Monday, 29 October 2012

Integrating catch-up services into the EPG

The recent high-profile launches of YouView and Freesat’s new Freetime service in the UK have shifted focus back on to the role that the EPG plays in finding what to watch. Both platforms feature a “backwards EPG”, where users can scroll “back in time” to find programmes on catch-up services as well as seeing what’s on in the future.

There is much to be praised for this approach: a large part of the population still finds it difficult to use the traditional type of catch-up service, because it’s not how they’re used to choosing what to watch. By integrating catch-up services into the guide, that mental barrier gets reduced and makes catch-up TV part of their normal viewing experience.

However, the question that then starts to emerge is “will the grid-based EPG soon have had its day?”
There’s a lot of inertia behind the use of the grid-based EPG (among users and manufacturers), as the amount of available content increases. But, it’s still not really clear if the traditional EPG is the best way of displaying this much information to the user in a way that’s actually useful to them.  The traditional EPG will still be with us for a long time, because linear TV is also going to be with us for a long time.  However, I doubt that the grid-based EPG will remain the primary means of finding something to watch past the current generation of user interfaces that we’re seeing from companies like Freesat and YouView. 

This brings us full circle back to the integration of catch-up services in to the guide, because familiarity is a powerful tool, but sometimes our current tools just aren’t powerful enough to face the demands of the future.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Smart TVs Help TV Overtake PC For Online Video Viewing

A recent study from the NPD group in the US has revealed that the television has now overtaken the PC as the preferred device for viewing over-the-top (OTT) media. The rapid adoption of smart TVs obviously has a large part to play in this, but we’ve also seen that many smart TVs have ease-of-use problems and so the growth in smart TVs alone may not be enough to account for this trend.

Smart TVs have some obvious benefits over the PC for viewing media content – the large screen and the “lean back” user experience are pretty much essential for watching content that’s longer than a few minutes.  As a regular user of iPlayer, I much prefer to use it on the Wii (for those times when the entire family wants to watch something) or on my iPad (for when I’m the only one who wants to watch something) because they’re more convenient and comfortable to use.  While I could connect my laptop to the TV and use that, the difference in resolutions and the hassle of getting audio set up properly means I simply don’t bother.  I’d rather watch a standard-definition version of the programme easily than deal with the messing around required to watch the HD version on the big screen.

As online media services become more widely deployed through smart TVs and set-top boxes (with both YouView and Freesat doing this in the UK, and various HbbTV-based catch-up TV services available in Germany), viewing OTT content is eventually going to become just another part of the TV experience, in the same way that PVR functionality already is today.

At the same time, there’s still a long way to go – recent figures have revealed that three quarters of YouView boxes sold so far have been used to view on-demand content for more than three minutes per session.  Given that the current purchasers are by definition the early adopters, who are more likely to be familiar with catch-up TV services, this is not a very impressive set of numbers.  Seeing how these numbers grow as YouView and Freesat’s Freetime service become more widely deployed will give a good indication of how this trend will develop in the UK.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What impact will the iPad Mini have on the multi-screen TV viewing experience?

Apple’s much anticipated gadget, the iPad Mini was unveiled last night, but what impact will it have on the multi-screen TV viewing experience when it becomes available to the public on the 2nd November?

The launch of the iPad Mini could send Apple’s dominance in the tablet market into overdrive. The smaller, cheaper tablet isn’t just a device for holidays; it has the potential to extend TV services every day. Multi-screen TV is becoming increasingly popular with services including search and recommendations being combined with the ability to watch shows away from the TV set. Compact and portable, the quality of the screen hasn’t been compromised, meaning users will be able to enjoy TV content on the go at ease.

Whilst it’s launching with a slightly higher-than-expected price tag of £269, it’s still cheaper than Apple’s £300+ flagship 10-inch iPad. This means consumers will be able to take advantage of an enhanced connected TV experience at a lower price.  Both the TV industry and consumers are becoming increasingly savvy in using tablets and smartphones to enhance the viewing experience. It’ll be interesting to see what new services will be tailored to the new enhanced range of iPads to extend TV experience even further, and whether these new devices change the way people multi-task while watching TV.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

BBC scales back Red Button video ahead of connected TV service

The BBC has recently announced that they’re scaling back their use of “red button” video ahead of a wider deployment of their connected TV service.  Given the success of iPlayer, this isn’t entirely surprising.  The use of broadcast services for delivering alternative video streams is both expensive, because you have to pay for the spectrum to broadcast it, and inherently limited because there are only so many alternative streams that you can carry at any time.

The BBC’s excellent coverage of the Olympics showed the value of alternative streams, by allowing everyone to choose which Olympic events they wanted to watch.  While this is feasible as a one-off for high-profile events such as the Olympics (if you’ve got a satellite or cable subscription that can handle all of the extra channels that are needed), it doesn’t work so well in day-to-day situations because of the limited number of streams that you can carry.  Broadcasters end up having to make a choice of what alternative streams to provide - not only to fit them into the available channels, but also to maximise the use of those channels.

The success of catch-up services on smart TVs has shown that customers will accept streamed video, and services such as the “Tagesschau” service in Germany (which provides news on demand) show the advantages of a connected approach, especially as the adoption of connected TVs grows.  The flexibility of connected TV services offer a big advantage over broadcast-based alternative video streams, and over time users will see real benefits from this through the increased availability of alternative content.

Friday, 12 October 2012

DTG releases connected TV spec version two

The UK Digital TV Group (DTG) recently released a new version of its connected TV specification – D-Book 7 part B.  ANT has been heavily involved with this version of the specification (I’ve been chairing the HTML work in this activity) and so it’s good to see it finally released.  This is an important step in the evolution of the D-Book, for two reasons.

First, this version of the D-Book is much more closely harmonised with the HbbTV specification, meaning that three of the main HTML-based specifications for connected TV (from the Open IPTV Forum, HbbTV and the DTG) are now closely aligned.  This makes it much easier for all of the digital TV specialists to get economies of scale from the development and deployment of HTML-based products and services.

Second, D-Book 7 part B is publicly available.  Until now, the D-Book has only been available to DTG members. While this may not seem very important, D-Book 7 part B adds some advanced web technologies over and above those currently adopted by OIPF or HbbTV.  While there are still questions about how widespread the deployment of these technologies is in smart TVs at present (and how usable they are on the current generation of receivers), that may not be the most important aspect of this.  Having this specification publicly available makes it much easier for HbbTV and OIPF to make sure that future versions of their specifications are aligned with the DTG.

Increasing harmonisation is not only good for the industry, it’s good for consumers all over the world, so the closer alignment of all three specifications – and the ability to easily align even further in the future - is a big step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

It’s Official: Sport is Social

The British public is embracing second screening as part of their everyday viewing habits. According to Sky, 75% of people now watch TV with a second connected device in hand. During the Olympics, over 150 million tweets were posted, making it one of the most talked-about events ever on Twitter. It confirms that big sporting events trail only breaking national news for stimulating social networking.

Now, social networking sites are not only being used to discuss programming, but to choose what to watch too. 24% of 18 to 24 year-olds use Facebook and 9% use Twitter to find something to watch on TV. Remarkably, over one in ten of us are now turning on TVs because of what we’ve seen on social media.

According to Broadband TV News, BBC’s iPlayer received a record 196 million views over the Olympics, with almost a fifth coming from mobile and tablet devices. This, along with the Ryder Cup, has given sport 30% of the online viewing market.

Sport is reacting to this too. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the world’s fastest growing sport, and this could well be down to social media and second screening. For example, Head of UFC’s parent company, Dana White, has over 2.2 million followers, and before the main fight, on pay-per-view, supporting events are shown live on Facebook. Sport has always engendered debate, something which second screening and social media can only help to grow. In the weird and wacky world of professional wrestling, WWE recently acquired social networking site Tout, and now regularly uses content from Tout in its broadcast programming.

All of this means sports fans and content providers are using multiple platforms to source, consume, and enjoy more entertainment at once. In this regard, sports content is ahead of the market, but it will surely only be a matter of time before other content providers start to integrate further in this way.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Umbrella Apps

Apps for the TV is fast becoming a hot topic. A recent survey by Appcelerator has found that more than 80 per cent of developers felt they would be making apps for televisions by 2015. The survey of more than 5000 developers shows that the number of apps for the TV will soon be equal to mobile and tablets.

Our own app, ANT Galio Move, has already received an excellent response from customers who recognise that tablet and smartphone applications can really enhance the viewing experience for viewers, whilst providing significant product differentiation and new revenue.

At IBC last month, we showcased a range of demos, to show how broadcast metadata can be used to provide integrated content from Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia and iTunes. Viewers can follow tweets about the programme they’re watching, watch a movie trailer on YouTube or buy the soundtrack on iTunes.

John Moulding has described this type of application as ‘the Umbrella app’. An app that takes the usual campaign screen functionality like channel change and recordings and adding social media content, which is usually thought of as ‘second screen’ experiences. This gives Pay TV platforms the opportunity to become the gateway on tablets and smartphones within which individual programme-related experiences are accessed.

We’ve seen with ANT Galio Move that this type of functionality can be just as compelling with a free-to-air platform when the application has direct access to the TV device and its accompanying metadata. Companion applications will continue to evolve but we’re starting to see how combining traditional TV functionality such as streaming, navigation and control with online content can really improve the overall TV experience.