Opinion

Broadcasters must change

Chris Forrester.

Channels must reflect that viewers are more sophisticated, says Chris Forrester.

Good broadcasters are already building and planning for tomorrow. Good broadcasters supply multiple opportunities for viewer interactivity and feedback. Good broadcasters see the supply of programming to tablets, ‘smart’ phones and other ‘second’ screens as a necessary step in keeping viewers engaged.

Making these changes, and managing them, of course, costs money and as the world’s broadcasting experts, managers and technicians descend on Amsterdam’s IBC they’ll find the usual slew of suppliers, experts, managers and – sometimes unfortunately – more than a few sales folk to tell visitors that their latest widget or invention is the answer to every problem the broadcaster has.

But here’s what these true experts have to say.

Wilfred Urner, CEO at SPS, the German-based playout, Media Asset Management and uplinker for hundreds of TV, radio and data channels says the consumer is changing his behaviour in terms of content, for example, and how media is consumed.

“On the one hand, we have an increased perception of on-demand content, and the other is seen as the traditional linear distribution models. On-demand might end up being seen as the source for movies and ‘catch-up’ programming, while linear might be the model for big events, sports, reality programming and talk-shows, and such like.

“In Germany, we are supporting both solutions, and we see hybrid as being the ideal way to support both sets of demand. Hybrid gives us a back-channel hooked into the customers’ telephone line perhaps, and totally complements the linear supply of programming. In my view, linear programming, normally transmitted, is going to be around for a very long time.

“But the broadcasters also have to change their focus in order to keep audiences watching. It is no longer enough to buy a nice movie and screen it during the evening. They have to have much more in the way of primary entertainment to hold onto the viewer’s attention. Of course, a good broadcaster has some subsidiary channels where alternate programming can also be offered. This has proved to be a sound business model, and if mixed with some interactivity, it helps.”

Urner has a powerful message for broadcasters wanting to upgrade.

“In Europe, we have an excellent position because of our broadcast neighbourhoods but looking to the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, or Africa, we are just one amongst many. If you cannot offer more to potential clients, and we can talk about what ‘more’ is, then we might not win the business. ‘More’ might include any number of incentives, or capacity agreements, or service bundles. This might include ensuring that the client gets to market a little sooner, or help with their business models, or aid them with their technology development. But what we have to avoid is stepping into their businesses. They are the broadcasters, not us.”

There’s another shining comment from Urner that will reassure today’s better broadcasters.

“As to today’s hype, and the suggestions that everyone will move from linear to non-linear, well I just do not believe this will be the case.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

But SPS also has its sights set on the Middle East, India and Asia for new business. It is already playing out dozens of channels from Germany direct to pay-TV operator TopTV based in Johannesburg, and Urner believes the market is ready for greater competition in playout, MAM and digital uplinking.

He admits that there are some parts of the world that SPS cannot uplink to. Satellite operator SES already owns teleports in Luxembourg, Munich, Princeton (USA) and elsewhere. Remember, SES is responsible for the DTH sales effort on Yahsat’s Yahlive HDTV service, and seeks more business out of the region. It already beams more than 600 channels into India, for example.

“At SES, we might own teleports but perhaps we don’t have uplinks to this or that satellite. So we have to think about how we might upgrade the teleports that SES owns and operates all around the world in order to supply much more flexibility to clients. Maybe we have to improve the links we have with third-party teleports to improve connectivity for our clients.”

But back to some more expert advice, this time from Peter Owen, the chair of the IBC Council, and one of the most admired figures in the industry. He talks about the ‘old days’ when broadcasters could look down their noses at “the internet” and laugh at their – then primitive — dial-up services.

“Traditional broadcasters initially ignored this parallel business in the belief that their audience would not accept the quality constraints imposed by telco data rates. To deliver good television needed 3Mb/sec, an unlikely achievement in the days of dialup and many believed that delivery via the telephone line would not progress much further. Internet content was also seen as being so far removed from that of broadcast and hence, not relevant to the broadcast audience. Broadcast was safe … until broadband came along, when the audience, especially the internet-literate younger generation became truly distracted. Looking for solutions, one broadcast conference headlined the theme, ‘Attractions in the Age of Distraction’.

“By today, the much heralded promise of the mid 90s cellular telephone company executives, ‘anything, anytime, anywhere’ is almost here. But excluded from the slogan are ‘any quality’ and ‘any audience demographic’. Adding these broadcast-loaded requirements challenges the mantra of ‘anything, anytime, anywhere’. Can today’s technologies and content delivery business meet all of the requirements? Such an achievement would surely challenge the broadcaster. On the other hand, do they need to meet all of the requirements to attract an audience and operate a successful media and content business,” he asks.

“From a technical point of view, the challenge may be seen as one, the battle with bandwidth and two, the battle for bandwidth. The former refers to server and backbone capability while the second refers to the battle for terrestrial spectrum.

“Developed initially for delivering low volume data, the growth and success of video content over the internet is a surprise that is set to challenge the telco networks. Predictions state that without substantial infrastructure investment, video content could soon swamp the internet. Phrases such as fair usage, capping and throttling suggest both technical capacity and business challenges. Not so, say the high tech cities of the Far East where network pipelines deliver the equivalent of multi-stream high definition. Even so, the server requirements to feed ‘anything to anyone’ at ‘any quality’ demands more investment in earth scorching server and routing hardware. Connected TV will only further feed the battle with bandwidth.”

Owen doesn’t shirk in his message over ‘the battle for bandwidth’.

“It’s a scene being played out on all continents,” he argues.

“Key to delivering ‘anything to anywhere’ is useable terrestrial spectrum, of which a substantial amount is assigned to broadcasters. Arguably the one-to-many transmitter mast on top of the hill is an efficient and secure route to delivering content to millions in high density conurbations. It is also a low cost, wide area technology for rural regions which when supplemented by satellite services can deliver near 100% high quality coverage.

“Unlike contention-based telco/internet technologies, the service is guaranteed. But unlike the telco/internet product, its content is limited to that chosen by the broadcasters. Releasing broadcast spectrum and further investing in cellular infrastructure supports the possibility of anything to anywhere. But will it ever reach the performance of terrestrial, or satellite or high-capacity cable?  I am sceptical.”

There’s one other message that’s usually key to a visit to IBC — that of ‘future-proofing’ any broadcast facility. Broadcasters have probably had their fill of sales folk suggesting that a shift to digital and non-linear editing and post-production was the solution to all their headaches.

Now, just when broadcasters were wrapping up their transitions to MPEG4 and HDTV, they find the world talking Ultra-HDTV. Indeed, some people have been talking U-HDTV for a year or two but there’s now real evidence that, at least, a handful of broadcasters will start transmissions in the next few years.

For example, DirecTV in the USA is expected soon to create some noise in U-HDTV. BSkyB in the UK is making similar noises and SES is on record as saying that it will have demonstration channels on air “within 2 to 3 years”.

Time will tell how long this ‘new kid on the block’ takes to appear over the Middle East. But I have little doubt that some of the region’s pay-TV broadcasters would find a ready market for a U-HDTV channel or two, probably featuring soccer and movies.

But that’s the wonder of IBC. There’s always something new.

Chris Forrester is editorial director of Broadgate Publications.