IP-based broadcasting Archive

“Over-the-top” video services – a new direction for TV

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Previously, if you wanted extra broadcast content for your television experience, you would have to subscribe to a cable or satellite pay-TV service which would provide many channels of content for a monthly fee. This hasn’t pleased many people because, if they wanted particular sports fixtures or good-quality TV content, they had to subscribe to packages filled with a lot of channels they didn’t really want.

Additional content was available through collectable videocassettes or DVDs; or lately through content-provider Websites which you had to view through a computer.

Increasingly, the broadband Internet service with its content-streaming and file-sharing abilities has opened up a new path for independent broadcast or on-demand video content and led towards “over-the-top” video services.

What is an “over-the-top” video service?

An “over-the-top” video service is an IP-based video service provided in a manner primarily independently of established broadcast TV infrastructure. The customer doesn’t have to sign up with a cable or satellite pay-TV service to benefit from the content. The reception arrangement is typically a set-top box, PVR or IP-enabled TV that is connected to the Internet via the home network. In most cases, especially PVRs and IP-enabled TVs, they will have a built-in digital broadcast tuner that is pitched at receiving free-to-air TV channels or, at the most, the equivalent of basic-tier cable TV.

These services had started out with Web-based services like Netflix, Hulu, Blockbuster Video and similar “video-on-demand” platforms being made available to network media adaptors and “personal-TV-service” devices like Tivo. These services typically provided either pay-per-view or “download-to-own” content, usually encompassing cinema feature movies or television serials. Lately, there has been the arrival of Sky Angel who have set up an IP-based streamed-channel collection based around Christian-focused family-friendly entertainment.

What paths could this open up

These services could open up the concept of “boutique television” which is about a supplementary-TV service providing “only what you want” without paying for “what you don’t want”. In the context of broadcast content, the viewer groups that would be touched would include families who want “clean wholesome entertainment”, ethnic groups who want content in their own language and culture, people interested in sports that aren’t covered in the country they reside in like AFL football or cricket, and those of us who like good-quality television content. As far as on-demand content goes, these programs could open an alternative to hiring DVD from the local Video-Ezy, provide a highly-strung catch-up TV service for people who follow TV serials, amongst other things.

Similarly it could allow content providers like established free-to-air TV networks to offer subscription-TV services and content without being limited by the dominant owners of cable and satellite-TV infrastructure. This was more so when, in Australia, Foxtel (the dominant pay-TV provider in Australia) made it very difficult for the Seven Network to establish a subscription-driven premium TV channel. This had led to a long drawn-out legal dispute and even broke down relations between both services with such behaviour as Foxtel not rebroadcasting the Seven Network to subscriber households that receive their service directly off the satellites; and Seven not providing programme data for Foxtel’s on-screen electronic programme guide.

What needs to be done

Most implementations require the use of a set-top box loaded with specific software, including a content directory in the case of broadcast services. There is the likelihood of a worsening problem if a household likes many different “over-the-top” video services, especially boutique-TV services, where there will be multiple set-top boxes in the AV rack.

One way to go about this would be to establish a standard for provisioning of broadcast and on-demand IP-TV services to subscribers. This could be based around DLNA standards and require at the most a common browser plugin or lightweight application to handle provisioning-manifest files that may be sent by email or downloaded from the service’s Website. As well, the industry needs to act upon content protection / conditional access standards like DTCP-IP when protecting premium services; and accept the idea of covering all receiving devices in a household under one subscription. This is in a similar way to how the TV licence is handled in the UK where ONE TV licence covers all TV-receiving devices in the same household.

How could this affect the TV landscape

For production studios, content providers and “boutique” channels, the “over-the-top” video services will provide these groups, especially small operations, with more opportunities to expose their content. This is in contrast to content being judged on whether it will suit the mainstream audience of a particular market, which is becoming more so in a highly-consolidated highly-controlled market like the USA.

For consumers, it will provide an increased choice of television that gives value for money as in “pay only for what you want to watch without paying for what you don’t want to watch”. This is more so in difficult financial times where one needs to factor in such events as the possible loss of their job or business and need to save as much as possible.

There is an increased likelihood of the commercial TV establishment being threatened by the concept of viewers taking back control of their viewing and the content produced “outside of the establishment” becoming available to most people. They, especially the cable-TV companies and similar companies who run pay-TV services on the same bandwidth, may try to block data streams associated with this new form of video content or implement traffic-shaping rules to Internet service. This would have these companies fall foul of “net-neutrality” rules that are established by governments. On the other hand, these services could force the TV establishment to “lift their game” with content production.

Conclusion

Once “over-the-top” video content comes to your home network and your TV set, it could become a watershed moment for TV broadcasting.

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Regular free-to-air TV in the Internet age

There have been many people who have said that regular free-to-air TV, like regular local radio or newspapers would lose out in the Internet age. But it has been able to survive the Internet challenge. This has been achieved through the technology being able to work as an adjunct to the classic media.

The Web page

One way of surviving the Internet challenge is for stations to augment their video content with a Website. This is usually achieved by the station creating a “master” Website with separate links to Websites about the various programmes on offer.

Extension to the news service

The most common beneficiary is the station’s news service where an up-to-date “electronic newspaper” is provided for all of the news that the station reports on. Typically this has been extended with key stories getting the “interactive treatment” such as data mash-ups or interactive diagrams. In most cases, a key story would have its own Web page with all articles, audio, video and interactive content that is relevant to the key story.

Another common practice is to have news stories clustered in to geographic areas local to the station’s operating territory with the user being able to “swing” between the areas. This can allow users to see more than the evening news service.

Some stations provide a moderated comment option on the stories so that they offer citizens the opportunity to speak up about the issues at hand. They also may offer the opportunity for the public to pass on news tips or still/video images for inclusion in the stories being broadcast. This allows for the broadcasters to make the audience relevant to the news broadcast.

Secondary scoreboards / leaderboards

Another common application is to turn a Web page in to a secondary scoreboard or leaderboard for a sportscast, reality TV show or similar show. This usually allows for the broadcaster to provide extra detail on the event. It is typically in the form of users gaining an always-live always-updated leaderboard independent of when the tally is shown on the TV screen, as well as user-selectable detail sheets for the contestants.

Fan sites for TV shows

The other common application is to provide a “fan site” for TV shows that are being produced by the station. This is a way of gaining extra value out of the TV shows through the provision of extra information and collateral about the show or having a sounding board for the show’s fans.

Sometimes the message boards that are part of these Websites may yield information about fan-created Websites for the shows or key personnel in the shows.

Video-on-demand / Catch-up TV

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Recently, most TV Websites have hosted video-on-demand material such as clips or interviews from the whole show. These may range from extended-version interviews for public-affairs shows to whole episodes of a TV serial. The last application is typically described as “catch-up” TV because of the way that users can view the prior episodes in order to catch up with the current episode.This application has come to the fore in Australia when Channel 10 screened the MasterChef cooking contest series over the last two months.

At the moment the video-on-demand service is primarily provisioned through a Web application hosted by the TV broadcaster or the TV show’s production company; or simply as files or vision that is part of the TV show’s Web page. This typically requires one to view the video material at their home computer, which will typically have a small screen, rather than on their television’s large screen.

There are plans to provide this kind of interactive online TV service in the form of a set-top box, typically as port of an established “personal TV service” platform like Tivo. Such platforms will use the broadcast reception abilities in the “personal TV service” devices to obtain the regular broadcast video that is part of the service and download the extra video to the device’s local hard disk. This service, which may be known as “over-the-top” video, will be an attempt by the TV establishment to bring the video content to the big screen in the living room.

Live IPTV broadcasts

This application is simply like Internet radio in which a live TV broadcast is streamed via the Internet’s infrastructure. It is considered a thorn in the side for the TV establishment because it allows anyone with the necessary computer hardware and software and the necessary Internet connection to broadcast to the Internet. Due to the reduced cost of this hardware, software and connection, it may allow anyone to broadcast a TV service that can be complimentary to the existing broadcasters’ offerings or totally work against the grain that the existing broadcasters have laid out.

For example, the established US TV networks and cable channels may see themselves being threatened by this concept if, for example, an IPTV broadcaster sets itself up to run content services in a similar manner to Australia’s SBS. This situation may draw people who are living in the big cities or the college towns away from the kind of content typically run by these broadcasters.

This same application is also part of “single-pipe triple-play” Internet services where a multi-channel TV service is provided as part of an Internet and VoIP telephony service. These services are already common in some countries like France and are starting to come on the map in countries like the USA where fibre-optic broadband services are being deployed.

The effect and benefits

One effect of this technology I have noticed is that some normally technology-shy friends that I know are using the Internet extras to gain more value out of their favourite TV shows. This has allowed these shows to work as a bridge to them gaining more out of online technology and becoming comfortable with it.

Similarly, the Web pages have encouraged people to bring laptop computers in to the lounge area where the TV is and use these computers to log on to the Web sites associated with the TV shows they are viewing.

Current issues

Most of the online TV content is pitched for viewing on a computer rather than on a regular TV set. This is because the accepted culture is for the content to be seen only as complementary to the existing broadcaster’s offerings.

But some providers are trying to bring the broadband service to the TV through various set-top-box platforms. These platforms would be extensions of any open-standard or proprietary interactive-TV platforms that are in service or being developed like DVB-MHP or Tivo’s proprietary interactive-TV platform. Similarly, the Consumer Electronics Association, a US trade group who represent consumer-electronics manufacturers, distributors and retailers, have established a standard for bringing the Web to the TV.

Similarly, there is the issue of controlling and monetising the video content that passes across the Web. This is typically of concern when high-value content such as sports, movies or headline TV series are concerned. It has also affected the idea of establishing free-to-air or subscription IP-TV services which can complement or compete with existing TV services. It can be typically answered through the provision of software DRM systems but they have to be designed to be robust, secure and less onerous for the customer.

The other key issue is providing an IPTV viewing experience that is akin to viewing regular TV. This usually involves providing a channel list that allows for “up-down” channel-surfing, numeric “direct-entry” selection, as well as selection through a menu. It also will involve providing high quality-of-service so that the viewing experience is akin to watching regular TV where there is good reception. At the moment, this is typically provided through a closed set-top-box environment but there is activity taking place for it to work with devices like television sets and PVRs that are standards-compatible. Similarly, a lot of currently-released routers are supporting quality-of-service management in order to prioritise multimedia data transfer across the network.

Conclusion

At the moment, the online experience provided by most regular TV broadcasters and producers is directed towards the co
mputer screen but, if it is to challenge the status quo, it will need to appear across all of the three screens (TV, computer and mobile / PDA), especially the TV screen.

Once these current issues are overcome, then IPTV can become more prevalent either as a free-to-air or subscription medium.

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