The complex future of TV

The advent of digital technologies has redefined the media landscape, not least our concept of television. As consumers embrace content across multiple platforms, industry stakeholders must continue innovating to stay in the game. Brett Savill, strategy and corporate development director for Broadcast Australia writes.

The digitisation of television and other forms of visual/screen-based entertainment is at the epicentre of a wave of change in viewer behaviour. An ever-broadening range of digital viewing options—including internet downloads, cable TV, direct-to-home (DTH) satellite, IPTV, terrestrial television and mobile TV—are vying for viewer attention, presenting both challenges and opportunities for industry stakeholders.

Modern consumers, particularly the youth market, demand a different viewing experience all together from the passive armchair TV viewing of their forebears. The twin progeny of digitisation—personalisation and interactivity—have created an entirely new viewing dimension, where content is actively sought across multiple platforms. It is no longer viable for content to be available from one source only. Where once a program might have been broadcast at a set time and on a set channel, it now needs to be available online for catch-up viewing, plus often on a mobile TV service as well.

Popular consumer devices such as smartphones and media tablets are driving consumer expectation for portability—access to all multimedia and entertainment services from just about anywhere. Mirroring this phenomenal growth of mobile wireless broadband services, the future of television viewing also looks likely to incorporate an expanding range of portable and mobile devices such as netbooks, high-tech phones and a new breed of low cost portable TVs.

Thus the viewer is untethered from the living room—a distinct cultural shift. This is the foundation of the so-called ‘lean forward’ viewing behaviour, where content is tailored and enjoyed across multiple platforms. As a result, consumers are devouring more content than ever before. Moreover, choices in viewing platform are driving Australian television networks to release international content (television programs from the USA, for example) almost immediately after it is first aired, while many cinema-release films are available on DVD within mere months.

The switch to DTV

Terrestrial television services are nevertheless holding firm amid this banquet of options, and remain the dominant platform for transmitting free-to-air content to the vast majority of the Australian population. It is almost a decade since the first digital terrestrial services were broadcast on 1 January 2001, and a subsequent progressive roll-out has resulted in near-national coverage. Although public adoption of digital television was initially slow, the more recent introduction of new digital-only services—such as One, Go!, Seven Two and several from ABC and SBS—has caused take-up in homes to accelerate significantly in the past year.

The next milestone in the life of Australian free-to-air television will be the switch-off and decommissioning of analogue television services. This is intended to take place over three and a half years, during which period many hundreds of analogue television services will be shutdown across the country. Mildura will be the first on 30 June, and a useful test case; December will then see sites in regional South Australia (plus Broken Hill) switched over to digital-only, followed by regional Victoria in the first half of 2011, and so on until the last analogue services in Australia are turned off in December 2013.

In conjunction with this closure of analogue services and the associated ‘digital switchover’ (DSO), the government and broadcasters alike are making sure that digital coverage is extended into all areas that are known to be digital ‘black spots’. As their name suggests, black spots are coverage gaps in the digital signal due to various factors, among them spectrum scarcity and the well-documented cliff effect exhibited by digital signals. These coverage issues are being addressed using a mix of Free TV satellite and terrestrial services, thereby ensuring that all regional, rural and remote viewers will have access to similar free-to-air digital content as metropolitan viewers.

The online experience

While terrestrial platforms continue to underpin television in Australia, there is little doubt that broadband internet is delivering some exciting complementary services. More than 70 per cent of Australians have access to some form of broadband internet, with media viewing and downloads one of the highest growth areas in terms of usage. Online advertising spend is correspondingly on the rise, with a predicted growth of 10 to 15 per cent per year for the next five years—at this rate, it will overtake free-to-air advertising spend by about 2013.

To leverage these new trends, most television networks are investing heavily in their online presence, offering highly functional web sites that provide complete episodes for viewing—in some cases before they have aired free-to-air—and a host of additional ancillary information to complement the television viewing experience.

A case in point is the website for Network Ten’s MasterChef. This immensely popular reality TV show is supported by a dedicated web site that receives thousands of hits a day by viewers seeking more information about the show—whether recipes, full episode views, episode summaries, outgoing contestant video-interviews, episode video-snippets, blogs, discussion forums and more. Unlike some sites, where full episodes are available for only a limited time after the original air date, the MasterChef site supports a vast array of video content indefinitely.

The MasterChef online experience exemplifies the levels of personalisation and interactivity sought by the new generation of television consumers—but it is by no means unique. Complementary online services for popular shows are increasing and will soon be the norm. Sport enthusiasts are another group that are increasingly seeking online viewing of games. In view of this, SBS supported its free-to-air coverage of the FIFA World Cup with a fully interactive web site that provides video coverage of news items, interviews, game highlights—and will include full matches once the tournament commences.

Hybrid TV

Broadband internet is forging an even closer relationship with terrestrial television through the new generation of hybrid digital video recorders and terrestrial TV set top boxes (STB), which look certain to become commonplace in homes. Here, in-built IP connectivity—either wired or wireless—provides an in-built backchannel that facilitates a different kind of interactive and personalised viewing experience to complement terrestrial TV.

Such functionality could be used in the future for directly interacting with live-to-air television—for example, reality show voting or home shopping—although the business case for this is still to be proved. In the here and now, however, it permits video downloads over the internet direct to the hard drive of the STB. Many online service providers are already offering video-on-demand in this way, providing the so-called ‘long tail’ content, while mass content is delivered via free-to-air terrestrial broadcasts.

The Government’s proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) is another factor to be considered here. Some have speculated it will provide a new option for delivery of television content. However, on balance there does not appear to be any desire or justification on the part of either broadcasters or consumers to pay new costs for a blanket NBN-delivered broadcast service, particularly given the existing terrestrial infrastructure and its ‘free’ viewing status. Instead, the NBN is more likely to support the dual-platform hybrid approach, underpinning complementary IP-based ‘new media’ services—on-demand niche content such as catch-up TV, video-on-demand, and subscription IPTV.

This is all good news for broadcasters, who can hope to grow audiences and establish new revenue streams through charging for some of these services. Additionally, the introduction of new channels—perhaps even containing themed programming—can attract more advertising dollar. By exploring the delivery of new types of services and embracing innovation, broadcasters can enhance their relationship with viewers.

The 3D phenomenon

In such an environment, terrestrial broadcast platforms need to continue evolving to ensure they remain competitive against other delivery platforms. Viewers are demanding higher quality services and the choice of more channels—plus increasingly the ability to receive broadcast television on mobile handsets. And now there is 3D TV, the latest phenomenon to burst onto the scene. Several trials of 3D TV technology have been announced globally, including the Australian trial surrounding State of Origin rugby league matches and the FIFA World Cup.

The Australian 3D TV trial was launched on 19 May, and broadcast the world’s first 3D TV signals terrestrially over the air. It will continue until around mid-July this year, by which time it will have broadcast three State of Origin rugby league matches between NSW and Queensland, and up to 15 World Cup soccer matches. It comes at a time when there is enormous interest in 3D TV on the heels of Avatar, and seeks to demonstrate the demand for 3D TV live over the air into the living room.

Although it is still early days for the technology, the indicators of demand are certainly present. It may be that 3D Blu-Ray discs drive consumer purchase of compatible televisions, but it is unlikely to be long before early adopters call for free-to-air 3D content—particularly once it is widely available on other platforms (such as video gaming). Sport, once again, is expected to be a significant driver for the widespread take-up of 3D TV services. As the dominant mass market platform, terrestrial television will also need to take this step into the 3D future.

New technologies are necessarily emerging to sustain emerging terrestrial broadcast platforms such as 3D TV. One such is the second-generation digital video broadcasting – terrestrial (DVB-T2) standard, which offers a dramatically improved capacity over DVB-T, along with increased robustness of the signal. Moreover, with MPEG-4 video compression thrown into the mix, the resultant capacity improvements are even more dramatic.

These promise greater options for broadcasters, as they stand to make 3D TV and even high-definition television (HDTV) broadcasting a more viable option for terrestrial broadcasters—not to mention providing more flexibility to support multi-channelling and other ancillary services.

Digital dividend

In the end, however, it invariably comes down to the availability of spectrum. The explosion in mobile broadband services is placing enormous pressure on governments all around the world to find more spectrum for wireless data. It is therefore not surprising that plans are in motion to compact the spectrum used for digital television—once analogue services are switched off, leaving interleaved vacant channels—in order to clear a contiguous block of UHF spectrum for reallocation.

The Australian Government has identified a 126MHz ‘digital dividend’ in the upper portion of the UHF band (>700MHz) that could become available once the VHF and UHF bands are restacked. With the intention of seeking advice from industry stakeholders, the Government issued a Digital Dividend Green Paper in January this year, inviting comment on the potential size, shape and use of the liberated spectrum. It will then make decisions based on these responses, while at the same time ensuring the outcome provides the best result for the Australian community and economy.

(note from the editor: the announcement was made just days after the July issue of Encore went to print, confirming the 126MHz digital dividend).

While there is certainly a huge need for additional spectrum to support wireless broadband services, there is an equivalent need to reserve spectrum for future digital television services—whether 3D TV, HDTV, extra channels, or a platform yet to be conceived. If digital television—and also digital radio—are not provided with a clear path to evolve in the future, Australia runs the risk of being locked into a technology cul-de-sac.

Broadcast Australia’s response to the Green Paper demonstrates how the Government’s desired digital dividend of 126MHz can be achieved, while still providing spectrum on a national basis for the future needs of all broadcasters and telcos. The proposed scenario provides for seven RF television multiplexes, 12 digital radio ensembles, plus additional spectrum to facilitate the transition to the next generation of services such as 3D TV and/or more efficient broadcasting technologies such as DVB-T2. It also allocates sufficient spectrum for wireless broadband nationally and has the added benefit of potentially yielding a second digital dividend of 21MHz sometime in the future.

Digital stimulation

It is undeniable that the television landscape is changing at a furious rate. Moreover, the sheer diversity of options for viewing content has injected renewed excitement into a passtime which, in the days of analogue TV, was essentially a passive experience. Digital technology, with its broader possibilities and environment of innovation, is pulling consumers forward and providing more active stimulation than ever before.

Terrestrial television remains the foundation of the screen-based entertainment industry, and will continue to be the first port of call for most Australians into the future. This can only become more so with the emergence of new free-to-air technologies like 3D TV. So far from threatening the good old home TV, the plethora of complementary platforms is serving to enhance the overall experience.


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