Industry Execs Foresee Bright, if Not Clear, Future for Television

Ask four industry executives about the future of television, and you’ll receive four different answers. Television has evolved beyond the living room, encompassing mobile devices, in-venue screens, and more. Broadcasters are faced with an increasing number of resolutions, formats, and platforms, with no clear roadmap for which to pursue. Ask four industry execs about that, though, and they’ll respond similarly.

“The broad view is, by every broadcaster today, that, if you’ve got a device that can display video and can emit audio, that’s a perfect platform for consuming content,” said Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, at last week’s Content and Communications World (CCW) in New York City. “Whether it’s the future 4K 150-in. TV in the living room, the 10-in. tablet, 4-in. handheld device, those are all platforms that broadcasters understand they have to be on to be relevant.”

Keeping Fans in the Stands
Sports-industry execs are always looking for ways to improve the in-venue experience and draw fans from the living room to the game. More often than not, these improvements are video-related. The NBA’s Indianapolis Pacers and Houston Rockets recently installed video screens that extend foul line to foul line, and in-venue WiFi networks have become an expected service.

“From a video perspective, we really want people looking up, watching the video replay together, enjoying the game,” said Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, NBA Entertainment. “That said, people absolutely need, first of all, to connect to their networks — to their friends, family, businesses, social networks — so people know what a great time they’re having at the game.”

Whether in the venue or in the living room, sports fans want to connect with the game and with each other. Although the second-screen (not to mention third- and fourth-screen) phenomenon is nothing new, content creators must continually find innovative ways to navigate the multiscreen landscape. Fans want to consume content on their mobile devices, tablets, and desktops, so broadcasters must have a presence there.

“The mission statement on the back of my card is very fundamental: to serve sports fans. Period,” said Chuck Pagano, EVP, technology, ESPN. “We look to sports fans to see exactly what the appetite is and where they want to go. Our research has shown time and time again our avid sports fans, and even our mid-level sports fans, are some of the earliest adopters of technology. They try things for the sake of trying things because they have an insatiable appetite: they want information, they want video, and they want to be updated in real time across the board.”

4K or Not 4K? That Is the Question
Not only do sports fans crave content across all platforms, they crave high-quality content across all platforms.

“For years, we programmers spent a lot of time trying to convince our distributors that quality matters,” said Robert Zimmer, EVP, technology operations/CTO, HBO. “These days, our distributors really are using quality as a competitive tool, and that’s wonderful for the content side. They’re all cleaning up their bandwidth to be able to handle higher quality and more volume.”

However, the definition of higher quality is subject for debate. Talk of 4K was everywhere at this year’s CCW, but several broadcasters expressed doubt over whether the consumer can distinguish between 4K and 1080p.

“If what we’ve been seeing is true and stays true, that the U.S. consumer can’t appreciate the difference between 1080p and 4K unless the TV screen is 60 in.-70 in. or larger, then I question whether the entire country is going to change over, or is it going to be a minority?” Zimmer continued. “If you can only see it in a large-screen TV and 20%-30% of the market has that, I can’t see networks or broadcasters or cable people essentially changing from one thing to another unless it’s going to be for 100%.”

Because a transition to 4K would require new televisions, set-top boxes, and distribution infrastructure, in addition to 4K programming, the panelists supposed that the future of television might just be improved HD or 1080p. However, they added, 4K should not be written off.

“I think 4K has a better future and a more defined future than we ever had in HD. In other words, there is a 4K standard. How long did it take for us to get an HD standard?” said Hellmuth. “4K could evolve completely differently in the sense that, with the existence of standards, it could evolve where people actually pay when they want to watch 4K. In the sports industry, we all tightened our belts and figured out a way to get HD done. … It was a tough period of time that everyone in the sports industry lived through. So 4K definitely has a chance.”

Broadcasters Forge Ahead
While over-the-air broadcasting in the home certainly has a place in the television landscape — as was recently proved during Hurricane Sandy — the medium has evolved far beyond the living room. From 1080p to 4K, even 3D, the future of television may have not one clear path but multiple paths that allow seemingly limitless opportunity.

“Where’s the future of television?” said Zimmer. “First of all, you’ve got to start by saying, what’s television? It’s not traditional, delivered via broadcast or cable. It’s video, audio, metadata going to all different kinds of devices that are not, unless something changes, standardized. And they move and they evolve far faster than any standards committee could [handle]. … That’s the world that we have to be prepared to play in.”

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