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Broadcast developments in 2018: Evolution, not revolution

By Shawn Liew

SINGAPORE – Many technologies came to the fore in 2017, bringing with them the promise of more cost-effective and streamlined broadcast processes.

As a new year dawns, many broadcasters will continue to ponder which technologies to invest in — and how best to utilise them. This, in all probability, will ensure that 2018 will be a year of slow evolution, rather than revolution, when it comes to innovation in broadcast, said Dr Peter Siebert, executive director, the DVB Project.

“Historically, the broadcast industry does not assimilate new technologies overnight, due to the necessary investment in production and studio equipment,” he told APB. “Also, there has to be sufficient receiver take-up by consumers to warrant the introduction of new services.”

One highlight for DVB over the past 18 months, Dr Siebert reported, was the standardisation of resolutions beyond HD, combined with new advanced feature such as high dynamic range (HDR), high frame rate (HFR), a wider colour space and new audio coding schemes.

While these new technologies have the potential to deliver audio visual content at an optimum quality — a performance close to the limits of the human eye — it also means that it is unlikely that further advancements can be realised in the near future, he added.

Technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 5G will continue to be demonstrated and discussed, but at this moment in time, are they more marketing hype than reality? Dr Siebert asked. “5G, for instance, requires a very expensive network, at a time where mobile operators are confronted with stagnant or even falling revenues.”

Technology for technology’s sake in broadcasting is now very much a thing of the past. Instead, technology upgrades are today being driven by commercial needs, said Graham Stephens, CTO of Media City Development, Malaysia.

He continued: “The biggest challenge that broadcasters face is to stay relevant to a generation that is now so phone-centric and they are so into posting their own content, rather than watching content that is pre-digested by others.

“Broadcasters will be driven by the requirement to retain audiences by catering for on-demand viewing, alongside their more traditional linear scheduled channels.”

And in the months ahead, consumers’ needs and viewing habits will dictate terrestrial broadcasters’ next move.

With limited access to spectrum, will HD, combined with HDR, be a more viable option than 4K/Ultra HD (UHD)?

Stephens believes that there is still no compelling commercial rationale to migrate to an all-IP infrastructure, bar broadcasters who need to supply content in uncompressed 4K/UHD.

In contrast, Fintan Mc Kiernan, CEO of Ideal Systems, South-east Asia, predicted a “marked pick-up” in the deployment of IP-based broadcast systems and infrastructure in 2018. “The early adopters who have already ventured into IP infrastructures are planning trial systems for 4K/UHD in 2018, and are working out ways to achieve this in IP, rather than 12G-SDI.”

However, Mc Kiernan acknowledged that in regions such as Asia, an “IP utopia” will not happen any time soon. “A lot of broadcasters in Asia are adopting the approach of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’, and are clinging to their current SDI/baseband infrastructure until the standards wars have calmed down a bit.”

Other key technology developments Mc Kiernan identified includes over-the-top (OTT) and the cloud. Pay-TV operators will continue to be compelled to evolve their offerings to stay competitive, as OTT subscriptions continue to rise in Asia.

“OTT will evolve too, as more local and global players come to Asia. Watch out for the likes of YouTube TV going international.”

Broadcasters can also look forward to new cloud offerings based around a true cloud-based architecture, instead of running old systems on virtual machines. Mc Kiernan noted: “This will see new players coming into the market, and as legacy broadcast equipment manufacturers struggle to become full software solution providers.”

Sharing Mc Kiernan’s enthusiasm for the cloud is Shad Hashmi, vice-president, digital development, global markets and ope­rations, BBC Worldwide Asia. He declared that cloud-based services are changing the face of the industry. He said: “Broadcasters are no longer tied to a geography, and content processing, playout and distribution can be truly untangled from the constraints of location.

“This will allow broadcasters to take advantage of cost-effective locations and move towards a truly global delivery chain where specialists scattered throughout the globe can be sewn together to form a homogenous, end-to-end process.”

While acknowledging that running a global operation poses many challenges around true collaboration, staffing and the guarantee of quality, Hashmi urged broadcasters to adopt a spirit of innovation. “Try, test, re-calibrate and repeat — there is no reason why migrating to the cloud will not result in brighter days ahead,” he said.

In Australia, and indeed in many parts of the world, the current buzz word is “streaming”, observed Andrew Anderson, head of broadcast operations, Seven Network (Ope­rations). “We are now seeing the 24/7 streaming of regular channels, some with addressable advertising, and this is definitely where the action is.

“In the world of broadcast, the costs of these streamed services need to be offset on the traditional creation world. Therefore, a higher focus on workflows and technology that produce content for both will be key.”

Anderson also sees an opportunity for broadcasters to reconsider channel count in the on-demand content world, and proposed the consolidation of highly reactive services as an area of opportunity.

As transmission and playout systems continue to evolve towards IP-based solutions, a cost point “far lower” than traditional systems can be realised, although the human cost of highly reactive channels will remain, Anderson pondered.

An example of a highly reactive channel, he explained, is live sports with variable commercial breaks. This requires operators to move, edit or change breaks and content on-the-fly. A non-reactive channel, on the other hand, is one that takes a playlist that does not require edits during its run.

“The costs incurred by highly reactive channels then need to be offset by the non-reactive services being highly reliable and mass produced for a very low cost per channel, per annum,” Anderson concluded.

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