IBC Review: TV's new geography

IBC Review: TV's new geography

The frequency of OpenStreetMap updates can be used as a proxy for the density of internet services (Credit: The University of Oxford)
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Hadyn Jones returns home happy from IBC, where it became clear that Internet Protocol represents a paradigm shift

Simple words are easy to use. Within the TMT (technology, media and telecoms) sector, scalability is one. The Dutch say schaalbaarheid. For me, that word evokes images of tectonic plates shifting, layers of rock folding under immense pressure, forces deep below the earth’s surface grinding out continents.  

And after five days of stratified discussion of schaalbaarheid at this year’s premier broadcast shindig, lightly oiled with delicious Dutch hospitality, the contours of a new land started to emerge. It’s called IP (internet protocol) and it will be pervasive, massively disruptive and forge an irreversible convergence between media and telecoms. 

But first, before surveying the new territory, some logistics. IBC 2016’s apt theme was “Transformation in the digital era: leadership, strategy and creativity in media and entertainment”. The event organisers certainly ticked those boxes, with bravura performances on stage by titans of film and advertising (Ang Lee and Martin Sorrell, respectively). 

In the foyer and wings were the exhibition halls, replete with everything from clever Velcro cable ties (Rip-Tie) and elegant time-synching tools (Timecode Systems) to software-defined video networks (Evertz). 

All of this was set against the backdrop of the conference sessions. These ranged from “Making much more of metadata” through to “New skills in broadcast and media”. Well done to IBC for sorting out the conference programme – with all this talk of non-linear, it was comforting to see a highly linear, easy-to-read conference programme. 

The halls, however, needed to run more like a family trip to Ikea; the exhibits organised and segmented into chunks, running from lens to consumption, with an easy-to-follow pathway – and meatballs at the end.  

Early on Thursday, I started the journey as a panellist at the Cassidy Media debate on “The evolution of the consumer experience: portability and discovery”. 

Fellow panellists Kerris Bright, from Virgin Media, and James Currell, from Viacom, were working hard at putting the right content on the right screen at the right time. While Virgin’s new search engine sounds fabulous, in a world awash with content, users will require much more than the traditional, visually linear search tools that we are accustomed to.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

After an early walk around the halls, I was struck by the abundance of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens. The NHK stand showcased a cream-cracker-thin, 8K OLED glass-panel screen manufactured by LG. The pictures from Rio were simply stunning. The Japanese broadcaster started 8K Ultra-HDTV test broadcasts in August, and the service should reach almost every home by 2020. 

I joined an excellent session on 360° video, which addressed the challenge of directing attention – something that fixed-frame video-makers rarely have to concern themselves with. Alia Sheikh, a film-maker working with BBC R&D, highlighted the need for experimentation to maximise audience attention and get the narrative just right. She summarised her approach as: “Test quickly, test often, shoot bad video.” And, when you got it right, it could feel like real life. 

And now to that new continent. Chaired by Sony’s Niall Duffy, a Saturday-morning session was dedicated to the question of whether IT and IP are ready to replace the entire broadcast chain. All the panellists were excellent – insightful, challenging and experienced – and, importantly, showed the scars of starting up and running live, IP-based, operational models. 

Russell Grute, of Broadcast Innovation, put the central case for IP: we face intense competition among global media, with free content available anywhere on any device. Moreover, traditional broadcasters need to be in a place where they can spin up a business model overnight, if needs be. 

Simon Reed, of Evertz UK, was very clear: IP was already live, but there was a lot more to do. Evidence persisted of data-packet loss, so the question was whether IP was production grade yet?  

This highlights the tricky challenge of who to speak to – the server manufacturer, the virtual machine supplier or the operating system provider. It is difficult to get someone to take responsibility. This becomes all the sharper as we move from an industry dealing with IP files to an industry dealing with IP streams. There are also concerns that this is a technology driven purely by technologists.  

Ericsson’s Steve Plunkett emphasised that there were minimal differences in running costs between IP and non-IP formats. He believes that machine learning and AI will improve efficiencies further. 

All of this IP tech comes with the flexibility of software-defined infrastructure, in contrast to one-time capital investments in fixed, bare metal.  

It was interesting to note that the telcos – IP-based quasi-broadcasters – were missing from the panel. It stood out like a sore thumb because they have spade-loads to offer in TV, but have been too concentrated on handsets and package deals (whether free or costed by the minute).

Content delivery is the next plank that will drive their business model. Tie this in with 5G distribution, and the impact will be huge, reducing latency and increasing bandwidth. Content will be faster, better, cheaper – and everywhere.

 “Football is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that. The same applies to WPP.”

It would be remiss not to mention here the Cloud, IP’s bedfellow. Mark Harrison of DPP wrote a very good article in IBC Daily, asking the industry to put its trust in the Cloud. Aframe’s Alistair Barfoot, in the session on Cloud processing, also advocated the need for change in the way the sector perceives the security implications of the Cloud. 

Turning to leadership and strategy, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell talked about the clash of business models when utility disrupters (AirBnB and Uber) push up against the zero-based budgeters. Zero-based budgeting, in contrast to traditional budgeting, assumes that every line item in the budget cycle must be reapproved, as opposed to simply carrying forward to next year’s budget (usually with some uplift applied). Coca-Cola, Heinz and Unilever are notable exponents of the approach. 

Sorrell also touched on the duopoly of Facebook and Google. These were not technology companies, he said, they were media companies, monetising content. The dark horse was Amazon – it had content, search and logistics; it could run most, if not all, businesses, whether or not they dealt in content.  

Sorrell also talked about convergence between what consumers buy and what they watch. Highlighting Starbucks’s investment in managing content and Mondelez’s spend on content, he argued that brands no longer wanted to restrict themselves to advertising, they also wanted to be in content. Red Bull was no longer a drink that gave you wings, it was a drink that had its own TV channel.  

Asked whether he was planning to retire from WPP, Sorrell referred to Bill Shankly’s famous quote: “Football is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that. The same applies to WPP.”  

Meanwhile, my colleague Emily Williams joined the IBC Rising Stars programme. It brought together a fantastically diverse group of individuals to share their experiences and knowledge. It proved hugely inspirational, giving all who attended the encouragement to lead. Or, as Dean Johnson, head of innovation at Brandwidth, put it: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.  

In closing, there was a real sense of a shift in the debate about connectivity – SDI (serial digital interface) is dying, and there’s a lot more clarity coming through on IP. With apologies to my English teacher, I learnt some new words: IP-ification, Cloud-­ification and Uber-ification. We seem to be on the cusp of an ification era.  

IBC is a technology shindig, both serious and fun; it deals with big issues, while taking time in the sun to drink deep on success. Indeed, there was a beach, bathed in a sun not dissimilar to one provided by an Arri lighting rig.  

Unlike last year, I was joined in Amsterdam by Mrs Jones, with seven-year-old Junior in tow. They both loved the city and we’ll be back next year. As the three of us rolled through the streets in our tram, still open-mouthed at the cycles and cars alongside, I looked at Junior driving my iPhone. 

The next 20 years will be dominated by IP. Beyond that, who knows? But the high-grade broadcast capacity my little boy will then hold in his hands will give him access to immense power to shape the world. And that will be an even bigger tectonic shift.  

Let’s drink to schaalbaarheid. 

Haydn Jones is Account Managing Director, Fujitsu.