When the BBC made its first regular ‘high-definition’ broadcasts from Alexandra Palace back in 1936 there were said to be only 2,000 television sets in the entire world. Now, just over 80 years later, 26.8 million homes (97 percent of all UK households) have at least one, while global figures are estimated to be around 1.5 billion. In that time we’ve seen a steady evolution in the devices from black and white to colour, analogue to digital, standard definition to HD, a resurgence of 3D and now the arrival of 4K.
DVRs have also made it so much simpler to control the content we receive, with services such as Sky+ and YouView even allowing you to record a show or series of programmes from your mobile phone. With those systems, gone is the feeling of dread as you’re half way up the M1 and realise that you forgot to set Dr Who to record.
Not that this matters as much as it used to, thanks to the myriad of catch-up services like BBC iPlayer that now exist.
But whereas in the past the large networks have had the audience all to themselves, we’re seeing a new challenge to their dominance from the internet. On-demand services such as Netflix and LoveFilm are growing in popularity, YouTube is expanding and diversifying its content, and audiences are beginning to consume their entertainment on devices other than the traditional big-box TV.
These developments pose interesting questions for the future of television as we know it. Will scheduled programming cease? Who will make the content we watch? And what technology will we use to consume it?
We spoke to a collection of industry experts who are working towards the answers to these questions, and who also pose a few of their own.
Future of TV: Will TV schedules be a thing of the past?
As the new digital landscape emerges, many have begun prophesying the death of traditional broadcasting. After all, Netflix offers a wide range of TV shows which you can watch in chronological order, at a time that suits you, on a range of devices, and for only £5.99 per month.
But after so many years of ubiquity in the living room, broadcast TV is still the one that dwarfs all others. Of course that doesn’t mean that things will always be this way, and broadcasters are alive to the fact that they need to embrace the opportunities that the internet offers as well as the challenges. Leading the way is, perhaps surprisingly, the one who started the whole thing off in the first place - the BBC.
‘What we’re seeing at the moment is this hugely complimentary relationship between broadcast and on-demand’ states Victoria Jaye, Head of IPTV at the BBC. ‘About 89 percent of the TV audience is still watching live broadcasts on the big screen, and the percentage that is only consuming on-demand content is less than a fraction of a percentage. So this idea that somehow broadcast television is dwindling is just not playing out. But simultaneously, and in parallel, on-demand is growing.’
Since its launch in 2007, BBC iPlayer has gone on to be a huge success for the corporation. Last year alone the service handled over 2 billion requests for streams and downloads. It was initially designed as a simple catch-up service for shows that had broadcast in the previous week on the various BBC channels, but recent analysis has shown that audience behaviour is changing.
‘What we’re seeing in terms of usage,’ Jaye explains, ‘is that today 42 percent of those that come to BBC iPlayer do so without anything specific in mind to watch, up from 25 percent in 2008. This tells us that for the audience iPlayer is beginning to evolve from the sort of catch-up utility into an entertainment and discovery platform.’
This is significant, because it gives the BBC an audience looking for something new, and affords the chance to gauge reactions to pilot shows without having to sacrifice precious airtime on broadcast channels.
‘Last year we commissioned original comedy for BBC3 under their ‘Feed my Funny’ comedy strand’ says Jaye. ‘These were seven comedy programmes that we played out exclusively in iPlayer, available to the audience over a ten-day period, and promoted within iPlayer. They received a one million reach and were the top performing content for BBC3 in that week. One title [People Just Do Nothing] was the most shared programme in iPlayer for the whole month, and one of those pilots [Impractical Jokers] has now become a series on BBC television.
‘We’re moving into online commissioning in a paced, measured way. Obviously we have a huge amount of content already to showcase on iPlayer, so the online original content is very much exploring, in the first instance, comedy as a genre. Our broadcast slots for comedy are fairly constrained, it’s a very risky genre to create hits for, and so we’re looking at iPlayer as a fantastic way to grow new comedy. To work with a really broad range of up-and-coming talent both on and off screen, and get that content in front of an audience.’
The BBC has recently announced eight more iPlayer pilots, and that People Just Do Nothing is to be a fully fledged BBC3 show. The corporation isn’t alone in harnessing the power of an engaged audience when it comes to new shows. Amazon, Netflix, and YouTube have all announced various forms of original digital content recently, with plans to continue down that path in the months ahead. The challenge for these new networks, as Victoria Jaye sees it, remains one of consistency.
‘It’s still a handful of discrete titles they’re originating, and that’s something that will be interesting to see as it develops - how much they originate on an ongoing basis’, she says. ‘The BBC has obviously been doing this for many many years. Every year we originate around 5,500 hours of original output which we deliver to all the homes in the UK on an ongoing basis. So this is familiar territory to us.’
Next page: Original programmes, but not on TV
Future of TV: Original programmes, but not on TV
Netflix might not have the financial backing of a license fee to pay for the hours of programmes that the BBC offers, or the high subscription rates that Sky charges, but that hasn’t stopped it from taking a big step into the world of content creation. Earlier this year the internet streaming service announced that it would be releasing the first season of House of Cards, a remake of an old BBC series from the nineties.
In the principal role of congressman Frank Underwood starred two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. This was an impressive feat to achieve, especially when you consider that the show is exclusively available online, but Netflix also managed to secure the services of Hollywood A-list director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network), Robin Wright (Forrest Gump, Moneyball), and Kate Mara (Iron Man 2, American Horror Story). CNN reported that the total cost of the show was around $100 million, which puts it in the very top bracket of TV drama.
Rather than release the shows each week, all thirteen episodes were made available on Netflix at once, without advertisements or additional costs. It was a bold move, thought to represent how its customers view their media. The series is magnificent, with compelling performances from the cast, a crisp script, and styling that wouldn’t look out of place on HBO or even a movie screen.
Netflix stock soared by 25 percent in the wake House of Cards, and the company announced that it would release four more new series this year, starting with Hemlock Grove, a horror thriller produced by Eli Roth. Netflix is also planning to revive certain classic shows that were cancelled on other stations, with 15 new episodes of Arrested Development becoming available to subscribers on May 26th.
‘To some degree a shifting paradigm is happening,’ Kevin Spacey said on the House of Cards press junket, ‘and it’s quite exciting to be part of it...I think you’re going to start seeing that more of these companies are going to step up and start green-lighting their own productions, and I think it’s great for the business’.
Amazon did exactly that. It announced that its newly formed Amazon Studios division would be releasing a number of pilots to potential shows, and that viewers could help decide which ones would make it to full production. It also solicited scripts and ideas from creators that wanted to be included in the initiative. Viewers of its LoveFilm service saw the various new shows appear, including one based on the film Zombieland, bearing the same name.
It may be a far cry from the prolific output that traditional broadcasters offer, but then Netflix and Lovefilm don’t have a schedule to populate. They are in an enviable position where they can buy content from the likes of Sky, BBC, and any overseas corporate partners (as they already do), cherry pick the best projects to make themselves, and then monitor the viewing results with a high level of accuracy and detailed audience feedback. Their content is available through smart TVs, games consoles, phones, tablets, various set-top boxes, and even Blu-ray players, so customers can consume the content wherever they are as long as they have access to the internet.
With online viewing beginning to rise it looks certain that this area will be hotly contested by all networks. The BBC has a huge head start with iPlayer, so it looks likely to remain the go-to on-demand service for many people. Sky has recently launched Now TV, a movie- and sports-streaming service which will set you back £15 per month but limits you to two devices.
If anything, the future of TV looks to be an increasingly fractured one. When you consider that so many services are vying for your attention, and creating exclusive content to lure you in, it seems likely that there will never be a service that offers everything you want in one place. Thankfully, for the moment anyway, most of the providers don’t lock you into a long-term contract, and as the content on offer isn’t tied to a weekly release schedule you can watch a series as fast as you like.
So audiences may well become actively itinerant, always looking for the best shows and switching subscriptions on a monthly basis. It’s a far cry from the old mantra of turn on, tune in, drop out.
Next page: Future of TV - YouTube
Future of TV: YouTube
At a recent media event in New York, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt made a rather bold statement when asked whether YouTube could ever overtake traditional broadcasting?
‘That’s already happened’ he replied.
While his remark may be seen by some as rather optimistic, the incredible rise of YouTube is a strong indicator of how entertainment media might be created and delivered in the future. Since its initial launch in 2005, Google’s user generated content portal has grown into the most popular online video site in the world with around one billion users every month, collectively watching over four billions hours of content. It’s impressive to note then that YouTube itself makes almost no content. What it does offer is a platform for creators and audiences to use, and an inexhaustible amount of channels to fill. Something that traditional broadcasters simply can’t match.
‘Back in the earlier days of linear television,’ explains Zayna Aston, Communications Manager for YouTube, ‘you would have a handful of channels - three or four - and viewing would be aggregated around more common programming. Then with cable you got a few hundred channels, with satellite a few hundred more, to the point where you got the internet, which is limitless. Because of that there’s a push towards niche content, and because it gives you access to a global audience you can actually aggregate a sufficient audience around even some of the more niche areas of programming. That allows for something like a vegan baking channel, or a how-to drilling channel, for example, whereas that wouldn’t have been possible before with the technological limitations.’
It can certainly be argued that the sheer quantity of content available on YouTube (a figure that grows by 100 hours of video every minute) is no guarantee of quality. After all, someone sitting in their badly lit bedroom talking about Justin Bieber’s latest single is hard to compare with the sartorial magnificence of Downton Abbey.
But to think that it’s all Vloggers and cat videos would be missing much of what’s actually taking place on the site. Delve deeper in YouTube and you’ll find a rich collection of documentaries on subjects as varied as Hacktivism, auditioning for the Cirque Du Soleil, or the Japanese Bullet Train. Visiting the Khan Academy channel gives you access to thousands of tuition videos where you can learn algebra, the intricacies of economics, history, or a wide range of other subjects.
Of course this is all in addition to the aforementioned Vloggers who offer commentary on the world, comedic channels which create content specifically for the site, and, yes, plenty of cats doing hilarious things. It’s an interesting development that while the BBC was created with the famous Reithian values to ‘educate, inform and entertain’, it could well be YouTube that eventually becomes the home of content that fulfills those ideals.
Google hasn't been slow to realise the potential the site holds and last year began the YouTube Originals programme, an attempt to invest in premium-level content.
‘We launched 100 original channels’ explains Aston. ‘The idea behind them was to kick-start the creation of original programming specifically for a YouTube audience. What we did was give an advance on future advertising revenue to a number of content providers that we thought were making interesting channels. Really, for us to put our money where our mouth was. We’d said for such a long time that this was a fantastic platform for content creators to put up original content, and reach a global audience. We felt this would be a good way to kick-start it, basically get ahead of the curve, and incentivise some channels to give it a shot. The top 20-25 US channels are now seeing more than one million views per week.’
In October 2012, 60 more channels were opened across the US, UK, Germany and France, including an interesting collaboration between an already established channel and a face you’d usually expect to find on television.
‘Jamie Oliver partnered with an existing YouTuber called Sorted Food’ reveals Aston. ‘Sorted Food got their start on YouTube, they’re a homegrown channel, but [Jamie] partnered with them to learn about audience development, and learn to do what they do on YouTube, because that skill set is quite different. For a content creator it’s great as they actually get feedback from their audience, they can iterate their content, and they can adapt it to what the audience likes or dislikes. We’ve also recently announced that Simon Cowell is producing an Original channel for YouTube called the You Generation - a global online audition channel. So he’s doing a talent show for YouTube specifically’.
The secret weapon of the YouTube programme makers is the back-end report that the site produces called insights. This gives the creators detailed statistics about the viewing behaviour of the audience, and allows them to fine-tune their programmes in response. It’s one of the things that differentiates YouTube from traditional broadcast mediums, whose viewing figures and analysis capabilities have never been this accurate.
The site has also added a live streaming capability for programme makers. When Felix Baumgartner recently did his world record-breaking Red Bull Stratos Jump eight million people simultaneously watched the death-defying leap live on YouTube. The Royal Wedding was streamed, cricket fans have been able to keep up with the IPL this year, and a number of music festivals have chosen to live stream on YouTube as well. It might still be a good few years before you see something like the English Premier League appearing as a live channel, but certainly the technology, and audience, are already in place.
So with hundreds of original channels producing regular high-quality content, live events available, the ability to watch YouTube on almost any device with an internet connection, and a growing audience that actively engages with the shows and their creators, you can see why Eric Schmidt was so bullish in his assessment of YouTube’s reach and potential.
But rather than looking to take the place of the existing networks, YouTube has always had a healthy relationship with them, something that seems likely to continue and which could even grow the network shows’ audiences.
‘A number of traditional broadcasters, television channels, and networks use YouTube’, Zayna Aston explains. ‘Channel 4 for example has long had 4oD content on YouTube. But you’re seeing a shift in the way they are looking at it. It’s no longer just putting up content wholesale, but rather using the platform for what it’s good at - connecting with audiences. YouTube is actually quite a complement to television. People often pit it as one against the other but - in effect - traditional television programmes are able to put up clips onto YouTube, create a buzz, create a conversation, and drive viewers to their TV showings.’
As we went to press, the Financial Times released a story saying that YouTube was planning to begin charging for subscriptions to a number of premium content channels. A press release from YouTube responded ‘We have nothing to announce at this time, but we're looking into creating a subscription platform that could bring even more great content to YouTube for our users to enjoy and provide our creators with another vehicle to generate revenue from their content, beyond the rental and ad-supported models we offer.’
If the company does move in that direction then it could offer potential content creators an interesting dilemma. Should they go to the established networks, with their resources, programming expertise, and known revenue structures? Or does the open nature of the internet, it’s dynamic audience, adaptability to the differing methods of viewing technology, and instant worldwide reach offer more opportunities? Where they decide to ply their trade will no doubt have a strong influence on the content they create, and in turn the entertainment we receive in the coming years.
Next page: Future of TV - Be your own producer
Future of TV: Be your own producer
Broadcasting, as the name suggests, is hardly a precise medium. Yet for many years it has served us well. Now, as online content starts to mature and delivery methods becomes more reliable, the restrictive nature of traditional television is appearing more obvious. With only a relatively small amount of space available on each channel, programme planners have to be ruthless in the way they commission new content, ensuring that viewing figures will be large enough to warrant a show’s inclusion, and in many cases fit with a demographic that will attract advertisers. This doesn’t leave much room for specialised interests, or concepts that might not immediately sound like they have mass appeal.
The internet offers a very different scenario. In the past if a content creator wanted to reach an audience it required the help of a network, as they owned the broadcast technology. Now creators can go directly to the people themselves. This freedom has seen the emergence of a huge new realm of content, often aimed at niche areas that would never have been possible before. From the likes of super-sites such as YouTube or Vimeo, down to an individual with a webcam, the internet is alive with ideas and entertainment that people can not only consume, but also influence. Whereas viewers may have previously moaned that there was nothing on TV, the same can never be said when you’re online.
One company that has more experience than most when it comes to web-based content is Rooster Teeth Productions, whose hugely popular show Red Vs Blue has just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary. Set in the world of the video game Halo, the show follows the travails of two opposing sets of soldiers - Red and Blue. To recreate the Halo universe Rooster Teeth used an animation technique called Machinima, which uses the actual 3D engine of the game to do the majority of the creation, while the animators control the characters just as a player would. It’s a strange form of digital puppetry, but it allows the team to produce impressive, authentic scenes in the world where fans of the series have already spent many immersive hours.
The show has become something of a benchmark for independent, online creators due to the fact that it has proven to be an enduring, high quality, and (through the selling of merchandise, DVDs, and even the creation of a fans convention) profitable entity.
‘We’ve just put out a 15-disc Blu-ray box set,’ explains Matt Hullum, CEO of Rooster Teeth, ‘that was sort of a big compendium of everything we’ve done over the last 10 years in Red Vs Blue. We sold over a million discs, just in the fourth quarter last year...which is pretty amazing.’
One of the key reasons for the success of Red Vs Blue, and one that is often mentioned by producers of online content, is the relationship that creators have with their fans.
‘Online we have almost a direct conduit to the audience’ says Matt. ‘You can make stuff really fast, and you can put stuff out really fast, and get feedback really fast. That of course has a multiplying effect towards the next thing you put out. Another thing that is pretty essential to being an online content creator, as opposed to working in a traditional network model, is that the content producers are kind of all on the same competitive level, the same playing field. Anyone can put out a video online and if people like it it will be a smash. It doesn’t matter whether it was made by the biggest studio in the world and cost megabucks, or it’s one guy with a camcorder, a good idea, and his friends in the back yard. It really strips away all that. I think that’s disconcerting to networks, because it’s hard to apply the old models into the new paradigms.’
One of the criticisms often aimed at online content is that it is nothing more than a quick-fix medium; somewhere for people to watch two-minute videos between other tasks. Whereas this could certainly be true in the past, with the restrictive nature of slower internet connections being a key factor, trends are emerging that suggest that the nature of online viewing is in transition.
‘We’ve definitely seen a change where people are willing to watch longer,’ Matt continues, ‘They want longer, and that’s great because it enables guys like us to expand our horizons. If we can have the liberty of telling a story over the course of two hours instead of two minutes then we can do a lot more interesting things. Basically people have gotten used to the format of online video, it’s not a different thing any more. It’s not a novelty. It used to be that you were only watching it on a computer, now you can be watching a YouTube video on almost any screen. You watch on a computer, you watch on a phone, you watch on TV at home through some kind of connected device. It’s got to the point where the content is crossing all technology barriers, which I think also means that any of the creative limits that were being imposed by technology...those are going away as well.’
As content is freed from the confines of the front room, and mobile devices continue to increase in power and performance, are we seeing the emergence of the next generation of a media audience? One whose expectations differ greatly from those of us who grew up in an age where the television set was the sole repository of video-based entertainment?
‘In general, the heaviest concentration of online video viewers are what they call that lost generation’, states Matt. ‘There’s a segment of the population, more male than female, that’s like 15-25 years old, and they’re not getting TVs, cable television, they don’t have landlines – they basically do everything on their mobile phones, maybe a laptop or possibly a tablet.
They’re not going to have a TV ever in their lives, they come to www.roosterteeth.com instead. That’s a big, big demographic, to be sure. As they age that generation that is not going to get a TV between 15 and 25...ten years from now they still won’t have a TV, and they’ll be 35 and then 45. As they get older we’re going to see that whole technological shift happen.’
Broadcasters still hold an enormous amount of control over content that people consume: remember the figure we started with: 89 percent of the BBC's audience continue to watch live programming on their TVs.
How quickly that figure changes is a matter of debate, with many still viewing online content as merely complementary to the traditional services that we’ve enjoyed for so many years. Either way the landscape has changed, and, as has been demonstrated in other areas of media, companies will need to adapt to the new environment if they want to remain relevant in the years ahead.
‘Newspapers thought that the internet was supplemental to the newspaper’ Matt concludes. ‘How many newspapers are going to be left in existence in the next two years? Ultimately I don’t think it matters. People are going to want to get content, and they’re probably going to dictate how they want it delivered to them. The networks, studios and everybody else who makes the content are just going to have to roll with that. I don’t think that you can dictate to your audience how they are supposed to view your material, the audience really have the power in that scenario.’
Next page: Future of TV technology
The future of TV: technology
We've talked mainly about the future of TV content in this feature, and rightly so. However, the big screen will continue to be a fixture in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms across the world for a good while yet. PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones all have their place for watching TV shows and movies but the traditional TV is set to remain most people's main device.
HD has become the norm, and it's hard to find a TV on sale these days that doesn't support 720p or 1080p (better known by the misnomer 'Full HD').
Plenty of bigger, premium models support 3D, although there's still precious little 3D content available to those that want it.
There are several reasons for this. One is that you still need special glasses to see the 3D effect, and while passive 'polarised' glasses are cheap, 'active shutter' glasses, which are required by many 3D sets, still cost upwards of £50 a pair. That's not much good if you want to invite all your mates round to watch the latest 3D blockbuster.
Another reason is that some people can't see the 3D effect at all - some surveys show the figure stands at around 12 percent. For those that can see it, they can't watch for long without getting headaches or eye strain.
With active shutter glasses, there's the unwanted flickering from artificial and natural light sources in the room, while those watching using passive 3D glasses will see only half the resolution since the image for each eye is displayed simultaneously.
With shutter glasses, the images are shown in quick succession, and the shutters cleverly blocking the view in alternate eyes in synch with the images on screen. This has its drawbacks too: some systems suffer from crosstalk, where the remnants of the previous image are seen briefly by the 'wrong' eye as it fades and the next image is displayed on screen. This can cause the 3D image to appear blurry or as 'double vision' where objects appear twice.
The future is unclear for 3D. It's more expensive and difficult to record content in 3D, as well as to broadcast it. Various glasses-free 3D systems are being developed but so far none is available to buy.
A more certain development in the future of TV is 4K. 4K TVs have four times the resolution of so-called Full HD, and although initial models which went on sale in 2012 cost around 25,000, Sony has just announced the 55in X9 which will go on sale shortly for 'just' 4,000.
There's clearly still a way to go before such sets become affordable to the average guy on the street, but it's a big step in the right direction.
4K TVs offer staggering image quality, but it's unlikely you'll see sets smaller than 50in offering this massive resolution any time soon.
This is because its hard to see those extra pixels from normal viewing distances on smaller screens. However, on larger displays, the benefit is much more obvious.
Like 3D, the problem with 4K is the lack of content. Sony and all other TV manufacturers will tell you this is a non-issue as the TV will upscale any video to 4K. However, while its true that well-produced Blu-ray content does look a little sharper on a 4K TV, most people will struggle to notice the difference.
Even with the new HEVC video codec, which is more efficient than the currently used H.264, 4K will likely require more bandwidth than Full HD which presents a problem for broadcasting it. Netflix, Sky and the BBC are already trialling 4K broadcasts and internet streaming, but the best quality would come (as it does today) from less-compressed formats, such as Blu-ray. Currently, there's no agreed standard for distributing 4K video on physical media such as an optical disc. Hard-drive-based systems are being shipped with some 4K TVs as this is the only way there is to get 4K movies to customers.
Alongside the introduction of 4K could be OLED TVs. These offer the best picture quality - better even than plasma, and can be as thin as three credit cards. For more, see also: What is an OLED TV? and CES 2013: OLED TV roundup.