Hot Button Discussion
By Michael Goldman
With all the buzz surrounding digital television these days, the impact of a specific subset of that category--Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and broadcasting video via the Internet in a myriad of ways--can get lost in the haze of all the new camera, encoding, and display technologies and the fancy, new workflows and infrastructure overhauls that are now permeating the broadcast world. That said, in a sense, no new technology has more fundamentally impacted the traditional broadcast industry model than the Internet. After all, studies are consistently showing that the rapid growth of IPTV subscribers around the world, generally, the wide-ranging distribution of Internet-enabled television technology, and the ongoing movement toward Web-based services such as Netflix and Hulu have transformed home media consumption by diverting it away from merely "watching TV" to the advent of home media centers, where TV, streaming, games, data, and interactivity with content are all available to the consumer on demand. This development has diluted, disrupted, or altered traditional broadcast viewing numbers, habits, programming strategies, and business models in recent years.
Thus, "the Internet has required us to redefine what a broadcaster is" in the modern era, suggests Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television, a longtime broadcast industry veteran, SMPTE Central Region Governor, and an active member of several SMPTE standards groups, Hayes states that broadcast entities need to learn how to thrive not only in the "digital age" generally, but in the Internet age more specifically, because now consumers "have the ability and freedom to watch content anywhere and everywhere on devices large and small."
"Look at the Sahara desert! From the distance, it looks timeless, like nothing has changed, but in fact, it is constantly changing," Hayes says. "That is the environment we are in as broadcasters, and so, we have to make sure our content survives in that environment. In the old days, we owned the entire chain, from the camera used to capture the content through to the transmitters used to send content out to the audience, and they had a single kind of device [in homes] to receive it. Now, much of the content that a local broadcaster supplies is provided from other sources. That same content is available to the consumer from other sources, as well, so one of the key components--exclusivity--is largely gone. The future for broadcasters lies in embracing these facts and adjusting our business plans accordingly. That means we have to manage everything that is now technologically possible for creating and distributing content through new channels, like the Web, and that is a big challenge."
On this new landscape, Hayes suggests that broadcasters increasingly need to define their function differently--are they content creators or are they content carriers? He states that the Internet and other delivery mechanisms are just that--delivery mechanisms. How content is made and how it is delivered are, increasingly, unconnected matters entirely, except in the sense of making sure the content can be formatted correctly for wherever it is going. Thus, Hayes suggests that true "broadcasting" under these conditions should increasingly be about creating the content and making sure it is capable of traveling through all the various pipes available.
"What broadcasting means in this country [U.S.] is different than what it means in Europe," Hayes explains. "I think we are moving toward a world where content creators and content carriers are different businesses, requiring different skills. Traditionally, in this country, broadcasters have been treading in both creation and distribution. But someone had to pay the power bill for transmitters, and that was money that could not be used to make content. But what if someone else managed the transmitters? That has been the model in many European countries, where transmitters are standalone organizations in many places. The network creates the content and rents space on the distribution channel. Today, we are in a place where there are all sorts of distribution channels, and one--the Internet--can be used by anyone and everyone without the same limitations as in the past. So, perhaps we have to narrow our focus and recognize that conditions have changed."
Hayes emphasizes that this has been a hard adjustment for traditional broadcasters in some respects. "They are used to a single channel, even in the digital age, but now we have to be multicasting all the time. We need to produce content at the highest quality possible, recognizing that many viewers will watch on small devices, but large devices are continuing to proliferate. Broadcasters need to build into their content the hooks and capabilities that will let them and viewers take advantage of the interaction and interactivity that is now out on the Internet."
Hayes' employer, Iowa Public Television, for instance, routinely broadcasts one HD service, two standard-definition services, and a reading for the blind service. The station's locally produced content is also available on-demand via the Internet, as well as live streaming. Additionally, slices of its programming are distributed through various on-demand services such as Netflix and Hulu. "Indeed, these other places where our content can end up represent a plethora of opportunities for broadcasters," Hayes says.
In general, Hayes is confident in the industry's technical ability to distribute content to take the best advantage of these opportunities over time, and to manufacture the new tools that are necessary to make it happen. Current work in the ATSC 3.0 standard group will be crucial to fully enabling the next generation of broadcast content in a Web-based, on-demand world. The NAB 2013 presentation on ATSC 3.0, a recent ATSC progress report on the standard, and this year's Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) presentation, highlights this work. The current ATSC digital television standard (A/53) and the A/153 mobile standard, are not fully cut out for this new world in which interactivity and "smart" receivers will be central to linking broadcasters and consumers, Hayes says.
"The limitations of [the digital TV and mobile DTV] standards (see the May 2013 issue of SMPTE Newswatch for more on the mobile DTV standard) need to be addressed," Hayes explains. "The original DTV standard was designed to work with a fixed receiver and an exterior antenna mounted 10 m above the ground. These planning factors were dictated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to replicate station coverage, compared to the original National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) coverage prediction made in the 1950s. We now have to recognize and adjust for a fundamental change, which is the mobility of the receivers. Mobile DTV addresses that to some degree, but it is an add-on to the first-generation standard, and is limited by the underlying physical layer, which was designed to reach stationary receivers with elevated exterior antennas. This requires a complete reworking of the underlying system. As we have made clear in the work of the ATSC 3.0 group, this will be a completely new standard that meets the requirements for mobility and takes advantage of the interactive capabilities associated with the smart devices in which the new ATSC receivers will be installed."
"[At Iowa Public Television], we produce everything in high-definition, including content we know will not be displayed on an HD monitor," Hayes says. "It's a small price to pay to reduce the resolution for lower resolution devices than to create something at a lower resolution and learn later you need it for higher resolution devices.
"The whole idea is that when we create content, we are doing so while aware of the capabilities of smaller devices, like interactivity and things. You do it all on the front end, and if you are doing an interactive part, you collect the necessary metadata to handle the interactivity. Will all that metadata be on every device receiving the programming? No, but it will all be part of the master, and so when it does go out to devices that are interactive, the proper data goes with it."
Resolution is the easier issue to address, Hayes adds, as compared to "the creativity you need to develop to deal with content in a second-screen environment, or how to incorporate it all into a smart TV, where the capabilities for additional ancillary information to be displayed on your screen may exist. I'm talking about content with which the audience will be able to interact. How do you design your workflow to accommodate that? In the next few years, we'll see explosions of technological solutions, or opportunities if you will, to further engage our audiences with this kind of content."
That said, the management layer issue looms as the most vexing. Given economic realities facing broadcasters large and small, he emphasizes manpower won't be the answer to this problem, technology will.
"You need to associate all the data with the primary stream content, and there can only be a technological solution to doing that." "The question is how to manage all this without overburdening the content creator, while giving the consumer whatever device is appropriate for them."
Connected to the management issue is the issue of "the handshake." An increasing concern for content creators is keeping track of all versions and corresponding metadata as their content proliferates to other services and platforms that have different levels of authority to broadcast it in different venues to different kinds of end users. Television stations, for instance, "need to know where stuff is," Hayes suggests, "when we are basically handing content off in an over-the-top environment to another entity that has its own management system and need to conform the content for their own system."
Many organizations have good protocols for this sort of thing. Iowa Public Television, for example, uses its own traffic system and internal databases to manage metadata. Hayes asserts that those protocols are not ubiquitous; there is no industry standard approach in this area. Therefore, at a minimum, he promotes the notion that the industry needs "tighter handshaking," particularly since the interactivity potential of Web-based broadcasting requires content to be periodically refreshed or supplemented from time to time.
"In that exchange between the distributors and other distributors, there probably needs to be some sort of layer whereby the new distributor, for instance, Netflix, can interface with our content through that new layer, and learn that we have added additional features to the content that, perhaps, their system supports. This way, the Netflix customer consuming Iowa Public Television content can access add-on features that were not there a year ago when the content was originally created," Hayes says.
Smarter TV Initiatives
On the same topic of Internet TV, a recent article in Broadcast Engineering details efforts being made by hardware manufacturers to make things work more seamlessly on the consumer side with the next generation of "smart TV's." The piece, by Aldo Cugnini, outlines work being done by various groups to try and standardize protocols for smart TV's receiving interactive content from broadcasters. In particular, Cugnini takes a detailed look at efforts by the European Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV (HbbTV) initiative and the Smart TV Alliance. HbbTV is seeking ways for smart TV's to more efficiently integrate broadband content, live content, and apps through a framework for how to download and implement those apps in the receiver. The Smart TV Alliance is working on the proliferation of common functionalities for such receivers from the consumer electronics' side of the equation to allow increased interactivity.
Online Broadcast Leaders
Ironically, despite the freedom provided by the Internet to move away from constricted, old network broadcast models for those seeking to "watch TV" on the Web, recent data suggests that two companies are dominating the online on-demand programming space. A recent "Bits" blog in the New York Times Technology section analyzed the numbers and cited new research suggesting AppleTV is dominating the home video download space, far ahead of Microsoft's Xbox service, while Netflix had a commanding 90% share of the subscription-based market, far ahead of Hulu and Amazon. The subscription-based model used by Netflix, however, was the more popular method of online TV watching, generally; a model Apple does not use, preferring instead to partner with both Netflix and Hulu through its AppleTV portal.
3DTV vs. UltraHD
Analysis pouring in across the Web on the heels of ESPN's announcement this month that it was shutting down its ESPN 3D channel by the end of this year has been pretty uniform. The move indicates the difficulty in getting American consumers to adopt 3DTV viewing, and many experts see 4K UltraHD as having better potential in coming years. This was the conclusion of Harry McCracken in his recent Time Magazine "Technologizer" column, from the CEPro site, and many others. There are, of course, other 3D networks still active and at-home viewing of 3D Blu-rays and such is also moving forward. Manufacturers are plowing ahead with the distribution of 3DTV's, and the concept seems to be more popular overseas in particular countries. But McCracken cites his May interview with Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai in suggesting that major hardware manufacturers and broadcasters have possibly settled in, at least for now, on UltraHD as "the next big thing" for at-home viewing.