Driving HbbTV forwards

Monday, October 15, 2012

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We believe that while there will be some market variations in HbbTV deployment with some country-specific requirements, these are likely to be kept relatively minor in order to maintain the benefits of standardisation.

Connected TV – such a simple phrase and yet such a complicated, fractured market. Keith Potter, CEO of Digital TV Labs believes it's leaving consumers confused, some broadcasters and platform providers hesitant, while VOD players, TV set manufacturers and web-based companies fight for market share. 

The paradox in many ways was recently summed up by the launch of UK connected TV platform YouView – in this instance a true hybrid broadcast/broadband technology. This was neatly described by one analyst as being both behind schedule yet also ahead of its time. And that’s the issue: We all know in the industry that integrating the connectivity of the Internet with the power of television – both in terms of reach and image/content quality – is happening. But the question that remains for many is: How  is this best done from a broadcaster and consumer perspective? 

The market
At the moment there’s widening fragmentation: Apple TV, Google TV, smart TVs, social media, VOD platforms, mobile app usage – I could go on – means that content presentation and actually engaging with customers/viewers is more important than ever. Leveraging the power of established broadcaster brands is also important in this connected environment. The danger is that with so many platforms that provide alternative services the broadcasters and platform providers lose meaningful relationships with their viewers in a connected world. Connected TV – using HbbTV in particular – enables them to maintain and develop those relationships by providing interaction directly via the iDTV/set-top box/PVR. Services include catch-up TV, additional linear TV feeds, competitions, Internet-derived additional data and, in advantageous ROI terms, an evolving advertising platform. 

HbbTV (Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV) has now become a de-facto market standard, particularly in Europe. However, this is not to say it doesn’t face any challenges – more of which later. While broadcasters in Germany have led the way – including ARD and ZDF – there’s also a great deal of activity supporting the technology in other countries, including the Netherlands, with NPO conducting HbbTV trials on both the  Canal Digital satellite platform and Ziggo cable networks. 

France Television is pushing HbbTV variant TNT 2.0 (the test suite for which Digital TV Labs supplies to manufacturers) with other French broadcasters also active in the HbbTV market. There’s also a great deal of interest across Central and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that the EBU has also encouraged take-up through the year by offering white label HbbTV applications for the Eurovision Song Contest and the London 2012 Olympics. 

The advantages of HbbTV
HbbTV is a public standard and is vital to the success of connected TV. It enables content providers – whether broadcasters or not – to offer their services on a wide variety of standards-based receivers with no additional cost. A well administered standard will drive a retail market- just look at Freeview with its use of MHEG as a middleware in the UK market for the kind of success that’s achievable. There’s a desire to standardise the creation and delivery of connected TV to create a mass market, a market that’s easy for consumers to understand and take advantage of. 

HbbTV also provides services that can be directly linked to the broadcast experience, indeed directly linked to individual channels with content controlled by broadcasters and this adds tremendously to its appeal. 

The CE alternative
Most of the major CE brands in the TV space have now launched their own connected TV portals and they do represent a challenge to broadcasters. But these are presented as an app-based user experience that’s totally disconnected from the normal TV content distribution model. Broadcasters have the key advantage of being able to leverage their brands, content archives and, most importantly, to provide services as a natural adjunct to the dominant linear TV consumption model. 

These portals use proprietary apps that have to be re-written for each one, indeed sometimes for different TV sets within a given manufacturer’s range. This is a costly, time-consuming process. 

There’s also the presence of YouTube and Netflix etc., but as long as content is king and the TV screen in the main is used for watching TV content owned by the broadcaster, the opportunity to steal eyeballs is available. Content providers will inexorably offer their content on HbbTV as it becomes standard on TV receivers. This will go a long way to solve the problem for them highlighted above of having to port their apps across multiple devices. 

Again, it’s important to note that HbbTV enables the broadcaster to drive value-added content and services directly on the TV under their control, without the need for a secondary connected device – something that they only have limited ability to do using previous technologies.

The challenges for HbbTV
Vigilance and a responsible attitude to deployment are required to continue the early success of HbbTV. Broadcasters, as well as TV and receiver manufacturers all have a vital interest in HbbTV being a success to avoid their world becoming a legacy content platform and to avoid the large investment and distraction of proprietary platforms that don’t have the economies of scale to be cost effective. HbbTV will be the first mass-market application platform deployed across multiple countries, so HbbTV content providers have the advantage of many compatible devices, but the potential disadvantage of interoperability issues. HbbTV is relatively cheap for manufacturers to implement, but some industry insiders have noted that a self-certified compliance regime – which is what HbbTV is adopting – is akin to marking your own homework. Broadcasters need to work with manufacturers to ensure receivers are validated and compliant to specifications and so avoid costs and poor user experiences. 

Digital TV Labs, which is a member of the HbbTV Steering Group and has written a great deal of the HbbTV test suite – and chairs its Testing Group – recognises the vital nature of product and application conformance. It’s vital that consumers receive a premium HbbTV experience to avoid switching away from the technology. We have developed a comprehensive test suite to counteract this problem. 

If we take HbbTV application authoring and testing as an example, developers must check that their application is only using XHTML/JavaScript/CSS/Media that’s supported by the HbbTV specification. With many organisations now actively developing HbbTV applications, ensuring conformance to the new specification with standard web tools designed for non-TV platforms is a major challenge. As well as testing apps against the standard, with each receiver behaving differently due to different browser integrations it’s clear that developers need to test their applications on the widest possible selection of current HbbTV receivers to ensure a high quality consumer experience.

We believe that while there will be some market variations in HbbTV deployment with some country-specific requirements, these are likely to be kept relatively minor in order to maintain the benefits of standardisation. 

The latest HbbTV developments
The next version of HbbTV notably introduces support for HTTP adaptive streaming based on the recently published MPEG-DASH specification, improving quality of video presentation on busy or slow Internet connections. It also enables content providers to protect DASH-delivered content with potentially multiple DRM technologies based on the MPEG CENC specification, improving efficiency in markets where more than one DRM technology will be used. Version 1.5 significantly enhances access to broadcast TV schedule information, enabling operators to produce full, seven-day electronic programme guides as HbbTV applications, which can be deployed across all HbbTV receivers to provide a consistent user experience. The latest advances are based on activity within the HD Forum in France as part of the development of the TNT 2.0 specification.

There are three or four key challenges that connected TV faces in general. The first is users not connecting their TV to the Internet either because they are unaware that they can or because running cables is not appealing. This requires both consumer education and wireless connectivity or an increase in the adoption of Ethernet over power lines. The second is that there’s a relatively long TV replacement cycle to deal with. The third is poor interoperability and user experience due to a lack of strict conformance regime. The last is HbbTV-specific: We believe that the broadcaster community needs to be more actively engaged with the development and deployment of the standard in collaboration with manufacturers to ensure it’s properly tested, successful and dynamic. 

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