Entertainment

Rebuilding Foxtel: The 500-Person Army Fighting Netflix


Foxtel is slipping. Slipping in the minds of you and I: streaming users who aggressively pursue new technology. It’s slipping ever closer to the proverbial black hole of irrelevance by clinging onto its old-world set-top box products while also tacking on a few piecemeal streaming services on the side in the form of Go, Play and Presto. That’s the story you know. The story you don’t is far more interesting. “We haven’t so much turned the great ship Foxtel around,” Mike Ivanchenko, Director of Product, tells me over a coffee. “We built a brand new ship next to the old one.”


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The Problem

You don’t have to scroll down for long on the comments section of any blog, news website or forum to find someone with something bad to say about Foxtel.

The comments all touch on the same points, too. Foxtel is seen as a corporate behemoth, scared of the NBN, resistant to change and only interested in squeezing as many dollars out of its dying empire as possible.

Here are a few we plucked from the comments of this very website:

“Foxtel has been ripping off Australians for years…I hope Netflix crushes them.”

Or…

“I still don’t think Foxtel quite gets it…”

And…

“I’ll never be paying for Foxtel out of principle.”

And perhaps the worst one:

“Foxtel…nobody cares.”

This is the problem. The challenge. The good ship Foxtel has a bad reputation, and it’s high time that changed. Especially given that Foxtel is now staring directly down the barrel of Netflix: the great vanquisher of cable companies the world over.


***

Netflix brings with it a unique set of challenges for Foxtel. For the longest time, the pay TV provider has focussed on beefing up its catalogue to give customers little to no choice but to subscribe to a box-based product. Wrapping up content from HBO and Showtime into its own little world means that if people want to watch the hot new shows, they have to pay through the nose to get it.

But Foxtel’s technology left customers with a bad taste in their mouths. Why should they have to subscribe to a new piece of tech that may not fit into their lives? In 2015, we have tablets, laptops and smartphones that come with us, and we expect our content to do that too. Technology took a back seat to content for too long, and Foxtel started to pay the price with digital natives.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians began storming the US marketplace looking for a way to access Netflix, and now that the service has launched in Australia a significant percentage of the Foxtel’s existing users are thinking about cutting the cord. It was time to bring technology up front.

Enter the iQ3.

The iQ3 is a major departure from previous models, simply because it melds both satellite services with new cable and IPTV functionality. New features lean heavily on the fact that the iQ3 can be connected to the ‘net.

The new box is crammed full of tuners so you can record three shows at once while watching a fourth, and also pack in free-to-air channels as well. Thanks to that IP connectivity, you now do a whole bunch of funky internet-related stuff with your new box.

It has a new feature called Start Over, which allows you to jump back to the beginning of any show after it has commenced, and a similar feature called Look Back which lets the users take a look at the previous 24 hours and select any show to stream via the IPTV connection. Streaming is unmetered on Foxtel Broadband and Telstra BigPond, but the box notifies you of the usage you’ll be going through no matter who you’re with to give clarity over the data you’ll be chewing through.

Streaming options go deeper than just catch-up, however.

A centralised synopsis page has been built for each show and film, which analyses packages that users have on their service and pushes the cheapest and most convenient options for them to stream a title directly to the box. The synopsis page will push the Boxsets channel, on-demand streaming and live viewing, depending on what’s available at that time and in that customer’s package.

“The old Foxtel was an old, standard, cast-iron broadcast engine. It was all about content, broadcast, play-out, satellite uplinks and standard set-top boxes. The way we built them is inherently embedded, difficult to upgrade. We can now do things our customers want much faster for them when it comes to deploying new products or functionality.”

As far as connectivity and hardware is concerned, the box comes with its own 802.11ac connectivity and has been tweaked to work perfectly with the new Foxtel Media Gateway Wi-Fi modem you get if you’re a Foxtel Broadband subscriber.

Futhermore, the new Foxtel remote doesn’t communicate via Infrared, instead pairing to the box using Bluetooth so you can point and click anywhere.

The box packs in a new 1TB hard drive which Foxtel says can hold 172 hours of HD content, or 345 hours of SD content. Sadly, that hard drive isn’t upgradeable. There’s even a label on the back that stresses the fact that “no user serviceable parts” are inside the unit if you crack it open.

The iQ3 isn’t where the spotlight ought to be, however. Standing in the wings are thousands of people from all over the world who have taken Foxtel from the ground up and turned it into a modern streaming company with a content catalogue that overshadows its competitors. It’s the construction of a new platform alongside an old one, and it’s been going for five years.

Brett Paton, head of Technology Development for Foxtel sits weary in his seat as he talks to me about the project. He’s weary, but victorious, knowing that customers will soon get to use their new masterpiece.

“Five years ago there was a twinkle in the eye [about modernising Foxtel’s platform]. Two years after that, we did the business case. People started cutting code right after that,” he said.

“There are more than 500 people in 11 countries who have worked to re-build this thing. When people think around here that there must be a lot of activity going on at Foxtel, there’s also 500 people in 11 countries working on it.”

“It’s not so much a big ship to turn around here at Foxtel. It’s a big ship to build another big ship alongside it so you can jump onto it.”

Foxtel describes re-working the platform that iQ3 runs on as similar to “changing the engines of a plane mid-flight”. It had to carefully execute a modernisation program that would see it completely change not only the way content was delivered, but the way Foxtel worked internally as a business.

Mike Ivanchenko, Director of Product, is positively beaming when he talks about the new platform.

“This platform will allow us to deliver on the promise of what you want, where you want, when you want it. And that includes things like starting in one location, finishing in another, being able to share content with family and people who are part of your subscription, the whole idea that whatever and however you want to be entertained, we will serve for you and meet people at their level on their needs.

“That’s been a massive shift, but what it does allow us to do is to fulfill that role of the [content] aggregator. Now, I don’t have to do more work because we have to [service] such-and-such device,” he said.

All of a sudden, I’m twinkling too: this is what we’ve wanted from Foxtel for all these years.

“We’ve done a lot of work with studios and content owners on what ‘restart’ means when viewing and those kind of things,” Mike Ivanchenko tells me.

Gathering the content metadata alone required a whole team to change the way it thought about their day-to-day job of working with rights holders over the last two years, and it’s still a constant struggle, he adds:

“There’s a lot of rights [management], a lot of legal to go through with rights-holders. It’s massive. Across the business there have been a lot of people involved in making it happen. Collecting the metadata for launch [product posters, synopses, etc.]…meant we had to build a platform that allows us to aggregate all of the sources of metadata to allow us to create that unified view for a program or movie or whatever.

“That team works all the way up the studio chain to get those assets and make sure they’re in the right formats and images and resolutions and that they’re localised. It’s ginormous. The other [challenge] is that the same movie will have umpteen IDs according to each release that it’s had. We will get a poster, but then we have to confirm it’s for the right release date for the one we’re putting into the system.

“That attention to detail matters. That’s a good example of all the change we’ve had through to bring Foxtel to life.”

“This platform will allow us to deliver on the promise of what you want, where you want, when you want it. And that includes things like starting in one location, finishing in another, being able to share content with family and people who are part of your subscription, the whole idea that whatever and however you want to be entertained, we will serve for you and meet people at their level on their needs. “

That metadata then needs to be delivered, and to manage it all there’s a dedicated tuner inside the iQ3 box specifically for serving it. Data delivery and content metadata is more important to Foxtel than ever. That’s something Ivanchenko wants to clean up as soon as possible:

“I’ve read a lot of stuff that asks if Foxtel is afraid of the NBN. You can see from this box that as far as I’m concerned, the better internet access everyone has, the better our product will be. If there was ever any evidence of Foxtel absolutely embracing [over-the-top, IP-based] delivery, we’ve just put our primary platform on it,” he boasts.

Brett adds that the new Foxtel is also geared to people with low-speed connections too:

“We have done a lot to make it useful for a whole range of connectivity speeds. Someone on Cable internet with 100Mbps is going to fly [with iQ3], but people in Kalgoorlie or somewhere with just 1Mbps will get a reasonable experience. It’s got features in there about buffering downloads [for consistent playback]. You can adjust that buffer so that while content might take a little while longer to start, you’re more likely to get to the end of the program without it buffering,” he says.


***

Mike and Brett talk my ear off about content delivery for about 30 minutes in the foyer of Foxtel. The pair are so excited about what their teams have built, but what does it all mean in a nutshell, I ask Mike.

“The headline is,” he says with a wry smile, “that we have taken Foxtel from being a broadcaster, to being a content aggregator. What we [now] do is delivery-agnostic. We have to make sure we can provide the content to customers however they want to receive it. So rather than where we’ve had a real focus first and foremost on broadcast and then tack things on, you see with the iQ3 the interface is designed to be about the shows, rather than how the shows are delivered. Broadcast and VOD content are now on the same page. In order to do that, we’ve had to totally change the way we view content. The systems that have had to be built and put in place to generate, store and serve all of that metadata is huge. It touches every part of the way Foxtel works.”

Brett pipes up, saying that “the old Foxtel was an old, standard, cast-iron broadcast engine. It was all about content, broadcast, play-out, satellite uplinks and standard set-top boxes. The way we built them is inherently embedded, difficult to upgrade.

“We can now do things our customers want much faster for them [when it comes to deploying new products or functionality].”

The promise of the iQ3, Brett adds, is the promise of a box that can work together with your tablets, laptops and smartphones in future, rather than just being another dumb box plugged into the wall.

“”We could adopt the concept of a media gateway into the home [with the iQ3]. It has 8 cable tuners in it and we use a number of those for recording and viewing but there’s one dedicated specifically for metadata, and then there are a balance of them reserved for other things. We could have different things in the home. We could stream the content from the [hard] disk to your iPad in the home, but also allow that iPad to use one of those tuners in its own right. That’s the concept of a network tuner for the home. It’s kind of like Slingbox on steroids,” Brett says.

The company isn’t jamming all that functionality into the iQ3 at launch, however. Brett adds that the company needs to sit and talk to its customers to find out what they want and when they want it. You can tell that they’re champing at the bit to put it into the market and talk about it some more.

For Foxtel, the iQ3 is like that final scene in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. The Captain Kirk screams down to the engine room for more power as the Enterprise edges closer and closer to oblivion in the hands of a black hole. All of a sudden, Scotty comes up with an idea to create a massive explosion at the event horizon, which the ship then must outrun. As with all action films, the explosion engulfs the ship, and you’re not quite sure if the ship is going to escape the crushing black oblivion.

Foxtel has just ejected its core and created this massive explosion within its company by jettisoning the idea of a broadcast Pay TV product. A new core is to be installed based around fast internet connectivity, content recommendation engines, anytime viewing and a beautiful new interface.

Whether the good ship Foxtel can escape the ensuing explosion and fly away from the black hole of irrelevance remains to be seen. That plot twist is up to its customers.


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