While the move from SDI to IP continues to pick up speed, more development — and better cooperation among key stakeholders — is still needed to improve advertising technology and deliver better measurement in order to complete with digital competitors like Google and Facebook.
Major broadcasters and programmers are well on their way to transitioning to Internet Protocol (IP)-based technology for their everyday operations, and several are already taking advantage of cloud services to receive and distribute programming. But more development — and better cooperation among key stakeholders — is still needed to improve advertising technology and deliver better measurement in order to complete with digital competitors like Google and Facebook.
Those were the big takeaways Wednesday at TVNewsCheck’s TV2020 conference, where top engineers gathered for the panel discussion “Technology Shaping Business Models” and described where they are focusing their investment dollars.
“We’re all in, and to be honest, I don’t think there’s any other way to be today,” said Discovery CTO John Honeycutt of his company’s move to IP.
As Honeycutt explained, Discovery has “taken the bold step” of moving all content aggregation and linear distribution for its non-sports channels on a worldwide basis to the public cloud, using Amazon Web Services. So far, 300 linear TV channels have been moved, representing its U.S. and European footprints for network such as Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet, and the company is currently in the process of moving the recently acquired Scripps cable networks to the cloud.
“We’ll complete the Scripps integration in the spring, and then move to our Asia and Latin America portfolios in 2019, and essentially our entire footprint will be there,” Honeycutt said.
Using the cloud for Eurosport, the European sports giant that Discovery acquired in 2015, is a “different conversation,” said Honeycut, since latency is still an issue for live sports programming.
“That said, the utilization of IP for remote production, for aggregation of signals, is fully available, fully capable and in progress,” he said. “We’re big believers. It serves not only the linear business but also our OTT business and our direct-to-consumer platforms. It’s really the foundation of the future, and frankly, the transition to me is inevitable.”
Another early adopter of cloud technology is Disney-ABC Television Group, which moved all of its cable networks to a private cloud architecture several years ago using technology from Imagine Communications. Disney-ABC has also connected its stations to the cloud, through an LTN Global Communications IP network, to help them serve content to the bevy of digital MPVDs that have popped up in the last three years.
“The way I look at IP is it’s allowed us to do things that we would have had to say no to a year and a half, two and a half years ago,” said Brad Wall, SVP of broadcast operations for the Disney/ABC Television Group. “We can now say as an industry, and as technology and operations executives, ‘Yes’ to new programming decisions, to new things that come our way.
“Where it would have cost us millions of dollars, it would have cost us a year or a year-and-a-half of engineering and development, we can now spin those up and spin them down very quickly. IP, at a minimum as a distribution mechanism, has allowed us to do that.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group has been distributing its digital subchannels for years via LTN’ s IP terrestrial network. Last year Sinclair went to the cloud, using Imagine software and LTN connectivity in conjunction with the Microsoft Azure cloud, to launch a three-hour block of children’s programming across its stations. After proposing the service in March 2017, it launched “KidsClick” in July 2017.
There were some early technical problems, said Sinclair SVP-CTO Del Parks, such as getting audio normalization software to work properly on a service that spun up from a different server each day. But those were smoothed out by September 2017 and the service has run reliably since then.
“It’s pretty flawless, it just works,” Parks said.
The KidsClick launch was an important test for Sinclair as it will likely employ a similar architecture to launch new services for the IP-based ATSC 3.0 next-generation broadcast standard. That said, Parks doesn’t see IP equipment making its way into Sinclair’s live studio operations in the near term.
“I don’t believe we’re in that lifecycle quite yet, in terms of buying IP switchers just to have IP,” said Parks. “HD-SDI works pretty well and we’ve been using it for years. The real question is, as this capital lifecycle moves on, what are we going to be doing in 2020, 2021? That’s what we are planning right now.
“So yes, we are looking at IP because I believe in three to four years the vendors will probably only supply IP tools. Just like in the transition from SD to HD, there was a time when you could buy either SD or HD equipment. But then very quickly a time came where you could only buy HD. And I think that will happen [with IP].”
Tegna is already using the cloud to distribute content to OTT and mobile platforms, and is looking “to move that up the chain” into its linear TV operations, said Tegna CTO Kurt Rao.
“One of the things that frustrates a lot of our content creators is that today you produce content for your digital platforms very differently than how you produce content for linear,” said Rao. “Those two particular roads have to come together just for us to be efficient and for us to get content to the right place at the right time.”
The panelists said that traditional broadcast vendors have generally been responsive in supporting the SMPTE 2110 IP transport standard that was ratified late last year. Wall noted that major new facility builds and rebuilds in Europe, Canada and the U.S. are trying to use as much IP technology and SMPTE 2110-compliant gear as possible, and he urged broadcasters and vendors to work together to further improve interoperability between devices.
But they also conceded that broadcast vendors are in a tough spot given the rapidly changing media business and the continued technology shift from hardware to software. Competing for the necessary software development talent will be tough for many of the small, cash-strapped media technology companies, said Honeycutt, who predicted further consolidation among vendors.
“That’s not a cheap experience, when you’re competing against either massive FANG businesses, or the SAPs of the world — big companies,” he said. “You’re now competing for developers in this realm. That’s a very difficult thing for a small company to do. I think with all good intent people are trying. I think it’s inevitable that only a few—or not as many as are here [referring to the NAB NY show floor]—will survive.”
Given all the improvement in IP network and cloud playout technology, one area that is still lagging is advertising technology. The panelists said the selling of spots continues to be bogged down by incompatibility among the systems used by broadcasters, agencies and advertisers, though standardization efforts like the TIP Iniative led by Sinclair, Nexstar, Tegna and other large groups are making headway.
“There’s no SMPTE for advertisers,” said Parks. “There’s no standards body. Company A provides software to Advertiser B, they have their walled garden, and Company C provides their software to Ad Agency X, and they have their software. And never the twain shall meet.”
Wall noted there is a “smorgasbord” of different sales, traffic and billing and playout systems used across the various Disney networks and their corresponding customers, all with varying capabilities. And that is not sustainable going forward in an IP world.
“It is an area of the industry that is very siloed,” said Wall. “And that comes down to some systems not speaking well to each other, and some of the competitive nature in that space plays a role. Our company is moving very hard and very fast to unify across the board, and to support the ad community, that frankly, keeps us in business.”
To Honeycutt, the biggest problem with advertising is more fundamental, and that is the current state of measurement.
“I don’t know what a video view is,” said Honeycutt. “I’ve no idea of what the currency is. And this is both in linear and nonlinear. We’re not at a point where I can get direct one-for-one measurement and determine whether the piece of content was effectively consumed or not.
“So if I’m going to go sell that, I’m selling — I don’ t want to call it a false economy, but a challenged economy. If I’m scrolling through my social media feed and I see a thing for three seconds, does that constitute consumption? By some people’s measure it does, not by mine.”
For their part, Parks and Rao are hopeful that the two-way nature of the new ATSC 3.0 standard — and the resulting data from IP-connected smart TV sets over that return channel — will allow for more effective overall measurement of both linear broadcast and OTT content.
“Facebook and others have trained us to give a thumbs up and thumbs down,” said Rao. “So can you do simple things like these to determine whether someone’s sitting in front of that set? Those will be alternative ways of measurement. Then you can go back to Nielsen and correlate it with their numbers, and try to figure out what’s really happening out there.”
Read all of TVNewsCheck’s TV2020 coverage here.