IBC wrap: Multiscreen, 4K promise an interesting 2014

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecom

This year's International Broadcast Convention, as predicted, saw operators, equipment manufacturers and vendors dashing down the path toward multiscreen environments. The main difference was in the business models each is developing around this technology segment. The trending word in multiscreen is "seamless."

SeaChange and Akamai both demonstrated new multiscreen products as well as conceptual methods that, should the ideas pan out, consumers will likely see integrated into their pay-TV experience. As providers look to monetize the multiscreen world, ad insertion technologies are being enmeshed more tightly into the software packages being offered.

For example, SeaChange's Adrenaline Cloud platform incorporates ad-insertion technology that allows operators and/or advertisers to insert a sponsor's message or commercial into streaming content based on specific metadata from a subscriber such as the device he or she is using, the location and what show is being watched.

Akamai is working on a second-screen concept based on its Sola platform (which was its primary focus during the show). Subscribers could receive richer detail about a TV show or movie, or be linked to social media to engage with other viewers, or purchase items seen on a show (if offered) on a tablet or smart phone.

Israel-based Applicaster is already jumping into a level of multiscreen engagement. The provider demonstrated its second-screen apps and advertising overlays that enable viewers to participate in programs like "The Voice" (where they can vote for singers directly from their tablets, for example). Applicaster is partnering with VIZ RT to bolster the technology for its operator customers worldwide.

And of course, EchoStar and Liberty Global (Nasdaq: LBTYA) both brought groundbreaking products to the show: EchoStar demonstrated its Hopper ad-skipping DVR (with Sling technology built in), while Liberty Global's recently launched Horizon hybrid DVR was on many showgoers' must-see list. Both products can only work in specific network environments, limiting the speed at which they will go to market in Europe, but they were clearly gauged to tempt overseas operators with what's possible.

Like the cable market, IBC is seeing its share of flux. It wasn't hard to find veterans of the show (and considering that this is Europe's biggest broadcasting tradeshow with 14 halls to explore, the term "IBC veteran" holds ample meaning) commenting on the way displays have changed--from gadget-laden booths to displays that drive concepts and conversation.

"Look at Grass Valley's booth," one tradeshow exhibitor and 14-year IBC veteran told me. "A decade ago it would have been filled with different (broadcast) products. This year there are only a few gadgets and it's just a big open space." But that space, he noted, attracted a constant crowd of people chatting and networking--drawn in, perhaps, by the clog-making demonstration at the edge of the booth, but talking nonetheless.

The road to 4K

Ultra HD, or 4K, resolution screens, and the technology standards to deliver that resolution over IP networks (like HEVC) could be seen throughout Hall 1 and other areas of the Amsterdam RAI. While the clarity and brilliance of the TV screens certainly got showgoers' attention, the price of upgrading to this new technology has operators balking.

"I just invested the company in full HD… 2 million pixels. And now the industry comes and says you have to put 4K in," Andreas Bereczky, CEO of Germany-based ZDF, told the audience at an IBC keynote. "And we just invested $100 million in full HD. I'm not going to invest another $500 million."

Sky Deutschland's Gerry Duffy, senior vice president of technology, told analysts at a Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) luncheon that 4K is central to his company's plans, particularly its sports coverage, where Duffy said the technology can give viewers at home a "best seat in the house" experience. "It is number one on the list of the next platforms we're considering," he said. However, it won't be a cheap upgrade. "It's not just the picture quality but the other things the platform can do," he said. "Ultra HD requires a new platform and a powerful engine, opening whole new opportunities."

Paulo Rabello of TV Globo, Brazil's largest pay TV operator, told those same analysts that 4K will remain in an experimental mode for now. Still, there are indications that the broadcaster will transmit the 2014 World Cup in Ultra HD.

"The speed of innovation is happening on the Internet, not in traditional broadcasting technology," Bereczky said. "…I don't believe we will start 4K broadcasting in a short time. Later on it will be affordable and available."

Pulling it all together

The most exciting thing about IBC this year was the sense that the broadcast industry is on the verge of remaking itself. Content providers and vendors alike have been paying close attention to the things OTT providers such as Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and YouTube have demonstrated are possible. They're looking at the level of creativity and innovation that has been inspired by IP technologies. And they really, really want to incorporate all of this innovation into platforms that provide a seamless transition between lean-back watching, lean-forward interaction and engagement that spreads beyond the pay-TV household.

The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for the viewers. Cable operators traditionally aren't known for being fast-moving or flexible. So there's a chance that once they've invested in a multiscreen solution, they won't offer anything new for a few years. However, if OTT providers continue to disrupt and challenge the space, cable will need to rise to the challenge and continue to incorporate innovations. We've already seen this happen with MVPDs like Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) rolling out Xfinity X1 to customers, a cloud-based product that lets the cable MSO add features applications much more frequently via software upgrades. And with broadcasters and operators taking a hard look at next-generation technologies like 4K, the next two years should be very interesting indeed.--Sam