CES, 4K & TV Everywhere's impact on future workflow

Another CES is over, and what did it signal for the future of television?

New consumer devices seed ideas with viewers as to what they can expect as future entertainment formats. The headline from CES was 4K, but it’s use in the home looks a way off. We must not forget that huge swathes of channels and programming, as well as DVDs, are in standard definition. And, in terms of viewing quality, the advantages of 4K are only seen on the larger displays, over around a 70in diagonal. 4K needs an efficient codec like HEVC for delivery, and any the temptation to over compress negates the increase in resolution over HD. I see 4K being a great format to deliver live events to large screens in public areas, but delivery to the home is going to take a few years to rollout.

OLED displays were in evidence, but they have no impact on content provision. They are just another display technology. Who remembers the field emission display (FED) or the surface-conduction electron-emitter display (SD), both nanotechnologies vaunted to take over from LCD displays? These developments are for the display, boys.

Although big players like Apple and Microsoft don’t exhibit at CES, the show still points the way forward if you can cut through all the gadgets. There is a general increase in connectivity, devices with near-field communication and Wi-Fi everywhere. It is the ubiquity of IP that is going to have the greatest impact on broadcasters. Now, cars are promised with 4G “auto-hubs” to compete with home networking; TV everywhere can only advance.

It does seem that the first applications of 4K are in production, where broadcasters are looking to future-proof their programming, and also from the great look of oversampled shooting when viewed as HD.

What is the impact of the new technology — of 4K and IP? Changes in our business happen slowly when looked at week-by-week, but looking back of the last few years the change has been great. It could be attributed to many factors. Consumer devices do create demand from consumers for new formats, but HD and Super Hi-Vision were both been kicked off by the broadcaster NHK, and in the case of HDTV later benefitted the CE sector, as 4K should in the future. Of course, HD also brought benefit for the consumer in better-delivered picture quality.

But, picture quality is secondary to the business of television.

It is an enabler, but not everything. We should look to a whole generation that now consumes video on tiny handheld displays over limited bandwidth cellular connections. For them, obviously, size and quality are not everything!

From the broadcasters’ perspective, probably the greatest impact of technological change has been the replacement of videotape with other media, for that has ushered in change to workflows. Business pressure from online competitors has driven broadcasters to look for cost reductions, and the move to file-based operations, along with outsourcing, have both provided the opportunity to lower costs.

One only has to look at the continuing outsourcing of master control and playout to see how broadcasters are looking to focus on the business of television, rather than the minutiae of operations. Playout service providers are able to offer the advantages of scale that small stations just cannot achieve, but even the largest broadcasters now outsource playout operations. As well as cost-savings, the thorny issues of dealing with trade unions become someone else’s problem. Moving playout to a third provider means that the service level becomes regularized in a contract, with risks and costs tightly defined, as opposed to the more uncertain costs of an in-house operation.

Beyond the changes the demise of videotape has brought, lowering cost and increasing availability of fiber networks is having a big impact, and is one of the enablers for outsourcing playout. Centralcasting needs fiber networks; they make it all possible. Editorial QC and promo creation can all be performed remotely from the desktop. Networks link service providers for regionalization of content. Fiber networks have replaced all the tape duplication and transport that was once necessary to get a program to air.

It is perfectly possible to run a broadcast operation from regular offices. Acquisition, syndication, and sales — all the back office functions are all that is needed to run a channel. Programs are bought in, and the program delivery can all be outsourced. Those buildings full of cameras, lights, switchers, VTRs, editors — the panoply of television — can be bought.

The broadcaster becomes a brass plaque on the door of an office building.