Dermot Nolan, director general at the Digital TV Group, on technology and standards

Without standards content producers face a complex challenge in exploiting new distribution platforms, says Dermot Nolan, boss of the the DTG, the UK industry association for digital TV.

Until recently video content was produced and broadcast in a relatively simple environment. We’ve had digital cable, satellite and terrestrial services for some time now and the success of all the platforms has at least partly been due to their ability to deliver programming reliably, and to devices that consumers are comfortable operating. That reliability of delivery and the usability of the devices is largely due to the adherence to agreed industry standards. It is those standards that make sure the consumer is insulated from the complexity and is supplied with compelling services.

In the developed world we now have almost ubiquitous access to fixed and mobile devices which offer broadband connectivity and the capacity for high quality video playback and interaction. While that is a situation that opens up tremendous opportunities to ‘follow’ the consumer wherever he or she goes, it also creates a highly complex environment. For the video production and distribution industry there is now a bewildering array of possibilities. We have Web TV, IPTV and mobile TV and each of those can operate as a broadcast or on-demand service in streamed or downloaded format.

Orange and T-Mobile provide a television service via 3G, Joost and Babelgum provide video content via WebTV and Tiscali and BT operate IPTV services. They are just a few – many more exist and even more (broadcasters, operators and brand owners) would like to exploit the opportunities.

Despite the possibilities and potential rewards of multiplatform distribution, content producers face a huge technology and management challenges in what is an increasingly competitive market. In an on-demand environment in which the user, rather than the content owner or broadcaster, chooses when, where and how to consume TV content, you have to be able to deliver assets in a wide range of formats – short form and long form, small screen and large screen, streamed and downloaded, with and without DRM and geo-blocking, meta-tagged or not.

We are now in a very different world that offers consumers, brand owners and those involved in video production and distribution the promise of new rewards but it is currently a confused environment. Fortunately there are some welcome developments that will make it easier to exploit the opportunities and, just as in traditional broadcasting, they relate to the adoption of standards.

Other standards will emerge for all the distribution platforms and we should encourage the industry to adopt them as soon as practicable, but even with the entire industry working to common standards the content production sector needs to take a fresh approach, and right from the start. Broadcast is by no means dead but the new platforms offer non-linear formats and those formats need to be taken account of at the inception of new projects. Doing so will minimise time consuming process of content repurposing.

Once again, there is a light on the horizon to make it a little easier. Material eXchange Format (MXF) is the digital file based alternative to legacy tape-based systems for production and distribution. MXF is already gaining some traction and is a fundamentally different way of producing, distributing and archiving video that is ideally suited to a multiplatform environment. Content is produced in a format that can be easily deconstructed and reformatted without losing any of the core data. It is an important consideration given the likelihood that a single piece of core material will be exploited in a variety of different ways on a number of different platforms.

We are early in the life cycle of a new video age that is free from the restraints of linear broadcasting but there have been a number of false starts already. The one thing we should not lose sight of though is that consumers will only ever adopt services that are appropriate, timely and most of all, easy to use. In traditional broadcasting compelling services and access devices rely on the industry cooperating using agreed standards. We shouldn’t assume the new platforms will be any different.

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