Monday, 18 May 2009

Barry Flynn on the future of the IPTV industry, the 'Flynn switch' and Mad Men

I think it’s important to keep up with industry insiders. That’s why I’ve decided to run a regular monthly slot talking to specialists about their views on what’s hot and not in digital TV. To start us off, Barry Flynn, a principal consultant at TV consulting firm Farncombe Consulting Group, has been kind enough to give us some of his thoughts. He also runs the Connected TV blog where you can get more of his in-depth news and views.

Barry, you’ve been working in the digital TV space since its early days, what excites you about this industry as a whole?

The fact that it’s undergoing multiple, radical transformations – technology as well as business-related. On the one hand, there are rapid technical developments affecting quality (HD, super-HD, 3D, and LED TVs); and on the other hand parallel changes affecting delivery (e.g. DVB-T2, DVB-SH, IP, etc.). It’s likely that broadband hybridisation in particular will ultimately trigger sweeping changes right across the TV business value-chain. There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

What do you see as the hot topics in the today’s market?

Adding IP to traditional digital TV networks is the major hot topic, I think. Lots of people are coming to us for advice on this at the moment because the technical issues that need to be resolved are very complex (let alone the business ones). 3D also seems to be hot, although I’m a bit of a sceptic: I see no great demand for it from consumers and my personal view is that something like 4000-line HD combined with multiple audio feeds will offer as good an illusion of reality as anyone really requires.

The industry has been talking about the convergence of web and TV for quite some time. Is this really what consumers want?

Yes and no. I don’t think anyone really wants to surf the Internet on their living-room TV set. However, there’s evidence of suppressed demand for watching an over-the-top catch-up video service like the BBC’s iPlayer on the TV screen rather than the PC and perhaps other OTT services like YouTube. I also think consumers would value the ability to perform much more sophisticated Internet-type searches on the programmes available to them in a multi-channel PVR context, although, that would require considerable improvements to existing user interfaces (an evolution our EPG design company WeAreAka is closely involved with). It’s really a case of taking the best of what the Internet offers and adapting it to work in a TV environment – a sort of selective convergence, if you like.

There’s been a lot of talk in the industry about widgets that could be useful in the TV environment much like the popularity of iPhone applications. Do you see this taking off? What kind of applications do you think would be successful, if any?

Well, it depends on the age-group. As a rule, I think older people who have grown up with traditional linear TV will be a bit more reluctant to interact with widgets than younger ones for whom on-demand, interactive viewing is an everyday aspect of their video consumption experience. So, for the ‘oldies’, applications will have to be non-disruptive and tightly related to what they use their TVs for at the moment – i.e. news and weather, or contextual video purchases (e.g. ANT’s Amazon widget). I can also see that it might be useful for this age-group to know who is phoning you on the landline (so you can decide whether to interrupt your viewing) or to be alerted intelligently to the fact that an episode of a programme you have watched in the past is beginning at time X on channel Y. For the younger ones, I think social networking widgets might be more popular – e.g. ‘tweets’ from friends about reality shows, and so on – simply because that’s the way they consume TV anyway: i.e. simultaneously communicating with their friends. For me, though, the difficulty is reconciling these different paradigms: which widgets are allowed and which ones aren’t when you sit down to watch The Apprentice ‘en famille’?

Sky has made some recent announcements about “green button” advertising, giving the consumer more control over what they choose to watch making advertising much more relevant to them. Do you think it’s something that could take off?

There is some evidence from VOD deployments that people will choose to consume advertising if they see it as relevant to them. But I think this is really only the first step in the move to targeted, personalised advertising – where, for example, your PVR or the headend proactively substitutes a targeted ad in a live or recorded programme. The big issue isn’t really the technology – it’s whether consumers can be persuaded to give away the information the advertisers need to be able to target them in return for receiving ‘relevant’ messages. No-one really knows the answer to that yet. All we know at the moment is that consumers don’t seem to like their viewing being interrupted by irrelevant messages.

If you were to be transported 10 years into the future, how do you think the way we watch and consume TV both in the home and at work will have changed?

Apart from watching major events and breaking news live, it will probably mostly be on-demand – in the developed world at least – whether that’s from local or network storage. Given current storage trends, video will also have become much more portable by then (which is how we’ll probably watch it at work if we’re allowed to). In fact, I have this idea that wireless content sharing between portable media players might become so prevalent in the future that when you arrive home after work, the first thing you do will be to sync the home server with the one in your pocket, rather than the other way round – because the Terabytes you carry round with you will have become the dynamic content acquisition environment (the home server will just provide your backup). I have modestly labelled this concept ‘the Flynn Switch’, but it could be a complete fantasy! Whether we’ll have widespread broadcasting to these handheld media devices by then is a different issue. I’m a bit of a sceptic here, too, but I guess 10 years is enough for the industry to come up with a viable business model.

As a consumer how have technology advances impacted on the way you consume content?

For video, the answer is simple: I now watch mostly recorded programming rather than live, and I watch in HD (when it’s available) instead of SD, because I now have an HD-Ready flat-screen and a Sky HD box. For audio, the iPod has transformed my life. It enables me to consume a lot of radio as podcasts , and I hardly ever listen to music on anything else, now. Interestingly, I think it’s my audio consumption that has increased as a result of these advances rather than my video consumption. As for reading and news, it’s still via books and newspapers – although I guess I now get most work-related news from online alerts.

You work in the TV industry, so you must spend a good amount of time watching it yourself. What’s your favourite TV show and why?

Mad Men, without a doubt (in HD, of course!). It’s beautifully written, complex stuff, but it’s not just that. My father inhabited the American advertising world of the 60s, and the attention paid to period detail is exquisite, from the clothes through to the furniture, right down to the incessant drinking and smoking. I sometimes feel I’m peering through a telescope at my own childhood! It’s also got the best theme music and opening credits sequence ever. I’m devastated the latest series has just finished…

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