Dramatic technology shifts are reshaping the way that the British watch television. In late March, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), the organisation that compiles audience measurement and television ratings for the UK, launched a new quarterly review of the nation’s viewing habits.
The inaugural UK Television Landscape report shines an interesting light on some of those changes. Subscription video on demand (SVOD) services are rocketing in popularity, with almost one in four UK households (24%) now subscribing to Netflix, Amazon Video or Sky’s Now TV - but it finds that these new services typically complement, rather than compete with, other pay services.
The number of households without a television, meanwhile, is growing - but while that might lead you to suppose that they prefer to watch TV on a computing device instead of a TV, the figures in fact suggest that many are simply less interested in “the TV experience”, with lower levels of broadband take-up and fewer computing devices. And on the subject of devices, the report points to robust growth in future for smartphones and high-definition (HD) televisions, but shows growth plateauing for PCs and DVRs.
Either way, our changing habits are prompting broadcasters to rethink the ways they create, commission and deliver TV content - and that goes for the technology companies that service that industry, too.
Take, for example, Ericsson Broadcast and Media Services (EBMS): last year, the company won a seven-year deal with the BBC, believed to be worth between £150 million and £248 million, to provide the Corporation with so-called ‘playout’ services - the transmission of content from the broadcaster into broadcast networks that deliver the content to audiences.
The win wasn’t that much of a surprise: EBMS was previously known as Red Bee Media, a company originally spun out of the BBC as BBC Broadcast back in the early noughties and acquired by Ericsson in 2014. Today, EBMS also provides playout and other services to ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and other major broadcasters. Last year, it launched BT Sport, Europe’s first ultra high-definition [UHD) channel.
All this means that Steve Plunkett, chief technology officer at EBMS, must keep a close eye on the way audiences interact with content and report back on his findings to the company’s broadcast clients. Our changing viewing habits, he adds, are also prompting a wholesale reshaping of EBMS’s own IT infrastructure:
Until very recently, broadcasting technology has existed as a parallel universe to mainstream IT. I’d go as far as to say that broadcasting has been one of the very last industries to embrace a generic IP-based tech stack.
A couple of things have come along to change all that, he says. First, more and more content is distributed over the Internet, so that side of the industry has had to keep pace with developments in virtualisation, IP-based connectivity and cloud computing. Second, even linear television (scheduled programming) is moving away from industry-specific, proprietary technologies, in favour of more ‘commodity’ IT. Says Plunkett:
We’re replacing lots of infrastructure, bringing in lots of new skills. Today, I’ve got a large software team that we simply didn’t need ten years ago. The challenge for us is to create software that can sit on generic IT infrastructure and still deliver the same powerful performance as the more proprietary hardware-based products we’ve worked with in the past. So for me and my team, there’s never been so much going on, all at once, in terms of technology changes and consumer habits.
But, he adds, it’s not a case of replacing all that older, proprietary technology wholesale:
The economics of the Internet and of commodity hardware clearly outpace the technologies previously available to small, specialised industries like our own, so the intention is definitely to take advantage of those economics. But when it comes to skills, broadcasting still has some very specific technical needs and the content we’re dealing with likewise must be handled with care.
Look at UHD television, for example: one hour of UHD programming totals in excess of 300 GB. These are really, really big assets, so moving them around over networks, over the Internet, comes with economic and technical limitations. Traditionally, IP networks have carried application types that can accommodate some variance in underlying performance - but broadcast content isn’t very tolerant. When they’re watching TV, viewers don’t expect things to go wrong with the picture or sound and their expectations have been carried across to other devices.
So we have to find ways to recreate the TV experience on technologies that weren’t really designed for this kind of mission-critical, large-bandwidth applications. We still have to make amendments, extensions and improvements to a more generic tech stack in order to accommodate industry-specific needs in broadcasting - but I still believe that shift to more commodity IT will be dramatic and very positive.
Another dramatic shift, also with potentially positive effects, is the growing interest among broadcasters in big data, says Plunkett. Personalisation is the single largest strategic theme for the industry this year, he says, and EBMS is angling to help companies in the sector explore it further.
As we’ve seen before, SVOD provider Netflix is well ahead of the game in this respect, but it might be argued that the task is easier when you’re delivering content from a single platform. For broadcasters that own a number of channels, delivering in multiple formats, it’s much trickier, and according to Plunkett, some are struggling:
A lot of work and money has gone into recommendations, there’s plenty of evidence that consumers are still dissatisfied with their quality. They buy into the concept of more tailored content - they love the idea, in fact. But if you ask them what it’s like for them today, they’ll generally say that the recommendations aren’t too good. That gap needs to be closed and big data’s the key to closing it.
Consumers have a lot more choice now in terms of content sources available to them and they want more convenience in what they watch, when they watch it and how they watch it. Broadcasters that need to do more to attract and retain viewers see personalisation as the key to doing that, so they’re looking to deliver genuinely targeted services designed to appeal to individual viewers.