online video and the threat of cord-cutting down the road, it is essential to be able to offer subscribers more flexible viewing options like VOD and DVR and to give their content partners opportunities to effectively monetize these views. This has been the Achilles heel of VOD and DVR to date, and the scarcity of ad-supported programs in VOD (particularly relative to what's available online) is a direct reflection of this.

    Going forward, the challenge for MVPDs will only intensify as content providers face escalating choices about where to optimally monetize their programming. This is where BlackArrow fits in. Plus the company has always had a multi-platform vision, so once it's enabled for TV and DVR, BlackArrow could also provide a pathway to online monetization, which given MVPDs' TV Everywhere initiatives, is also a growing priority.

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