Towards the future of television (part 2)

The second part of this blog series looks further afield. Exploring what might become as the television transitions to a cloud-based technology.

As the technology underpinning television continues to evolve, we have much to both marvel at and look forward to.

As the technology underpinning television continues to evolve, we have much to both marvel at and look forward to.

In my previous blog we explored how this current age of combined broadcast and internet connectivity may profoundly affect the evolution of EPGs (electronic programme guides), with their development increasingly taking place in HTML5 rather than embedded  software, and improved customer experience with the enhanced interface technology capability.

In this second blog we take a longer view, as television transitions from Connected Broadcasting to the cloud, and speculate as the lines between PVR, network PVR and Video-on-Demand begin to blur.

The latest set-top box in the UK marketplace is the EE TV box from Everything Everywhere (Britain’s largest mobile network). The box, which currently gives access to just over 70 Freeview channels and a number of broadcaster VoD players, has made a particular advance, offering replay functionality that is not available on any other UK platform. This gives the industry a very revealing window into television’s future.

The replay function enables EE TV customers to nominate a maximum of six desired channels to be recorded in a dynamic fashion for up to 24 hours at a time, with all of the programming stored on the PVR’s 1TB memory. To access these recordings, broken into programme-sized chunks, the viewer need only go to the replay section of the EE TV menu to choose from 24 hours of content across six channels: a PVR-enabled functionality disguised as six almost VoD-like players.

We, at Arqiva, have argued in past blogs that the connected functionalities offered by the major platform set-top boxes are central to this current period of Connected Broadcasting, and that a world of total cloud television is the future. So why the focus on the PVR as we ruminate on television’s future? The replay functionality hints at a potential new paradigm of television environment, enabled by the cloud and delivery over IP, with network PVR – that is, large swathes of television content stored and recorded remotely, for the viewer to “pull” at its core. The recording and storage of such broadcast content will probably shift from PVRs to the cloud, and as such “traditional” broadcast delivery and distribution mechanisms will need to alter accordingly. Whether viewers will need to define which channels to “record” or to have access to, so to speak, will be a combination of functionality, rights negotiations and the “packaging” or tiering the platforms choose to put in place.

In an industry that is as fast-moving as television, the definition for what we’ve come to know as Video-on-Demand has remained surprisingly static – the ability for the viewer to choose and access particular pieces of content at a time of their choosing, on any device, and in any way that loosely correlates or is completely divorced from the linear television schedule.  Yet, with the advent of cloud and IP-enabled network PVR, the distinctions between what we consider network PVR content and VoD content will blur to the point of near amalgamation. Where television heads next depends on your point of view.

On the one hand, you could argue that the content captured by EE’s replay feature negates the need for viewers to visit the broadcasters’ catch-up player. On the other hand, as I believe, comprehensive individual, IP-enabled broadcaster VoD offerings, rather than network PVR, are the way forward. In this scenario, a viewer would be able to visit a broadcaster’s VoD service to select and “pull” content from the (already broadcast) television schedule as well as a larger inventory of "catalogue” VoD content. In truth, the first element of this would not look too dissimilar to the “backwards” EPGs currently offered by some platforms, but the scope, size and shape of this would be at the broadcasters’ choosing – not necessarily a platform’s, as currently. The second element, “catalogue” VoD content, would change in character and definition with the creation of new content and the coming and going of content rights negotiations. In my view, this scenario will be much easier to engineer and clear from a rights perspective than a world of network PVR.

This is not to argue that this transition will be smooth. The endgame of the blurring of PVR and VoD will, on the face of it, appear seamless from a consumer point of view – yet it raises complicated questions for the industry. Broadcasters, for understandable reasons, will be anxious about any extension of (network) PVR functionality that could encroach upon their own VoD offerings – hence the differences in opinion I’ve outlined. Not only that, content and rights owners will question the most appropriate way to license content given the functionality to record, store and move programming out in the cloud.  Questions of content ownership, as opposed to mere access, will come into play: platforms or even service providers could offer, perhaps for a premium, “cloud storage” for viewers’ recorded or purchased content. For example, platforms could offer customers 10TB of extra recording capacity in the cloud – a “Dropbox” for television - to allow viewers to “pull” (i.e. stream) selected content when they wish to view. 

As the technology underpinning television continues to evolve, industry head-scratching notwithstanding, we have much to both marvel at and look forward.

Part one is available here.