Changing TV gear and consumption habits

Uncertainty about the future is the new certainty in the TV industry

By Morand Fachot

In recent years the television industry has experienced countless changes to its content production and distribution modes, the equipment needed to support them and viewers’ expectations. Leaving aside the continuous need for standards, among them IEC International Standards, uncertainty about the future is the new certainty in the TV industry.

Japan's public broadcaster NHK demonstrated its 8K TV equipment at IBC 2015

It was all so much quieter in the good old times

For decades the TV landscape remained virtually unchanged. A few public, state and private networks broadcast a limited number of channels using analogue signals. Household equipment was restricted to a single or few TV sets and viewers watched essentially the same programmes. Programmable recording equipment, first available to consumers in the mid-1970s in the form of videocassette recorders (VCRs) and, from the early 2000s, as digital video recorders (DVRs), introduced a significant change, making it possible for viewers to watch programmes at their own convenience, rather than solely when they were aired.

Digital disruption

The introduction of digital television (DTV) in the 2000s and its relatively rapid adoption by consumers marked a paradigm shift for the industry. The possibility of broadcasting more channels on the same bandwidth presented broadcasters with the opportunity to expand their market and gave viewers more choice. DTV requiring new types of TV sets (or at the very least digital to analogue converters) proved highly beneficial to set manufacturers as consumers adopted the new technology, allowing them to enjoy greater choice and better image quality on wider screens.

Television, DTV in particular, relies on a multitude of international, regional and national standards developed by many standards developing organizations (SDOs). These cover a multitude of domains such as formats, bandwidth, interference, compression, spectrum allocation, etc. These SDOs include the IEC, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), regional broadcasting unions that belong to the World Broadcasting Unions, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Standards yes, but not for everything

If anything, the introduction of DTV did not mean a simplification to single sets of broadcast standards, as countries/regions continued to adopt different standards. These include those developed for the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), the Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting (ISDB), the Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcast (DTMB) and the Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) systems, and included, when relevant, various options for terrestrial, satellite, cable or mobile distribution.

However, IEC International Standards developed by a number of IEC Technical Committees (TCs), which are central to the development of digital TV equipment and of all the technologies that underpin it, apply to the equipment used for most DTV broadcast standards, from content acquisition to editing and distribution to viewers.

These IEC Standards are prepared by IEC TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, and all its Technical Areas (TAs) and IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices, as well as other TCs and their Subcommittees (SCs), such as IEC TC 46: Cables, wires, waveguides, RF connectors, RF and microwave passive components and accessories and IEC TC 86: Fibre optics.

International Standards for the coding of audiovisual objects are developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29: Coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information, an SC of the Joint Technical Committee on information technology formed by the IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Digital audio and video broadcasting requires signals to be compressed. Compression codecs for DTV broadcasting have been developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group. MPEG is a working group of experts, formed by the IEC and ISO in 1988 to prepare these types of Standards jointly with ITU-T (International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector) Study Group 16, Multimedia, also known as VCEG (Video Coding Experts Group).

The latest version of video compression codec, High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), will support an increased range of services, including Ultra-High Definition TV (UHDTV)

From Standard to High and Ultra-High Definition

The quest for HDTV is not new; for instance analogue HDTV was the object of extensive research in the Multiplexed Analogue Components (HD-MAC) and D2-MAC projects in Europe.

The digital HDTV landscape has long been confusing for consumers due to the definitions and labels adopted by manufacturers when digital HDTV was first launched. These included HD Ready, Full HD, HDTV 1080p, or HDTV 1080i, and covered sets capable of displaying HDTV pictures in 720p or 1080 lines in progressive scan (p), or interlaced mode (i).

Similar issues are emerging with the introduction of UHDTV as its ecosystem is more complex than that of HDTV.

Definitions matter but other features matter too

TV sets with 4 times as many pixels as HDTV (3840 horizontally and 2160 vertically against 1920H X 1080V) are being sold as UHDTV in growing numbers. Some 3 million such sets were sold in 2013, an estimated 27,5 million were shipped in 2015 and it is forecast that over 100 million UHDTV sets will be sold in 2020.

These TVs are marketed as UHDTV or as 4K sets, although 4K is a professional and cinema standard (4096H X 2160V), not a broadcast standard.

UHDTV is more than just 4 times as many pixels as HDTV, although that is how it is viewed right now by consumers. It is an entire ecosystem that includes a number of other features such as:

  • High Dynamic Range (HDR) for a much larger palette of brightness and colours, giving a greater range of luminosity and more lifelike images
  • High Frame Rate (HFR) for smoother motion (important in action and sports coverage)
  • Greater colour depth (wider colour gamut)
  • Immersive audio that gives high spatial resolution in sound source localization in azimuth, elevation and distance and provides an increased sense of sound envelopment.

These features are not yet available in current UHDTV sets and will not be for a number of years. In many instances they have not been fully developed yet by manufacturers.

At the 2015 annual International Broadcasting Convention (IBC 2015) in Amsterdam, industry experts told e-tech that the implementation of UHDTV would stretch from 2014 to well after 2020 (the latter date for 8K or Super Hi-Vision 7620H X 4320V pixels).

The industry has entered the first phase with HDR, HFR, greater colour depth and improved audio (beyond 5.1) being gradually introduced in a second phase from 2017.

Content anywhere at any time on any device

While HDTV and UHDTV certainly provide a unique experience in terms of better quality visual and audio perception, media content is consumed in a variety of ways. Media preferences show a generational gap as changes in viewing habits, with a majority viewing TV content on tablets, computers and mobile devices in advanced markets (Personal TV: The future of broadcasting, IBM White Paper, survey of 2 542 consumers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK in July 2015). Consumers increasingly prefer to watch programmes when it suits them, rather than being tied to linear programming, and 79% expect to watch more downloaded content within 12 months, according to the same survey.

Challenges to the traditional broadcasting model

These changing habits are disruptive for established broadcasters as consumers access more content from a variety of additional devices and sources such as subscription pay-TV with proprietary set-top-boxes and interactive Hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV), which can show DTV content from broadcast TV, Internet and connected devices, over-the-top (OTT) and streaming services. All these rely on different business models, such as ad-funded, pay-as-you-go or subscription.

The traditional broadcast model is giving way to a multicast/unicast environment as viewers want to consume different content on a variety of devices, and as providers collect direct information about individual viewers’ choices through interactive services. This allows them to offer viewers personalized content according to their past viewing patterns and those of consumers with similar profiles or tastes.

As a result, personal programme guides (PPGs) and push services are set to replace the existing linear programming model and electronic programme guides (EPGs), according to the general consensus expressed by industry experts at IBC 2015.

Other challenges to the traditional broadcasting model include growing demand for additional allocation of the radio-frequency spectrum for mobile services. However, the 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) decided not to introduce any global change in the 470-694/698 MHz band used by TV broadcasters, thus creating favourable conditions for the continuous development of digital terrestrial television.

Whatever viewers’ consumption habits, all the devices they use now and will use in the future, as well as some of the software that supports these and all multimedia content (such as compression codecs) rely on International Standards developed by IEC TCs and by the IEC working together with other organizations or groups. As for many other aspects of the broadcast industry, their future is difficult to forecast.

TV PC phone tablet Multimedia and TV content can be accessed from PC, portable and mobile devices
NHK 8K Japan's public broadcaster NHK demonstrated its 8K TV equipment at IBC 2015
Multichannel LCD rack monitor Multi-channel LCD rack monitors are used to control image quality at various production stages (Photo: Postium Korea Co., Ltd)