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Synergy and marriage with IT dominant themes at IBC2012

Some common threads will unite the various themes of IBC 2012 in Amsterdam next month, both on the floor and within the conference that runs on all six days of the event.

While delegates on the floor will hope to be wowed by the latest in display technology anticipating future frameless TVs that blend into the wall, the conference will be more engaged with the challenges broadcasting faces in its long-lasting engagement with IT that has yet to become a full blown marriage. Lingering doubts over at least the timing of this marriage will be highlighted at the IBC 2012 conference by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) in its presentation, “The Convergence of Broadcast TV and the Internet - Are They All Connecting?”

One thing that will emerge during the conference is that while the move to IT and file-based workflows is irreversible, questions remain over whether and, if so how quickly, the cloud model of distribution will take off, despite some notable successes already. The cloud’s appeal has been driven by some of the other industry trends, especially the fragmentation of delivery standards, display formats, platforms and target devices.

It promises to restore the original idea of write once play anywhere that prevailed in the era when all transmission was analogue terrestrial via PAL, NTSC or SECAM, depending on the territory. 

But, while the cloud model involving infrastructure shared between different customers will undoubtedly take over for smaller operators and content distributors, many large broadcasters and rights holders remain skeptical over its ability to meet their requirements not just for security, but also reliability and capacity. The irony here is that cloud providers contend that their shared infrastructures can do better than dedicated networks on all three of these counts by benefiting from economies of scale to deliver redundancy and expandability, while being able to exploit the latest technologies for secure content delivery.

The issue is partly one of control, and in having to rely on third-party networks for operations that are absolutely critical to the business. At IBC2012, cloud service providers will be straining every sinew to persuade broadcasters and operators that their products are now mature and ready for serious deployments. 

Even if the cloud model meets all its promises on security and performance, it will still not fly unless it can be readily incorporated into existing media asset management (MAM) and workflow systems. Everybody agrees that tapeless server workflows have brought huge cost savings and flexibility benefits. But, now taking these into the cloud brings substantial integration challenges. Workflow is an old topic, but has grown rather than diminished in importance given the current upheavals across the broadcasting chain. This is because it is the harness that holds together the components of broadcast production and delivery, and one of the challenges now is to ensure that it enables these to work smoothly as a coherent whole, and yet progress independently of each other to incorporate improvements in procedure or technology.

Future proofing will therefore be a major theme of IBC2012 in the context of workflow and also IT, with one of the challenges being to ensure that the production pipelines being created for HD can readily be upgraded for higher resolutions in future. The EBU will discuss such themes during its presentation “Prepare Today, Prosper Tomorrow: Future-Proofing for Broadcasters at the IBC2012 conference.”

One thing that has become clear over the last few years is that HD is a catch all word for a range of high-resolution formats, rather than a straightforward upgrade from Standard Definition. In the beginning, there was the debate between 720p and 1080i, with the former being preferred for fast-moving sports events where the interlacing causes distortion, and the latter for detailed high-color shots as in nature programs where the greater resolution yields superior single image quality. But now, 1080p is coming along, combining the advantages of both but generating files twice as big. Meanwhile, 4K and Super Hi-Vision, otherwise known as ultra HD or 8K, also are in the pipeline. Super Hi-Vision, at 7680 x 4320 pixels, has 32x the resolution of 1080i or 720p. It is small wonder, then, that coping with rising video traffic will be one of the main discussion topics at IBC2012, as will advanced compression.

Demand for high-HD resolutions will be driven particularly by sports viewing, allied to larger display screens that exploit composite manufacturing techniques to reduce costs. One of the show stoppers at last year’s IBC was the NDS Surfaces technology anticipating an era when very large screens without frames are composed of smaller units that provide greater flexibility in manufacture, combined with a much-reduced reject rate because a fault then only requires a single unit to be rejected rather than a whole large screen display. This should end the current situation where large screens cost more in proportion to their surface area than smaller ones — the reverse should hold.

Large screens up to 10ft show up the quality of 4K, and even the further improvement of 8K, but it will take sport, sometimes in 3-D, to really bring home the benefits and persuade consumers to spend the extra on such a big display. The growing importance of sport as the content engine driving the whole of TV towards higher resolutions, exploited by CE manufacturers to maintain demand for up market higher margin displays, is reflected in its high place on the agenda at IBC2012.

This has been aided by several high profile sporting events hosted in Europe, including the Euro12 football championships and the London Olympics itself, which will be the subject of various analyses and debriefing sessions at IBC2012, such as “Turning Olympic Games Spectators Into Participants: Broadcast Tools & Technology Of London 2012,” and “The London 2012 Debriefing: Analyzing the Summer Olympic Games.” The objective will be to assess how both traditional and emerging platforms and business models fared, with early signs of a massive boost for OTT viewing on PCs, tablets and smartphones as people snack on Olympic events while travelling or at work.

On big screens, the Olympics has also stimulated trials of the higher-resolution HD versions, as well as of new business models exploiting companion screens, which themselves will be subjects for a number of debates and panel sessions at IBC2012. On the production side, a major trend after the Beijing Olympics of 2008 was towards more remote editing to exploit greater availability of optical fiber, as well as of more competitive satellite uplinks.

Video editing requires access to either uncompressed or lightly compressed sources at high bit rates, and until recently, had to be done on location for outside broadcast events because of networking costs, even if the capacity was available. But, there has been a trend toward centralized editing generally, and this was evident at the London Olympics because of the shortage, and therefore high cost, of studio space in London.

Even though there will have been relatively little time to digest them, the various lessons learned from the London Olympics will be used to create pointers for future major sporting events at IBC2012, as in the conference presentation “Brazil 2014: The Road To The Next FIFA World Cup.”

The award for the most used new buzzword at IBC2012 could well go to “transmedia,” which is defined as the services needed to deliver and monetize multimedia content across diverse platforms. It is really, therefore, part of the workflow story, but with some specific aspects that broadcasters will needs to be aware of at the service level, such as the role and relevance of targeting across platform boundaries, following consumers wherever they are, while being flexible enough to cater for the different qualities of tablets, smartphones, PCs, and larger screen TVs. This is not just a matter of the screen display, but also the attitude and expectation of consumers according to where they are and what they are doing. On a tablet, they may be more susceptible to interaction and be prepared to dive into a longer-form advertisement, while the big screen is the place for showing off some spectacular graphical images.

When it comes to targeted and interactive advertising, the second screen will play an increasing role that will be thrashed out in the IBC2012 conference forum “Advertising Embraces Transmedia: How the Second Screen is Key to New Relationships.” Social media will also loom large in the transmedia debates at IBC, but given the difficulties broadcasters and pay TV operators have had embracing it, delegates will be interested in the various case studies that will be presented at IBC2012.

It can sometimes be instructive to spot what themes have become less prominent at IBC2012 compared to recent years, although this does not always reflect what is actually happening on the ground. At least at the conference, Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) have sunk down the agenda, but this is most likely because they are now being deployed and used with the talking over, since hype tends to precede either reality or oblivion. In the case of CDNs, it is the first of those two. Perhaps more surprisingly is that adaptive streaming (although of course reasonably prominent at IBC2012) has a slightly lower profile than at IBC2011. This may be because the momentum behind MPEG DASH as a unifying force has become so unstoppable that it does not provoke so much discussion.

The higher level issues of integration, migration and synergy will then provide the unifying themes of IBC2012 and its conference, but no broadcasting show is ever complete without plenty of discussion about rights, privacy and revenue protection. The proliferation of OTT has brought piracy right back on the agenda for pay TV operators, while causing agonies for major rights holders and particularly the Hollywood studios. So, if anything, piracy and content protection will also loom larger than ever at IBC2012.