When is a broadcaster not a broadcaster?

By Peter MacAvock

A less attractive way of asking the same question might be: “When is an over-the-top (OTT) provider a broadcaster?” Either way, the answer is “shortly”.

But of course, the answer very much depends on what you view as a “broadcaster”.

Whatever your views are, the definition of a broadcaster is changing for sure. Broadcasting has been around since the 1920s. Indeed, in my role in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), I have been sorting through some archives of the predecessor to the EBU, the International Broadcasting Union (est. April 1925). Back in those days, a broadcaster produced all its own content, aggregated it, distributed it and, indeed, handled the broadcast to the consumer. Okay, so that was AM radio, but the principle was carried over into TV and remained thus until the 1990s.

Now, traditional broadcasters, OTT providers and even social media networks are commissioning content and acquiring sports rights.

The devices to which this content is being delivered have changed too. We can comfort ourselves that consumers are watching and listening to more content than ever, but this is because that content is available any time, in any place, and can be specifically tailored to that consumer’s preferences.

The days of the remote control controlling who watched which content are long gone. A TV has gone from having a terrestrial antenna input to be a sophisticated media hub with USB, Wi-Fi, HDMI, analogue video/audio, satellite, cable and terrestrial inputs. And who controls that user experience?

We have gone from the 1990s trend of the consumer electronics vendors investing in content production because they produce — in the end — furniture that did not look good unless it had pictures on it. Today, it is the OTT providers investing billions in commissioning their own content. Does that not make them broadcasters? After all, they commission, produce, aggregate and deliver their own content; sometimes, even to their own receivers.

Well, technically yes, but is broadcasting not a highly locally regulated market with tightly controlled licences to broadcast?

This is where regulation lags behind the technology by some years. Indeed, in Europe, a number of broadcasters gathered together in their respective markets to offer a consistent package of OTT services combining their content and others — rather like Netflix, although in each market where it was tried, anti-trust authorities systematically blocked the moves. Netflix encountered no such barriers when they launched across Europe.

So, we need a level playing field. Are we going to get this in 2018?

There are other sides to regulation too. We are all familiar with “fake news”, although some of us have differing definitions for it. Europe, where I come from, has a strong tradition of public service broadcasting. For generations, broadcasters have been implementing systems to verify their news: it is what you would expect from a tightly regulated trusted source.

And there is more: these broadcasters are also at the heart of the cultural lives of a small but very diverse region. Broadcasters know that drama and other cultural genres are quite specific to each culture: some are exportable, while some can be dumbed-down enough to be made so. All the same, there is real magic in good quality cultural content that appeals to a specific audience.

In terms of technology, next year will see an acceleration of the trend towards more OTT services. Today, the preserve of the big multinationals like Netflix and Amazon and the bigger pay-TV operators, OTT services will expand rapidly. The DVB Project, the organisation at the heart of the transition from analogue to digital television, is wholeheartedly embracing this tradition.

The secret here is that nobody — apart from the very biggest operators — is making any money from OTT. And for broadcasters to survive, OTT has to be made economically viable. Larger pay-TV operators can afford to swallow a loss on OTT, provided their linear business remains profitable. But if all the predictions are correct: that day will end. Maybe not in 2018.

So DVB is working hard now to profile the technology available to the broadcasting community to make sure that the OTT services on offer today can be more affordable to the mainstream broadcasters. The direction is to ensure that the live TV experience can be replicated on Live OTT. The technology will start to come on stream in 2018, although it may be 2020-2021 before it becomes mainstream.

Exciting times are ahead for sure, and broadcasters must adapt or die; it is as simple as that. Still, adapting profitably is so much harder in today’s multi-device, multi-network world — made all the harder with large multinationals steaming in to attract audiences. But then, they are broadcasters as well are they not?

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