IBC2014: Second Screen Seachange?

AMSTERDAM--One of the standard maxims about modern civilisation is that history tends to be written roughly 30 years after events have occurred. That is considered enough time for dust to have settled, wounds to have healed, axes to be buried, and all the other clichés that are associated with the process. In the broadcast industry, of course, that timeframe is shrunk by orders of magnitude. History tends to get written about six months after the event, just as we’re barrelling straight into the next potential disruptor.

So it’s still too early to say whether the FIFA World Cup definitively moved the goalposts when it comes to the second screen, but all the signs are that it probably did. While the tournament might not have had the ending and home victory that the unwritten Laws of Narrative demanded, the figures associated with everything to do with its online consumption are nothing short of astonishing.

Research firm Ovum estimated that the tournament will be available to a global viewership on 5.9 billion screens, with 57% of them being PCs, tablets or smartphones. Akamai worked with more than 50 broadcasters to stream live and on-demand video for all 64 matches to an array of connected devices across the world, and says that the Netherlands-Argentina World Cup semifinal traffic was the peak, with 6.9Tbps crossing its servers. Meanwhile, Twitter says that 672 million tweets were sent about the tournament, with 35 million alone sent during the already infamous Brazil vs Germany semi-final at a maximum of 580,000 tweets per minute. And FIFA says that its official FIFA app became the biggest sports event app of all time with a record 20 million downloads in just 26 days.

On the slightly less positive but still highly impressive side Viaccess-Orca sent 3200 takedown notices to pirate sites during the 32 days via its Eye on Piracy service, and it’s worth pointing out that FIFA rapidly stopped making celebratory announcements about figures after the group stages, suggesting that perhaps the latter part of the tournament didn’t meet up to the early expectations. But even halfway through, data traffic related to the tournament was roughly double that of London 2012. By the time we get to Rio 2016 it is highly likely that everything will have doubled again — at least.

Second Screen at IBC

So, where will second screen technology be by then? Well, judging by some of the technology on display at this year’s IBC, it will be a richer and more pervasive experience than ever. TV Everywhere is part of that and is, well, everywhere; the phrase cropping up in more manufacturer’s literature than ever before. That starts at the headend where the expectation now is for those units to enable the delivery of an increasingly broad spectrum of interactive services to consumers, folding in traditional broadcast, VoD, SVoD, high-speed Internet, HDTV (and soon Ultra HD), companion screen services and more. Customers, the argument goes, now expect added value from their services especially when it comes to pay-TV, and broadcasters who don’t provide them won’t be providing much of anything in the future.

Sync technology is improving all the time, enabling immersive second screen experiences to be linked in to increasingly time-shifted viewing habits, not to mention cueing up second screen advertising opportunities. And the social media giants are reaching out to broadcast too, trying to find new ways to integrate social and television into the oft-touted, but not yet fully realised social TV experience.

In fact, there’s a whole new show within a show at IBC dedicated to all of this technology in The IBC Connected World. And arguably matters become even more interesting once you take a detour to the area outside Hall 8 and the Future Zone. There, the likes of the Fraunhofer Institute  and a dozen partners have turned their attention to imagining how converged web search and TV content might be experienced in the living room of the 2020s and come up with LinkedTV. Software scans the contents of a show prior to its broadcast via speech analysis and image processing for topic-related content from the web, allowing viewers to, for example, Google details of a painting on the wall behind a presenter.

So, the future is rosy, yes? Well, perhaps, there is the odd potential wrinkle ahead. Back in the days when broadcasters simply broadcasted, they tended to have control —or at least damn good visibility —of their distribution path. But, with the migration towards IP, now they are beholden to a range of companies and regulators far outside their control.

Two things really highlight this. First, in the stampede towards an IP-based 4K rollout, few people seem to have realised how uncommon the bandwidths that can support even sustained HD streaming are. Google reckons that for an ISP to get one of its YouTube HD Verified ratings, it has to provide >2.5Mbps for 90% of a 30 day period and the number that can actually do that is surprisingly low.

In fact, according to Netflix (and we’ll use their figures here as they cover more countries at the moment) only around half of all US ISPs manage this. The US average is, in fact, 2.33Mbps. IBC host The Netherlands comes top of the table with 3.49Mbps, the UK manages 2.75Mbps and Costa Rica languishes at the bottom with 1.18Mbps. It’s not a pretty picture, and one that’s made worse when you realise that Netflix itself says that 15Mbps will be required for 4K.

Then, there is the ongoing net neutrality debate to consider. It’s hard to know quite how vexed broadcasting execs must feel about that: one invests millions in providing online services that suddenly have the potential to be priced out of the reach of precisely all the people they are aimed at.

Maybe the history books of the future will be able to provide a cogent analysis of all that is going on at the moment and, in the same way that we can now see much Middle East conflict as being all about jockeying for finite energy resources, net neutrality will be seen as part of a larger conflict over who exactly has access to the world’s living rooms and minds.

Either way, the already impressive numbers regarding the second screen are only going to go one way. Globally, 48% of viewers engage in other digital activity while watching TV —screen stacking is the latest phrase to describe it —with that figure rising to 56% in the US and peaking at 79% in Japan. The battle to ensure that those eyeballs are watching synced in and tied in content at the same time is only just starting.