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IBC2014: Notes from the show floor – Technology in transition

So IBC is done. I have tramped the halls and I have listened to conference presentations. And now I am processing all that information.

One of the big themes for me is that we are an industry in transition. Opinions vary about how long the transition will take, but it is clear that we will move from traditional broadcasting to IP-enabled multi-casting. Probably sooner than you think.

From all the talk, I am taking away five quotes which I think encapsulate the story.

Advertising

The first was from the wonderful keynote given by particle physicist and television presenter Professor Brian Cox. He made the obvious but very important point that “television must be the most powerful medium – advertisers pay more for it than anything else, so it must be so”.

Ah yes, professor, but advertising also has to change if it is going to remain the key source of revenue. Tailoring advertising to the precise demographics of the viewer will be one of the big changes in the future. So a more flexible ad sales, delivery and encoding platform will be required.

David Abraham, who is CEO of Channel 4, one of the major free-to-air channels in the UK, said “Broadcast television is highly relevant, but viewers want mobility and connectivity, and there is no reason why broadcasters should lose that relevance”.

So here is a second strand. Yes, video viewing is moving from traditional broadcasting to TV Everywhere. But broadcasters have both the relationship with the content producers and the relationship with advertisers. If they are smart enough – and have sufficiently agile technical platforms – they will remain at the heart of the business.

Broadband

Those agile platforms have to deliver content to consumers where they want it, how they want it. The BBC is the original and biggest public service broadcaster in the world, and yet Tim Davie, CEO of its distribution business BBC Worldwide, told the IBC conference that the BBC’s “11 branded YouTube channels now have 6.2 million subscribers, and saw views increase by 42% last year to 513.9 million”.

So the most traditional of broadcasters has a huge online following. Why not just move everything to IP delivery? Channel 4’s David Abraham explains it in simple terms.

“If we had screened the World Cup in broadband only, no-one would have got to see any of the matches,” he told the conference. “Everything would have crashed.” TV Everywhere is great for video on demand. It is great when there is something that you need to watch live but you cannot be in front of your television.

But for a fair while yet, the internet cannot cope with huge amounts of traffic. If there is something that most people want to watch live – which might be the Super Bowl or X Factor or the 10.00 News – then broadcasting is the best way to deliver to most of the audience.

We will have a hybrid environment for some time to come. The move to IP delivery will be a planned and staged transition, not a big bang.

Virtualisation

My final quote is from Matt McDonald of Sky, who was talking about moving operations to the cloud. “People’s expectations are extremely high,” he said, “and we have to decide where the cloud is applicable. Moving a lot into the cloud would be horrendously expensive.”

There was a lot of talk at IBC about the cloud, when what most people meant was virtualisation. We can now perform a lot of the processes we need, from graphics to encoding, on standard IT hardware, in scalable and flexible virtualised environments. McDonald is right to say that, for now at least, using the true cloud is likely to be prohibitively expensive

Today’s virtualised environment, in our industry, may exist in a private data centre or in a private cloud. To get video content into the public cloud takes relatively large data pipes, which are not yet widely available. That capability is growing, and it may well come sooner than people think. Once the connectivity is practical, moving from an in-house virtualised environment to the public cloud is almost trivial.

So my take-home messages from IBC2014 are that broadcasters have the power to maintain their position in the industry if they take the right decisions now. Those decisions are not about dramatic change but an ordered transition.

They should be thinking about moving from traditional infrastructures to a software-defined environment, taking advantage of commodity IT hardware. And they should certainly be looking to deliver TV Everywhere – the consumer demand is huge.

by Dick Hobbs, consultant and writer on television and communications technology