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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.

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 computer 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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9 July 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, IP-based broadcasting | , | Leave a comment