Switching from Analogue to Digital TV - All for the Benefit for the Consumer?

Article of the month

Helsinki, 1 August, 2005 — Switching from Analogue to Digital TV - All for the Benefit for the Consumer?

For a consumer enjoying watching movies on TV, the switch from analogue to digital TV brings many changes.

Nowadays, a digital TV set-top-box to receive digital TV, a DVD player, a HiFi system to enjoy finest sound quality, a DVD recorder for archiving films, and a high quality TV set are needed. They sum up to more than five different pieces of equipment in the living room. On the living room table there are five different remote controls, whose detailed functionality will remain, even after several years of use, somewhat of a mystery to most people. Not to mention that the DVD recorder does not tell the digital TV receiver box to power-up, when it is programmed to record a TV show.

Besides this, the overall costs for a modern digital TV system can easily sum up to more than 1.000 Euros. But are they really doing the same task what old fashioned analogue TV and video recorder did before? And are these new devices really worth their money? They do much more – they provide better audio and video quality as well as they offer more features enabled by modern technology. As a consumer you have to ask yourself, how you can benefit from going to digital interactive TV. Simply, what’s all the fuzz about?

Digital Interactive Television

The development of television during the last century proceeded through three revolutions: invention, mass-product, and diversification of TV content. From the technological side, the invention television found its way into consumer homes beginning from the 1930s. It took three more decades until the TV become a mass-product and available to all consumers in the early 1960s together with the introduction of colour television.

Between 1960 and the year 2000 only minor technical changes visible to consumers took place: teletext was added; recording devices found their way into department stores; digital production facilities got introduced in TV stations; and new payment and revenue models for TV stations in form of advertising, subscription or licensing fees got introduced. In this period most of the changes happened on the content side. The 60s meant the breakpoint for the evolution of broadcasting due to the liberalisation of society and culture. A consumer driven society emerged, resulting into a diversification of TV content.

During the last ten years, the introduction of mobile communication and the Internet made consumers to expect more from electronic media. Content and interactivity modalities changed and the consumer got used to instant interactivity as well as mobility. As an answer to this trend, DVB as European wide industrial consortium started its work on the digitalization of TV. The pathway towards digital interactive TV had been laid. On EU and governmental level, deadlines for the digital switchover have been outlined and prolonged yearly to a later deadline. However, the time will come soon when old analogue TV screens will go blank.

What Is Digital Television?

The most significant difference between analogue and digital interactive TV is the digital transmission. The TV broadcast is sent as a series of zeros and ones. For the consumer picture quality increases tremendously. Inference and quality degradation of the analogue TV signal belongs to the past. The TV picture is sharp and clear. Subscribers of TV packages from cable TV companies or satellite TV consumers can already see the quality gain nowadays.

Actually the change from analogue to digital has already happened. Most of TV stations already send their signals in a digital form. Picture quality can still be increased by one step. High-definition (HD) quality can easily be encapsulated into the series of zeros and ones. In Europe we will still have to wait a while for the introduction of HD-TV stations, until broadcasters and consumers digested the digital switchover.

In the US HD-TV is currently coming to the market. The picture quality gain with HD-TV with 1080 vertical lines resolution is really tremendous. Let us just hope that the consumers’ enthusiasm does not fade, when he comes to know, that also a new TV screen – commonly known as flat-screen – has to be bought in addition to the digital receiver box.

A digital signal also offers the advantage that more information can be packed into the digital stream. The Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) which is a sort of advanced TV guide can be easily added to the broadcasted TV programme. Also, informational services such as web-pages can easily be added and browsed on TV. Even small programmes such as games or betting software can be added to the digital transmission and run on consumer TV receivers.

Unfortunately cheap digital TV receivers that are capably of doing all these tasks are very slowly finding their way into department stores. Also the ‘dream digital TV receiver’ that has a build-in hard-disk, runs software programmes, connects to the Internet, records DVDs, and has modules for decoding terrestrial and cable TV signal is emerging slowly.

Value Added Services – the Emergence of Interactivity and New Forms of Content

According EUROSTAT, in the EU and US approx. 60% of the turnover in the audio-visual market in the year 2000 was attributed to TV broadcasting – film, radio, music, and computer games ranked by far lower between 5% and 15%. These proportions are unlikely to change, but also other platforms will take their share. To keep customers attracted to the medium TV, new interactive content concepts associated with business and revenue models have to be found. Interactivity on TV can be considered as one of the most critical future developments, easily deemed to fail as it is doubtful if consumers really would like to be interactive.

To further elaborate the emergence of interactivity and new forms of content, we have to consider the question which services provide real added-value for the consumer. This group of services directly relates to the service of television experience itself. The consumer gains real added value by removing the need for him to use another device (e.g. PC or mobile phone) to participate in a TV programme or access informational service about the broadcast content.

The most prominent examples are music contest voting, betting in sport events, and gaining access to more information about movies or TV content. The consumer could conveniently access the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) from his living room couch to get more information about movie content, director, and actors. The only need is the provision of a quick responding user-interface that can be conveniently used with a remote control. Nowadays the consumer has to leave the comfortable TV couch to participate in these activities. Services, such as emailing, not TV content related chatting, or eBanking can be really done better with a real PC connected to the Internet. The clumsy remote control or even an infrared keyboard is really not suited for doing this job – their use does not bring any added value to the consumer. Another possible application area is the broadcast of announcements or messages sent through the digital broadcast stream to the consumer or consumer groups. One example household personalized advertising.

Service related interactivity means 24/7 interactivity, where TV services are available any the time the consumer desires them. TV receivers record TV programmes or related information automatically and the consumer can rewind at any time. This is called time-shifted recording and gives the consumer the freedom of enjoying TV content anytime he would like to. During an ice-hockey match the last goal could be reviewed, while the match is continuing. After the review the consumer can step into the real match again.

Video-on-Demand (VoD) services, where films can be downloaded against a small payment are emerging as well. The consumer can order his favourite film directly from the couch of his living room, rather than visiting the next video rental shop.

Adding a feedback connection (e.g. Internet connection) to the digital receiver box enables much more advanced forms of interactive content. Services can be extended to shopping, chatting, reading emails, ordering tickets, information retrieval or voting. However all these services can only be seen as add-on to the TV programme, rather than an enhancement of the experience of television itself. What keeps the consumer in front of the TV screen is still the programme content: content is king. And this is the world of creative film-makers, TV show directors, or broadcast concept designers. It is their ability to render an exciting story visually that lets consumers sweep into a story world.

First possibilities to interactively change the content flow are already in view. One example is changing camera viewpoints during a sports event. More far out in the future are concepts relating to inner content alternations by changing the narrative flow. A good comparison nowadays would be computer games. The consumer would have the possibility to decide if a film has a happy or sad ending. However, these concepts are still far out in the future, and it will depend on the artistic wish of a movie director if he would even like to tell a story in this way. But there is a strong need for good content concepts associated with a suitable business model. What they will be like is still opened. To convince TV stations of their workability, they will have to be associated with very good revenue models.

What Is the Future?

It makes no sense to discuss about the delayed delivery of digital TV receivers or to recall the promises that digital interactive television has made. TV will be just one platform to deliver content to the consumer. Either if content will be interactive or in HD it is important to understand the trend towards the converging multimedia home. The home will become a digital space for entertainment services. And many different devices will deliver the content to consumers in form of MP3 players, iPods, PDAs, mobile phones, digital TV boxes, laptops or PCs – all linked with each other and to the Internet. These devices have to be able to talk with each other and exchange information.

For the consumer they should be easy and intuitively to use. One centralized device will be responsible for acting as link between all these gadget devices. This centralized device will play and record DVDs, control the TV, have Internet connection, and interface between several small gadget devices with wireless and wired connections. A currently workable solution enabling this degree of interoperability is to have a centralized platform in consumer homes. This centralized platform would need to have highly standardized hardware and software, as well as computer-level connectivity and operability. It should be easy and intuitively to use and simply be ‘cool’ to play around. The recently released Apple MAC Mini is one example. There will be more centralized devices emerging – either from the PC/Microsoft side or from other entertainment device producers.

The Internet is a future opportunity for consumers as it is a threat for TV stations. TV is a highly regulated medium. Current broadcast regulations do not apply on the Internet. Anyone could open his own TV station and broadcast worldwide and create ad-hoc communities. However, just putting TV programmes on a web-page or cast them via IP-TV is not enough. Other consumers have still to find the page and pull the content. Existing TV channel networks are better branded, easier to ‘find’, and have more resources to provide satisfactory content.

It is questionable if a similar trend like taking place nowadays with web-logs – in short ‘blogs’ - take place. The value of web-logs is to provide a medium to discuss and augment content provided by communities. Web logs where professional media companies produce content (such as electronic magazines) are typically associated to payment modalities. However, regulation authorities will also trying to get hold of the Internet as they are doing for Internet telephony. For existing TV stations IP-TV offers a completely new, global, and interactive distribution channel and therefore many new opportunities.

In a multimedia home the consumer is in his natural environment – and devices should be simple to use, be smart, and assist in enjoying entertainment services. Digital TV is just one step further. TV screens could even transform towards interactive display devices. The digital TV receiver could also be the centralized multimedia home entertainment server. However, how digitalization and introducing interactivity into the world of TV will be benefiting the consumer will show the future. But the digital space in a converged multimedia home has to be simple to use and to be smart. The consumer shall enjoy entertainment content with a minimal required learning of how to use these complex devices. The future of media will deal with humans surrounded by smart devices knowing what the consumer wants, rather than the consumer has to tell to devices what they are supposed to do. For professionals this trend is called ambient intelligence.

More about future broadcast multimedia can be found in the second part of the newly published text-book “Digital Interactive TV and Metadata – Future Broadcast Multimedia” by Springer-Verlag, which is devoted to business, consumer, and service aspects.

Artur Lugmayr
Team leader – New AMbient Multimedia (NAMU) research group
Tampere University of Technology
artur.lugmayr@tut.fi

Further Information see:

www.digitalbroadcastitem.tv
www.lugy.org
www.npt.no/iKnowBase/FileServer/voip.pdf?documentID=44270
europa.eu/int/comm/eurostat/
informitv.com/articles/2005/01/07/billgatestalks/
www.dvb.org/
www.uitv.info/
itv.eltrun.aueb.gr/
www.broadcastpapers.com/
www.ibc.org/
www.nab.org/
www.apple.com/macmini/
www.imdb.com/
www.cordis.lu/ist/istag-reports.htm

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More information
artur.lugmayr@tut.fi