Where next for broadcasting? Key figures at the forefront of developing technology share their predictions on the most important change in the next five years
Broadcasting can be a bewildering business. Hardly a day goes by without a claim that some new technology is about to revolutionise the marketplace – but what really is in store for both the supplier and the viewer?
“A lot can happen in five years,” says Charles Constable, managing director of digital platforms at Arqiva, the company that owns and runs most of the infrastructure for UK terrestrial broadcasting.
You can see his point – since 2006 we’ve seen the launch of 3D, the growth in popularity of HD TV sets and the rollout of digital switchover (by Arqiva), arguably the most complex engineering project in post-war Britain.
All these achievements have greatly improved linear (or “live”) TV. Despite predictions to the contrary, linear TV continues to grow. “It’s still the most efficient way of broadcasting to large audiences,” says Constable.
“But the biggest technological step-change over the next five years will be the take-up of connected TV – televisions that can access the internet for content. Catch-up TV on PCs has been a huge success. Connected TV will seamlessly integrate catch-up TV, video-on-demand and other internet-based services with linear TV.”
This means viewers will have thousands of movies, programmes or major events to choose from via their TV remote control. “Every competition from the Olympics could be broadcast,” says Constable.
“Audiences will be able to overlay a Twitter feed on top of programmes to see what others are saying. Viewers will be able to jump from live broadcasts from the 2014 Brazil Football World Cup to highlights of previous games at a touch of a button. Above all, it will place the consumer in the driving seat of content consumption.”
Steve Plunkett is director of technology and innovation at Red Bee Media, a company that specialises in services like the creation of “idents”, or the graphics and imagery TV channels use to fill the gaps between programmes. He argues that the biggest change in TV over the next five years will not be a single dramatic development, but how viewers experience it in general.
“When they turn on their TV now, many people look first at their recordings and then at the schedule” – Plunkett
“It could be quite different,” he says. “We are already seeing changes in viewing behaviour, with more of us time-shifting our viewing away from the broadcaster schedule to suit our own time preferences.
“For many people, this means that when they turn on their TV now, they look first at their recordings and then at the schedule. This creates an appetite and perhaps an expectation among the audience that they can watch TV shows whenever they want.”
Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist at technology firm Rovi, believes that while delivery methods will shift, content will remain king. “Viewers will still tune into the shows that capture our attention, and will ignore programmes that are not of high interest,” he says. “We will still gather around TVs for major events in news and sports, and to find out who’s got the most talent.”
The big thing that will change, Bullwinkle says, is the way viewers watch TV and films in the home. “As we gain more choices for on-demand television from the internet, and as appointment-based television slides into the history books, you’ll find yourself asking not ‘What’s on tonight?’ but instead ‘What’s out there that’s good?’”
Viewers might enjoy the deep character development of a movie, or watching four episodes of a series in one night, or they might choose to watch a bunch of clips that have nothing to do with each other at all.
“Viewers will have a million choices from a thousand sources, and the smartest technology companies are already working on solutions to help them make sense of it,” he says.
Leading from the front?
There is a battle going on in the nation’s living rooms, according to Will Harrison, managing director of media consultancy Vicat Media
It is a battle for the viewer’s time and attention, and it is being fought on an ever-increasing number of fronts.
So what led to the emergence of a host of new players? The answer is technology. The connection of set-top boxes, games consoles and TVs to the internet is enabling video and other content to be delivered over the top (OTT) – over the open internet, rather than via a service provider’s own network.
Devices such as the Boxee box can now deliver a range of content over the internet direct to the TV screen. Xbox Live, a service from Microsoft that uses the company’s Xbox games console to distribute video programming to the TV, is aggressively strengthening its content line-up, as well as adding voice and hand gesture controls via its Kinect peripheral.
And TVs themselves are becoming smarter, as manufacturers such as Samsung turn what was once a dumb screen into a platform capable of offering a wealth of apps and video-on-demand.
For the consumer, this means freedom from the traditional programme guide, with the ability to search, recommend and customise their own content line-up. It means new functionality, such as integration with their social networks, and it means increased choice.
For content owners and broadcasters, these developments offer a means of reaching the consumer directly, using specialist agencies such as Capablue to take their content and propagate it to multiple devices. And new aggregators such as LoveFilm and the recently launched Netflix are joining the rush for placement on these connected devices.
So where does this leave the incumbent pay TV operators? For years they have controlled the point of delivery and owned the relationship with the customer, but now they risk being excluded as equipment manufacturers.
The response of most has been to broaden their own offerings across multiple devices , whereby an operator’s pay TV content is also made available to its subscribers online and on mobile devices and tablets. BSkyB’s Sky Anytime + and Sky Go services offer subscribers the ability to download video-on-demand and access content on their laptops, tablets and mobiles – and the company has gone further by announcing the launch of a new OTT service that will not require a traditional Sky subscription. Meanwhile Virgin Media’s TiVo box enables customers to source content from the open internet to supplement the range of on-demand and linear programming already supplied.
As the complexity of devices and services increases, the winners will be those who can offer all this increased functionality and choice in a way that is simply communicated, easy to use for the consumer and seamless in its experience. The likes of Sky are past masters at this. Add to this the most potent weapon of all – content rights – and the battle lines are well and truly drawn.