Broadcast and AV: the growing similarities
For the fifth year in a row, more than 50,000 people showed up in Amsterdam for IBC 2015 – one of the two big broadcasting technology events on the calendar, the other being NAB in Las Vegas (a show that’s an incredible twice the size of IBC). IBC is some show – big enough to bring the local hospitality industry and tram system pretty much to its knees. Well, I exaggerate slightly – but it unquestionably has an impact, as you might expect, on a city with fewer than a million residents. And, yes, I was there, adding – if in a very small way – to the problem.
I’ve been attending the show for the last several years, and I love it. I love it about as much as ISE, Europe’s premier show for the AV industry (which sees about as many visitors). What I love about both shows is the opportunity to look into the future. What technologies, what products will we be making, installing and using next year – and even further down the track?
This year, what struck me most powerfully is how the broadcast industry and the AV industry are converging. The people in the broadcast industry are thinking about – or worrying about, or enthusing about – pretty much the same things we are in the AV industry.
Three hot topics
If I tell you that the three of the things that were the hottest topics of conversation at the RAI Convention Centre were higher resolutions, mobile devices and IP, you’ll get the picture.
Let’s start with higher resolutions. 2K/HD may be the standard for the large majority of TV consumption today – but the broadcast industry, like the AV industry, is betting on 4K/UltraHD. In fact, better – or worse, depending on your point of view – than that, there were plenty of people talking about 8K resolution, with some very clever codecs for 8K being shown. As someone I spoke to recently sagely pointed out: “By the time we get 4K to where it’s reliable, stable, interoperable and easy – 8K will be half way to being fully rolled out.”
Getting that many pixels down a wire – especially when you’re talking that many pixels at 60 frames/second and 12-bit colour – is no less of a challenge for broadcasters than it is for AV manufacturers and integrators.
So: what about mobile devices? BYOD (or BYOP, or BYOT, or whatever) is a phenomenon that AV manufacturers and integrators have been grappling with for a little while now. The expectation is that any employee, for example, will be enable to participate fully in a videoconference or training session just by dialling in (as we used to say) from his or her mobile device. And then there’s the whole trend towards using tablets and so on in education.
Any time, any place
Well: if you’re a whole lot younger than me, it seems that you now expect to be able to consume television on your mobile device. More than that: you expect to be able to consume what you want and when you want. The old paradigm of so-called ‘linear TV’ is – to my great regret, as a self-confessed couch potato who just wants to watch whatever’s on the screen, and to whom watching TV is an entirely passive, rather than active, experience – fast dying out in favour of what’s generically called VoD, or Video on Demand.
That’s a big challenge for the broadcast industry. How you do you take a single piece of content and make it available in every conceivable format and resolution without creating enormous overheads in storage and distribution? And that’s before we get into questions of security – just as we do with BYOD in the corporate and education AV environments. ‘Content is king’ is no less true for the broadcast industry than it is for the AV industry – but at IBC, all the talk was about ‘monetisation’: how do you derive the appropriate value and revenue from content? That means, among other things, protecting it against unauthorised viewing. (As an aside: IBC was full of solutions for intercepting illegal streams.)
And everyone was talking about IP. The broadcast industry – much like the AV industry – has long been the home of arcane, esoteric technologies (like SDI) for making things talk to each other. But that era, like the era of linear TV, is dying. If you’re already delivering a significant amount of content to consumer devices via IP – companies like Netflix and Hulu, for example, use so-called OTT (over the top) delivery, as do catch-up TV services – then doesn’t it make sense that the entire broadcast infrastructure migrates to IP? IP offers huge advantages in terms of scalability, flexibility and cost. At IBC, one of this year’s phrases was “glass-to-glass IP” – IP all the way from the camera lens to the consumer screen.
Industry experts believe, by the way, that while linear TV will decline, it won’t go away entirely for the foreseeable future. One of the challenges of the increasingly-pervasive use of IP is that it’s great for non-linear TV – but not so much for linear. As things stand, receiving your weekly – or daily – dose of Neighbours will still happen via the antenna on your roof for some time to come.
But if the preoccupation with 4K, mobile devices and IP networking was interesting in how it echoed similar preoccupations in the AV industry, what resonated most was the progressive IT-ification of the broadcast industry. Just as companies like Cisco and Microsoft – hardly traditional players in the AV industry – were at this year’s ISE, so too they were at IBC. IBM showed up at IBC too. Perhaps they’ll be at ISE (or InfoComm) 2016.
Of course, there’s an extent to which IT-ification is a natural outflow of the move towards IP. That means Ethernet switches and routers – fast and cheap – replacing expensive proprietary, specialist equipment. But it’s also about increasingly powerful general purpose servers replacing purpose-built solutions. The infrastructure of the broadcast industry is, increasingly, becoming an IT infrastructure.
And do you know what? Hardly anyone at IBC seemed even slightly worried about it. What visitors – and exhibitors – were seeing was not a threat, but an opportunity. In my view, that’s how the AV industry should be reacting to, for example, the growing influence of corporate IT departments in specifying and deploying AV solutions. The fact is that the broadcast industry knows that it brings unique value in its expertise and experience in the application. The same is no less true for the AV industry – and that is too easily under-estimated by those who see IT integrators as a threat to their livelihood. Yes, the underlying infrastructure may be changing and yes, the decision-maker may be changing – and yes, the network is now all-embracing. What’s really changed, though, is that AV applications are no longer islands. (And that, by the way, is becoming progressively the case in the home as well as in business: now, a home cinema system is as likely to be attached to the home network as a videoconferencing system is to the corporate network.)
In the not-too-distant future, of course, no-one will care if it’s broadcast or AV or IT or home networking or whatever. It’ll all have been subsumed by the Internet of Things. But that’s a story for another day.