Times are difficult for broadcasters worldwide. Market shares and advertising revenues are no longer rising, more and more channels compete for fewer viewers, and the time spent in front of the TV is static or even in decline in certain countries.
So what can broadcasters do about it? The basic requirement of a broadcaster is to deliver content to users, but in the digital age, there are so many different ways to do this. In order to be legitimately called a broadcaster these days means being able to fill multiple channels such as TV, Teletext, MHP, WAP, G3 and the Internet with appropriate content.
It is not enough to produce and air key assets just once, only to archive them in perpetuity. The challenge is to exploit these assets for multichannel purposes while remembering that each medium has a specific flavor and requirements. In the current economic climate, it might be impossible to serve every platform immediately, but it is essential to start reorganizing the technical and editorial production processes in anticipation of doing so, as soon as possible.
Digital television in Europe still serves only a very limited market and suffers from a lack of suitable receivers and standardization. All efforts towards convergence by creating a combination TV set and Internet access terminal have so far proven unsuitable for users, so the ''''sit back and relax'''' rather than ''''log on and surf'''' attitude is still the order of the day.
On the other hand, online services with video-on-demand and live streaming have the potential to expand content accessibility, recapture or even extend shrinking TV audiences, and generate new revenue. With broadband connections and rich media content, the Internet shifts from an eclectic text medium to a mainstream entertainment and information experience, although careful planning of editorial and technological strategies is essential if disappointment and financial struggle are to be avoided.
High-speed Web connection via DSL or satellite is far from common, but demand is rising steadily. Germany, for example, has more than 2.5 million broadband users, which equates to 15 percent of all households.
Broadband users are generally considered as early adopters or market leaders, and they are known to spend more time online downloading or accessing music and video streams. While traditional TV broadcast transmission is either done in analog or digital, and via terrestrial or satellite, the cost of distribution is rarely an issue since the service is usually paid for as a flat fee, regardless of the ratings. Online service costs, on the other hand, and particularly broadband distribution costs, can skyrocket with the number of users, or the service may fail to deliver sufficient quality. In any case, be it news coverage or entertainment highlights, delivering an online service can turn into a nightmare if demand is high, but access is restricted, especially considering that failure to deliver the expected level of service and quality can threaten your well-established brand.
Experience has shown that if more than 10,000 users are expected to watch streaming video at the same time, the workload has to be delivered and shared by distributed server networks such as those offered by Akamai. Instead of high-profile but expensive events, broadcasters would do better to concentrate on reliable and trust-worthy video content with a daily or even hourly turnaround.
Content is king, but the Web and TV are different kingdoms. Therefore, all content has to be seen as the key asset across all platforms, independent of the platform it is produced for, and even before any production work has been started. Most broadcasters, however, still have different editorial responsibility for their online and TV departments respectively, and the two seldom share the same resources or office space. The usual practice is to decide which stories and programs can best be repurposed for online usage and how they can be enhanced with additional offerings, but if Web content is to match that of TV, good communication between the departments is crucial on a daily and personal level, even if both channels require different content.
Ultimately, if the true multimedia potential of TV production is to be realized, a different approach is required, and content should not be seen in terms of exclusively being aired according to fixed schedules. An interview, used as a ten-second sound bite in a news show for example, could be shown in its entirety as a video stream via the web, and this complementary relationship might even help to generate further interest in both the online and TV services. In fact the ability to experience web streaming as a time-independent delivery channel for certain types of TV output with additional related content, is already here, and as broadband penetration rises, more users are likely to access longer video footage and longer news shows online.
Because most TV content resides on tape or different servers in multiple digital formats, the task of repurposing such assets does not lend itself readily to being automated, but requires a certain amount of human intervention. As a result, making assets available online should be made as easy and efficient as possible. Any source material should be ready to be encoded to different streaming formats such as Windows Media, QuickTime or RealVideo for live and on-demand usage.
If the output quantity is large enough, powerful encoding engines such as Anystream or Telestream can facilitate the process. Basic editing can be performed by the journalists or multimedia workforce at their desktops, while advanced editing is best done by the same resources as used for TV production in order to avoid excessive new investment and to provide consistent workflow.
Using technology as a cross-platform application and carefully trimming in-house organizational issues will reduce the amount of investment required. Banner advertising is one way to make up for declining revenue from TV commercials, while some broadcasters with well-established brands, such as CNN, have started successfully to charge for premium broadband content.
By far the biggest opportunity in the European market, however, is to sell unique assets that are suitable for broadband via large content portals, or to establish joint ventures. Broadcasters should not underestimate the value of their video assets that have the potential to be turned around as killer applications for broadband usage.
Such broadband content strategies will pay off as more output channels develop. Push and pull services will evolve with different kinds of end-user tools and gadgets, and interactivity will capture and engage audiences and help to strengthen the brand. Broadcasters should seize the moment to use their rich broadband content as an advantage over their competitors. After all, serving a minority now is the only way to reach and keep a bigger market share and brand reputation, across all media platforms, in the future.
Jüergen Kleinknecht is the project architect for streaming at ZDF.
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