Fragmentation and Standardisation Challenge Media Industry

The first panel of the day was titled ‘Threats to the UK media and tech industry’. It was chaired by MD of Decipher Nigel Walley. Panelists were Channel 4 CTO Orpheus Warr; media consultant Alex Pumfrey; EBU CTO Simon Fell; and Thomas Wrede, VP of reception systems at SES.

Each candidate began by giving his or her opinion on the threats. Warr said that Channel 4 expects industry consolidation to occur soon. Rival trail-blazing solutions spring up, and then the industry gets behind a single standard.

Unfortunately, we are not quite there with VoD. The complexity of publishing online video means that everyone has proprietary systems. The Freeview Player is trying to drive some standardisation, but the rest of the ecosystem is still very fragmented. As an example, Warr mentioned Channel 4’s VoD platform, All 4 (previously 4oD). Currently this supports 10 app stores; six different DRM systems; 13 metadata formats; and six different development application languages – and it has been running for 10 years! “We grapple with the opaque plans of various device manufacturers,” he said, “but we can’t see their roadmaps.”

Pumfrey said that the world is becoming more complex, with a proliferation of devices and channels. How can we preserve the advantages of the past; do we have a clear and common understanding of what they are; and how can we adapt them for the future?

The UK has historically been a great technology leader, and the benefits of its innovations are generally widely distributed, as scale is important to platforms. Interoperability is also key. In the past, the UK broadcast industry has enjoyed a good degree of shared interest and mutual understanding, and the ability for different parties to work together towards the same ends. This dates back to the digital switch, when a government policy effectively required everyone to work together. There is no such policy now, and while challenges to the industry are growing, we risk becoming more – not less – factionalised.

Pumfrey responded to a good question by Walley – how can we bring companies like Netflix, who have admitted that they want to kill linear TV, into our industry? – but we were too busy writing to catch her answer! We have emailed her about it, however.

Collaboration has always been seen as achievable, with bodies like the EBU overseeing the industry. Can the EBU maintain its role while we deal with fragmented standards and geographies, asked Walley?

Fell feels that the EBU will still be relevant in the future (naturally!). EBU members are public service broadcasters and people who need to work with them. It is also incorrect to think that relatively new entrants to the market, like Netflix, don’t need to work with standards bodies. In fact, Netflix specifically works closely with SMPTE and is a supporter of the IMF standard. It is in the company’s own interest to reduce the effort that people need to go through to access content.

Europe benefits from a very good regional standard for hybrid television: HbbTV. The UK and Italy, formerly using their own MPEG and MHP standards, recently joined the movement. All European broadcasters will use HbbTV in the future. However, it is difficult to convince consumers to use these functions when the biggest red button on their remote is the (paid-for) one for Netflix.

The UK benefits from a history of “very good” catch-up services launched with the ‘red button’ feature in 2007, and this has acted as a buffer to encroaching companies like Netflix. Other countries have not been so lucky. We are now at a point where an independent producer will go to Netflix for funding before Channel 4, said Fell.

Fell added that standards work has changed. Software-based vendors like Netflix and Amazon find the roll-out of a new standard easier to deal with than hardware vendors. He said that it is important not to introduce all of the ‘better pixels’ features (HDR, UltraHD, HFR, WCG, etc) piecemeal, so that we can avoid needing to roll out a new TV every couple of years. The DVB is working on UHD-Phase 2 now, which incorporates all of these things. However, standardisation remains “a nightmare” for OTT. The EU is currently promoting 5G as a solution for everything (connected cars, the IoT, broadcast, etc) – but it won’t exist as a standard until 2020.

Walley pointed out that the first UltraHD sports channel in the UK (BT Sport) was launched as IP, rather than cable, satellite or so on. It feels as if there are a series of threats pointed at the satellite industry.

Wrede said that, as Fell had outlined earlier, it is much easier to implement an UltraHD channel on a small, managed ecosystem like IPTV. We need more time and standards for broadcasting high resolutions to massive audiences. IPTV has advantages in that people can change their device or update software to get the benefits of new features – satellite audiences do not have that luxury,

The satellite business model has to change; the days of sitting back and selling capacity and coverage are probably over. Satellite operators need to deliver playout services, internet, EPGs and more. Satellite is also well-suited for UltraHD transmission, as operators can sell high bandwidth. The average connection speed in Europe is 4.6Mbps; HD content is delivered between 6 and 15Mbps, but UltraHD requires 25Mbps+.

In terms of major developments for satellite, SES is looking at emerging markets. Satellite is considered to be the best option for these areas.

Standardisation is giving Wrede a headache, he said – it takes so long. UHD-1 is more pixels; UHD-2a and UHD-2b are better pixels; and there are nine different technical candidates for HDR. All of this is delaying the time to market, giving an advantage to Netflix and Amazon Prime.

These threats are created by internal processes, Walley replied. The TV industry has always had time to come up with solutions, but now the market is moving faster. We’re not used to such quick innovation.

Fell said that the proliferation of HDR standards is something that the EBU regrets. Standards are “a funny game.” Some are open, some are paid, and some require totally new hardware.

What threats does the industry face moving forward, asked Walley?

Warr was of the opinion that we still don’t challenge ourselves enough when talking about working together as an industry. Some broadcasters and manufacturers work together very well, but not all of them. We must work together faster and more collaboratively. Pumfrey added that we must not just talk to ourselves; we need to create a broader consensus of what we need in the industry, and welcome new players.