2012: A digital odyssey

30 Oct 2008

Tune in for the biggest sea change in Irish broadcasting history.

Broadcasting will never be the same again.

In 2012, all across Europe, analogue TV services will be switched off and digital TV will dominate. Ireland aims to move sooner and turn its analogue services off in step with the UK later next year. In recent months, digital terrestrial television (DTT) licences were granted to RTÉ and a consortium called Boxer DTT.

Future Human

While all of this is happening, new standards in radio such as digital audio broadcasting (DAB) look set to enrich radio content and change the radio experience forever. At present, much of the north east of Ireland can receive DAB channels from RTÉ and various independent broadcasters, and DAB radios will be in the shops in time for Christmas.

Telecoms companies like Magnet and Eircom will also enter the fray with internet TV services, while technology giants such as Intel, Samsung, Sony, Apple and Microsoft will bring out new TV sets optimised for two-way television.

This will be an era of instant gratification. The content you want will be there when you want it. Your views could be broadcast live from your living room to Questions & Answers. Driving in your car and a track you love comes on the radio, just hit the download button.

The speed of change the broadcasting world is set to encounter over the next five years alone will be unprecedented in its history. High-definition (HD) TV will go mainstream, and new form factors such as 3D TV or holographic TV will generate the same buzz as HD does today.

The increased acceleration of change can be illustrated by the fact that the first demonstration of HD TV in Europe took place in Killarney on 25 June 1982, when Japanese broadcaster NRK showed it off to the European Broadcasting Union. In effect, it’s taken 25 years for HD to reach stores. Meanwhile, future developments will hit home faster than you think.

The irony isn’t lost on JP Coakley, operations manager at RTÉ Radio. “With radio and TV, new standards are hard to keep up with because you have to upgrade transmitters on mountaintops, for example. But in parallel with that, there’s so much going on with computers and the internet that all you need to do is turn it on and download content.

“As a licensed broadcaster, we have to keep up with change, but also ask what the benefits to the audience are if you do something new. It’s what anybody who pays a licence fee expects and we have to find a way of mapping our core purpose onto new media.”

RTÉ has proven itself adept at using the internet. Its main website gets 45 million hits a month and every month its podcasts achieve 700,000 downloads.

“We’re in the foothills in terms of using what’s available. The truth is nobody really knows where this is headed. Established new media players such as the blog site The Huffington Post just borrow from other media. If this continues, where is the money going to come from to investigate and find the truth out? Never mind the depth, what about the quality? RTÉ’s core mission is to be as trusted on the web as we are on the air.”

RTÉ’s move into DAB radio will see it focus on five core channels, including RTÉ Choice, a digital station that picks the best of the station’s audio content. “The idea is to get another angle to a story that’s in the news. It’s also our take on catch-up content. An example of what we’re doing in this area is getting all the US election coverage clipped into a central site managed by the newsroom and re-broadcast on RTÉ Choice.”

Coakley’s colleague Sarah Martin says that the advantages of DAB over standard FM will be the onset of electronic programme guides, the ability to see news headlines in text and eventually having the ability to record content you are listening to. “In the UK, some 85pc of DAB listeners in a survey said that the quality was superior to FM.

“We have just trained 32 new producers and a key aspect of their training was new media. But the key thing is that FM is still the main game for radio and will be for some time to come.”

Coakley agrees pointing out that the duty of a state broadcaster is to be available in a format people will still want to consume. “RTÉ and the Government both agree that new platforms such as DTT will be an important part of Ireland’s future. Again, the importance of offering and maintaining this as a free-to-air service is crucial. The caveat for RTÉ is that we are available where people want us.”

In recent weeks, RTÉ’s director general, Cathal Goan, told a ComReg (Commission for Communications Regulation) conference on digital dividend that the station will also be launching its own version of the BBC’s iPlayer software that allows viewers to catch up on their favourite programmes via the internet.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, described the DTT process as complicated when it came to deciding on formats. “We’re on target for the second half of next year to launch a DTT service because the UK will be turning off its analogue service at the same time and I didn’t want 700,000 householders on the east coast of Ireland to lose their access to channels like ITV and the BBC.

“The broad approach we have taken is that one public sector free-to-air MUX will provide a service that’s appropriate and this will be complemented with a commercial service, the licence for which the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has awarded to Boxer DTT. There’s no doubt people will have questions about what set-top boxes they will need and what will it mean.

“Our job is to explain what DTT is and to make sure we have common standards and boxes. It isn’t cheap or easy to switch over, but the mission over the coming months is to ensure people are aware of what’s happening,” Minister Ryan said.

Framing the future

The future of TV can be divided effectively into two camps – the net generation born between 1977 and 1997 who have known only digital and champion mobile and internet media consumption, and the over 50s who create a balance by continuing to devote attention to the traditional media of their generation.

As the world’s over-50s population grows from 1.1 billion to 1.25 billion by 2012, it will sustain traditional formats even as this generation becomes interested in platforms embraced by their children and grandchildren, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Global Entertainment and Media Outlook.

Marcel Fenez, managing partner in charge of PwC’s global entertainment and media division, says that the TV and radio industries will have to cater to the dynamics of both camps of under 30s and over 50s. “It can’t just go one way. But generically we are moving to an on-demand world. People will want to be able to search and consume content when and how they want to. But that said, there is still value in good TV and radio channels that aggregate content in a way people want to click through.”

Fenez’s colleague Bartley O’Connor says that in terms of radio, he is unsure of DAB’s impact in the market, which he describes as having flopped in the UK and Germany. “The key thing about Ireland is its local radio stations. The ability to appeal to the local dynamic will make or break the success of switching to digital. Radio stations in Ireland live or die by the quality of service enjoyed by people listening in.”

On the subject of DTT, he believes it will radically shake up a market where some 50pc of people already consume digital TV services provided by UPC and Sky.

“The industry is already facing something of a dilemma over personal video recorders (PVRs) that allow you to series-link and live-pause TV shows. Catch-up TV is effectively about consumers taking charge of what they want to watch. It’s no longer about a broadcast schedule determined by a producer, but a consumer creating their own schedules. The fear is – and they have already found this in the US – that half of people are skipping through the ads. We’ve found that actually PVRs lead to an increase in the people who see ads.”

A white paper by IBM on the future of TV found that ad-skipping through the use of PVRs is expected to lead to losses of 6pc in US TV annual advertising revenues in 2009. In Germany annual revenues will fall 2.4pc, while in the UK they will fall by 6pc in 2012.

“Expect to see competing forces between on-demand and linear channels. In the long run linear channels are going to be under threat, but in the short run there’s going to be a lot of niche channels that will take up shelf space,” Fenez points out.

With the growth of broadband and the introduction of YouTube only four years ago, digital natives like teenagers are opting to consume content in their own way and time on their PCs or on games consoles in their bedrooms, rather than in the living room with the rest of the family.

This is leading to telecoms and internet firms creating their own internet TV (IPTV) services so they do not miss out on the content revolution. An unexpected entrant to the TV business in coming months will be Eircom, which is rolling out a service that will compete with DTT.

The incumbent operator has hired Richard Griffiths as director of TV and entertainment services. Griffiths is one of the UK’s leading broadband strategists and digital media gurus. As well as having directed for the BBC, Channel 4 and GMTV, and authored a book on video journalism, Griffiths was director of technology strategy for BT Vision.

“The phrase digital TV will prove scary to a few people. No matter what innovation we provide, no matter how many more channels or how many videos on demand we provide, it is fundamental that providers keep these services simple and easy to use. Everything we do, we have to keep the viewer right at the centre.”

Griffiths says the next few years will be all about choice and Eircom intends to provide HD video on demand services via set-top boxes that plug into Eircom’s broadband service.

“Video on demand is the killer app that will change viewer behaviour. You can watch anything you want out of the library. How do you change viewer behaviour when they are just plonked watching something someone else has decided for them? You have to make it simple and present video on demand in such a way that the viewer has control.”

He says the aim is to provide subscribers with set-top boxes that will also come combined with wireless home networking solutions.

According to Griffiths, Eircom is examining a number of ways of delivering TV to living rooms, either by streaming or by progressive download such as with the BBC iPlayer or the Apple TV, where you select the programming you want, hit play and wait until all the content is present.

“The digital TV viewers will allow viewers to time-shift. They can start watching a programme in one room or continue watching it somewhere else. Also, why not organise what you want to watch later on your mobile phone?” Griffiths asks.

Already providing IPTV over broadband connections, Magnet Networks’ Mark Kellett thinks that linear TV still has a future. “We’re seeing a lot of change. Games companies like EA are already predicting the end of the games console because every form of media will shift online.”

Last month Magnet launched its PCTV service, which comes free with any 10Mbps broadband connection. “One of the debates for the future, particularly in urban areas, is do you need a set-top box at all?

“A single laptop can allow you to watch full-standard TV with pause and rewind functionality,” Kellett says. He explains that soon Magnet will move in the direction of being a full video on demand provider, where viewers will get instant access to the films and programmes they want.

One of the advantages of IPTV, Kellett says, is that viewers don’t have to pay for multi-room; they can watch TV on any computer in any room in the house. “HD will change a lot of things, but in terms of linear and non-linear viewing, why can’t viewers just jump off and download something straight from a studio? I think the future will be a mix of people watching linear channels, and at the same time grabbing what they want.”

The advent of analogue switch-off led to BBC and ITV launching freeview satellite TV in the UK, and manufacturer Alba has created a set-top box that carries 76 channels. By Christmas this will be expanded to 250 channels and 30 radio stations.

This service was launched to the Irish market in recent weeks by a company called Sat4Free.ie, which sells a standard set-top box and a HD box for once-off prices of €299 and €399 respectively, with no bills thereafter.

“The beauty of this is it’s free, instant digital TV that allows consumers to move from analogue TV straightaway and get DAB radio,” says Dermot Fahy of Sat4Free.ie. “Once people realise what they’re getting for this, they’ll go for it. They are used to free-to-air services. And they’re not going to be charged any more than the initial cost of installing it.”

There is little doubt that 2009 will be a watershed year for the consumer of radio and TV content in Ireland, akin to the move from black and white to colour.

“Next year will be a very exciting year for Irish consumers,” agrees Griffiths. “The catch-up TV revolution will mean you won’t have a heart attack if you forget to set the video recorder for Eastenders.

“The move to digital TV is the most exciting thing to happen to television since colour came along. People are going to have a lot more choice. Unlike the past 50 years, they will fit TV around their lives, rather than fitting their lives around the box.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years