The delivery of entertainment content to consumers has undergone transformational changes in the last 18-24 months, driven by technology advances, bandwidth availability and end-user device capabilities, writes Dror Gill, CTO of Beamr. These changes are affecting the business models, delivery mechanisms, and availability and quality of content, driving the industry into a race: to survive, content producers, aggregators and distributors have to quickly modify their workflows and business models to adapt, otherwise they will be left behind. Gill examines the major trends in delivering entertainment content to consumers, and their impact on all industry players.
TV Everywhere is everywhere
First and foremost: Everyone and everything is moving to IP. Whether you’re a TV network, cable or satellite operator, content producer or rights owner, you know that IP-based over-the-top delivery of your content will become a growing part of your business, and will eventually take over traditional delivery methods. The reason is obvious: consumers today are connected through a variety of devices, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, and they expect to have access to content anytime and anywhere. For this reason, every major TV network, channel or service operator has some form of TV Everywhere service, where subscribers can access content without being tied to their set-top box at home. This trend has created a whole new market of solutions for OTT video delivery, including workflow, transcoding, content management, delivery, conditional access and monetisation.
From ‘over the air’ to ‘through the cloud’
Broadcast TV started with over the air transmission in the 1930s, and this form of transmission is with us to date, now using advanced digital broadcast methods that support HD, such as ATSC in the USA, DVB-T in Europe and ISDB-T in Japan. Due to limited spectrum, when the need raised to support dozens and then hundreds of channels, broadcast TV migrated to cable and satellite transmission, followed by delivery over copper and fibre with IPTV. The next step is clear: TV will be processed, managed and delivered to users in the cloud. Companies are now offering solutions for ‘cloud-based everything’ – from content editing to management to transcoding to DVR. In fact, today you can become a virtual TV operator without owning any equipment other than a camera and an internet connection. Everything else you need to edit, encode, manage and deliver your content is available as a cloud service that can be leased by the hour or by the month. The move to the cloud will eventually eliminate the set-top box: Today you can watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and a variety of other content services on your smart TV, delivered and encrypted using standard methods. There is no doubt that in the future more and more content will be delivered this way, including linear channels and live broadcasts, so look out for millions of unusable boxes that will have to be recycled.
Meet new standards
Streaming video over IP today still uses a variety of proprietary systems, the major ones being Apple HLS (HTTP Live Streaming), Adobe HDS (HTTP Dynamic Streaming), and Microsoft HSS (HTTP Smooth Streaming). The MPEG-DASH standard was developed to serve as a common protocol for adaptive bitrate streaming, and is quickly gaining ground as an industry-wide standard that will simplify the implementation of apps and services. On the codecs front, HEVC has emerged as the dominant next-generation codec, with a variety of cameras, encoders, set-top boxes, smart TVs and even phones and tablets supporting the new standard. HEVC is being introduced first to solve a real issue: delivery of Ultra HD (4K) content over the internet, since it provides 30-50 per cent lower bitrate than the current H.264 standard. But as more and more capture and playback devices support HEVC, it is likely that it will also be used for HD resolutions and below.
More pixels or better pixels
Speaking of Ultra HD, it seems to already enjoy a better fate than 3D TV. Devices are now available at reasonable prices, content services will be deployed by the end of this year, and the only issue remaining is how to deliver all those pixels to the end user. As usual, capture devices and display devices have evolved much more rapidly than available bandwidth, creating a real challenge for over-the-top UHD delivery. Another key issue is that the industry has not yet decided on the set of parameters that will be used for initial deployments – frame rate, bit depth, and colour space are still in the open. Increasing each of these parameters improves visual quality, and some industry experts even claim that the 8 million pixels of Ultra HD are no better than the 2 million pixels of HD without doubling the frame rate and replacing 8-bit colour with 10-bit colour. The problem is that upgrading these video attributes also increases the overall bitrate, which is already quite high. So the problem of delivery surfaces again, and it is clear that solutions for fighting ‘bitrate obesity’, which bring your bitrate down to a range that can be more easily delivered to the end user, will be in high demand in the next few years.