CableLabs has issued a new set of specifications for cable advertising and other interactive services. The so-called Stewardship and Fulfillment Interfaces, or SaFI, aim to provide consistent technologies, metrics and interfaces across a national cable television footprint in the United States, which remains a distant goal. The announcement comes a week after the Canoe joint venture abandoned its community addressable advertising initiative. Most cable companies have also missed their own deadline for deploying tru2way technologies.

The SaFI specifications are intended to standardise message formats for interactive applications across multi-system operators.

“These specs represent some fairly fast track work put together by specialists from our member MSOs, Canoe Ventures and vendor companies,” explained Don Dulchinos, who is responsible for advanced platforms at the CableLabs research and development consortium. “Their long experience makes it possible for new capabilities around standardised reporting and fulfillment to be plugged right into technologies that support a range of advanced advertising products.”

The development of the specifications, which are based on web services and XML, was announced earlier this year. Arthur Orduña described their publication as “the critical next step in the development of the cable industry’s Advanced Advertising 1.0 architecture specification.”

“These interfaces are another building block in a standard and efficient approach to building out advanced advertising capabilities for Cox’s systems,” said Terri Swartz, the director of advertising technology at Cox Communications. “We will look for compliance with SaFI specs as a key requirement for our advanced advertising vendors.”

The SaFI specification consists of a number of interface definitions. They include a Service Measurement Summary Interface, by which operators can export information about the execution of a campaign, and an Interactive Fulfillment Summary Interface, which provides a standardised interface for messages generated by an interactive application, such as a vote or request for information. An Interactive Application Messaging Platform defines a common message format for applications, and a Campaign Information Package interface describes the configuration of application messaging processing, such as identifiers relevant to the messages.

At an interoperability event held by CableLabs in June, fourteen companies demonstrated compatibility with an early draft version of the SaFI standards, showing dynamic addressable insertion of advertisements into video-on-demand services.

Canoe Ventures, the joint venture between leading cable companies in the United States, recently shelved its community addressable advertising initiative, aimed at delivering different commercials to different demographics. It chief executive, former advertising industry executive David Verklin, said: “We were trying to use 20th-century technology to enable a 21st-century advanced-advertising product.”

The latest CableLabs specification is evidence that the industry is still trying to tackle the technical issues. The current objectives are relatively modest, for instance to provide an interactive overlay over an advertisement to allow viewers to request further information.

The term “stewardship” employed by the specifications is unusual and avoids the use of words like measurement and reporting, which are of course central to an advertising platform. The specifications aim to provide data such as the number of set-top boxes that view an application and for how long it is displayed.

Initial applications are likely to use the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format or EBIF standard, designed to work across the estate of low-specification legacy set-top boxes still supported by many cable companies.

The cable industry appears to have missed its self-imposed deadline for deploying more advanced tru2way systems across its headends. The leading cable operators had agreed a binding memorandum of understanding to deploy the technology by 1 July, but most are still in the process of rolling out systems.

While the functional standards appear to be coming together, the real challenge will be to support sophisticated interactive services nationally at any meaningful scale, sufficient to really interest the advertising world.

Further information about the new CableLabs standards is available at the Advanced Advertising web site.