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01 November 2010

David Wood investigates the prospects for the latest TV innovations coming to our screens, from 3d to YouView

Broadcaster innovations: from HD to 3d to YouView

The pace of broadcast innovation never seems to slacken – at least not at BSkyB. Just four years after it launched its first HD service back in 2006 the satellite broadcaster notched up its 50th HD channel in September.

A month later it officially launched its first 3d service, although it has been trialling 3d broadcasts to viewers since the spring. Boasting a wide variety of 3d sport from its 2010 Ryder Cup coverage to live coverage of football, rugby union and boxing, Sky 3d is promising an average of three live sports events each week.

There’s no question that when it comes to innovation in broadcast technology sport has traditionally been a hugely significant driver, from the first HD broadcasts of premiership football to this summer’s World Cup in 3d.

Says Sony Professional’s head of 3d and sports solutions Mark Grinyer: “HD represents simply an increase in picture quality but 3d has the potential to really excite audiences. Some sports such as golf look amazing – you can see the ripples on the grass and the slope on the green.”

“But what our research has also revealed is that for some sports – horse racing or F1 for example – you have to change the way you cover it, because the further you place the camera away from the action the less compelling a 3d experience it is. Thirty metres or less is the best approximate range.” The evidence so far is that the case for 3d is strongest in genres such as sports, movies and gaming, with Grinyer confirming that 3d is still some way from becoming as ubiquitous as HD.

Rip roaring take off?

Sky 3d’s experimental multi-genre line up includes movies, concerts, natural history, arts, entertainment and documentary, with the broadcaster’s product development director Brian Lenz predicting that viewers’ interest in 3d will be very different to HD. “HD was a quality upgrade of SD, but 3d isn’t a replacement for HD, it's a value add premium experience.”

“It’s going to be more about appointment to view entertainment events rather than about all your channels in 3d. Whereas all your 30 or 40 hours of viewing each week will be in HD, 3d will be more like a special event, where you sit down to watch a movie with your family or a football game in a totally different way.”

Many are predicting that 3d won’t enjoy the rip roaring take off that Sky’s HD services have experienced, underlined by the fact that 3.2 million Sky subscribers now pay an extra £10 a month for HD broadcasts.

Currently Sky provides 3d to its most valued top tier customers free of charge and has no official figures for who’s watching. One important factor limiting the uptake of 3d services will be the penetration of 3d televisions, with research consultancy Strategy Analytics predicting that number won’t top 300,000 in the UK by the end of the year.

Strategy Analytics digital consumer VP David Mercer explains: “Expectations for 3d are certainly becoming much more realistic recently after the excessive hype built up in the industry over the last couple of years.”

One reason is that the availability of content is currently a major barrier for 3d broadcasting, explains Mercer, who adds: “There are also major issues with communications. Our recent surveys showed that 63% of people in the UK are uncertain whether 3dTV causes damage to the eyes.”

Media analyst Toby Syfret from Enders Analysis similarly makes a sharp distinction between the proven case for HD broadcasting and Sky’s more recent 3d channel launch. “When it comes to 3d there are many more practical issues than there were with HD. With HD, old content can be upscaled to approximate HD quality, which is a process which is going to be much more difficult in 3d.”

Sky’s Brian Lenz concedes that upscaling 3d content is less straightforward. “The quality is highly dependent on the time and money you put into it. It’s a bit like colourisation – you can spot it easily when it’s done badly – and when images don’t perfectly match, that’s what causes the eye strain.”

“If you put in a lot of time – like George Lucas who is spending over a year to upgrade each Star Wars film then that’s fine. It just takes time and only certain projects will merit that attention.” Lenz adds: “What I believe is that our priority is to maintain a high standard, rather than producing bad 3d content just for the sake of it. This will only serve to hurt 3d and slow down its progress.”

The true cost of 3d
Another challenge is the cost of 3d production, estimated to be three times the cost of HD production according to one producer. This is constricting the current market for 3d production, as is the availability of 3d kit and stereoscopic production skills.

Sony’s Mark Grinyer confirms that whilst Sony, Sky and organisations such as FIFA, which have taken a lead in 3d content production, are happy with the quality, quantity is still the big issue. “We have built Sky two trucks to make more schedule-based 3d content but at the moment the rate determining step is still the availability of quality kit and crew.”

Sky 3d’s channel director John Cassy insists that despite the extra costs and issues with 3d production it remains a significant opportunity for producers, despite the perception that making 3d content is difficult. “That’s not necessarily the case,” insists Cassy, who singles out the example of Jersey-based factual producer Colonial Pictures, currently making a series for Sky 3d, Treasure Houses of Britain.

“Colonial’s Alastair Layzell has done an interesting deal involving Sky 3d, History Channel, PBS in the US and DirecTV to finance the series. “There are ways to make quality 3d TV without breaking the bank – particularly if you can piece together funding.”

Cassy remains upbeat about the prospects for his 3d channel, describing the technology as simply the next stage in TV evolution. Others – such as Enders’ Toby Syfret – are more circumspect. “I think the real value of 3d to Sky will be emphasising the quality of the Sky service as leader in the latest technical innovations.”

Cautious approach
At the BBC, C4 and ITV there is a much more cautious approach to 3d. Says ITV’s director of group development and strategy Carolyn Fairbairn: “The fact that you still have to wear glasses is a bit of a barrier. Then there are transmission costs to consider. HD costs more than SD and 3d costs more than HD – that’s the challenge. It’s quite a long way away from being a mass market product, but when it is ITV will be a player.”

At ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC the focus is all about HD. For ITV and C4 the strategy is to get HD versions of their most important channels in front of as many eyeballs as possible on platforms such as Sky, Virgin, Freesat and Freeview.

For the BBC it’s the launch of the BBC1 HD channel this month. BBC head of HD Danielle Nagler predicts the corporation’s second HD channel will launch with 60% of its peaktime schedule in HD, with the rest upscaled.

Nagler points out that the shift of some big chunks of BBC1 content to HD production will inevitably be dictated by circumstances. Circumstances such as the move of BBC News back to Broadcasting House in late 2012, which will mean that the HD shift won’t happen until in 2013.

In production Nagler insists that progress towards 100% HD programme making has been rapid over the last year. “HD is now standard and we are requiring people who make programmes for BBC – in-house or otherwise – to make them in HD. One big shift is that now producers need approval for delivery in SD – in effect we have flipped it – with SD now the exception with the assumption being that programmes will deliver in HD unless there is some reason why they cannot.”

This is now possible because acquisition technology has moved on significantly in the last 12 months, adds Nagler. “Now most camera manufacturers offer good HD options, in hand-held as well as shoulder-mounted camcorders, making a big difference in terms of the range of programmes you can make in HD.”

The BBC’s next HD channel launch seems to be just a matter of time, with the only constraints being the consumer take up of HD technology and connectivity – plus the availability of capacity of transmission networks such as digital terrestrial.

According to Nagler 19% of households are now equipped with HD connections, a figure she expects to rise to 25% by year end. The tipping point will be when the proportion reaches 50% – conservatively estimated to be by the end of 2012.

The corporation’s appetite for innovation always has to be tempered by its relevance in terms of value for money for licence fee payers. To this end while the corporation is keeping a close eye on developments in 3d broadcasting and is carrying out stereo 3d tests, Nagler insists there are no plans for any 3d launch.

Part of the reason is that the BBC is still evaluating the significance of 3d to mainstream audiences. Nagler explains: “In cinema and gaming there is clearly an appetite, but a TV channel is very different. Channels push content out at consumers whereas so far 3d has been all about people choosing to pull content to them.”

“So far the case for 3d has been proven in some forms of entertainment but not others. In effect is the hyper real world of 3d images a good fit for something very down to earth – such as EastEnders?” Nagler adds: “HD is a technology that benefits the whole of television and that’s why it will become the way we make programmes. In contrast, 3d may work brilliantly with certain types of content but I find it difficult to imagine that there will be a time where everything will be made in 3d.”

The battle for VOD viewing
A much bigger focus of attention for the BBC, ITV and C4 over the next year will be online joint venture on demand platform YouView, formerly known as Project Canvas. Recently given regulatory approval, the service, also backed by Channel Five, Arqiva, BT and Talk Talk, is expected to launch next June with what its partners hope will be a killer combination of linear TV, on-demand seven day catch up as well as complementary broadband applications.

According to C4 group director of strategy and public value Gill Pritchard technology convergence in the shape of internet connected TV will become mainstream in the next three years and will form the cornerstone of the channel’s business strategy under David Abraham.

The battle for VOD viewing is set to become one of the big consumer facing technology stories of next year with Sky Anytime+, Virgin, Google TV and YouView all fighting for their slice of viewing on converged devices.

According to C4’s Pritchard, YouView’s strengths are the fact that it will be free and simple to use, which will give it the edge. “The look has been designed by an ex-PlayStation team and it’s futuristic, but really simple, with navigation up, down, left and right using your standard TV remote. Compare this with Virgin, where if you want catch up you have to exit the Virgin TV stream. Then it’s around 10 clicks before you get to where you want to be. With YouView you get there straight away simply by scrolling back on the EPG.”

Familiarity will be another important part of the appeal of YouView, says ITV’s Carolyn Fairbairn. “Google TV will be very different. It’s not a TV-centric but a search-centric experience. YouView will be an extention of your normal TV with a lot of familiar features. You’ll be able to buy it, plug it in and it’ll work.”

ITV’s strategy is to add online applications such as ITV Live to YouView as a split screen experience. “Currently it’s only on PC but it will be available on YouView when it launches. We ran it during the World Cup and now on X Factor and it’s doing incredibly well, offering chat, voting and betting as a companion service to the TV programme. Advertisers are incredibly excited about it.”

Stumbling blocks
Whether YouView is able to emulate the success of that other FTA platform Freeview remains to be seen. One potential stumbling block for the service, aimed at homes which don’t want to pay more for their TV channels, will be the cost of the set top box. A box with PVR capability is expected to retail somewhere between £200-400.

Another is that its rivals will have first mover advantage, with Sky’s own pull VOD service Anytime+ already beginning its roll out. Sky’s Brian Lenz explains: “There are two reasons why we have waited until now. One is that we wanted to see the market develop, plus we wanted to deliver a service to match the quality of our broadcast service.”

Strategy Analytics David Mercer confirms that the delay to the launch of YouView could damage its prospects. “Our view is that YouView will not become the single de facto standard “over the top” platform in the UK. There will inevitably be alternative offers in the market, so in that sense it is unlikely to have the free run enjoyed by Freeview DTT.”

Attemping to gaze further into the technological future is always a risky business but Sony’s Mark Grinyer offers a few pointers. One technology in the planning stage at Sony is the development of real time image stitching, where a stadium can be mapped with the output of three inwardly facing HD cameras to create a 6K by 1K large scale canvas of a pitch, or any other environment.

“We are experimenting with putting virtual cameras back into the image, to produce off-the-ball footage that people might have missed with the main cameras – which could be a useful tool for enhancing post match analysis,” explains Grinyer. Perhaps the most risk-free prediction is that advances in picture quality will continue. Coming to a screen near you soon are high resolution cameras beyond the reach of current forms of HD. “There is a big push from cinemas, which have extra capacity, for us to produce more content at 4K resolution.”


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