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Broadcasting under lockdown

If there is any positive for the broadcast industry amid a worldwide crisis, it is this: COVID-19 has created an opportunity to stress-test distributed and virtualized workflows that stations and networks were already considering for the future. OTT and VoD are heading toward becoming the main sources of entertainment.

The winds of change in broadcasting began to be felt as the industry moved into the new millennium; now, 20 years later, they are blowing at gale force, signaling totally new technologies, new solutions for old problems, and, newer and better ways for producing content and delivering it in the times of the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic. Television has had to change drastically in the space of a matter of weeks, and with social distancing measures potentially lasting for a long time yet, it does not look like the industry will return to normal anytime soon. It will feel the impact of COVID-19 long after it has subsided.

These changes are reflected in just about every area of broadcasting, including the content production, distribution, and consumption arenas. Tools and technologies for the switching of video, editing, storage, graphics generation, and even test and measurement that were just science fiction a few years ago, are now part of the production and transmission ecosystem. The whole environment is now virtualized. This is on the way to become the future.

Embracing remote production
There is a step-change in technology adoption and advancement of remote production and collaboration solutions. Remote and collaborative online tools and frameworks for everything from managing productions and teams, to newsrooms, live production itself, and editorial and post production have all been a hotbed of innovation and development during the lockdown. Broadcasters are quickly adapting to production regimes of remote host and audience interaction, with lessons and innovations that will stand the test of time.

Large broadcasters, post-production, and production companies are now looking for full remote working or virtual facility systems. The demand is increasing for automated cloud backup sync and cloud file-sharing services – as more and more companies prepare to implement remote working across various regions. Every area of content production and broadcast has been affected by the outbreak, but what has been noticeable is how swiftly huge numbers of personnel have made the transition to working from home – raising the possibility that a greater inclination toward remote working by broadcast teams could be one lasting legacy of the current crisis.

The new world of decentralized broadcast and IP
COVID-19 is ushering in the true cloud era for video production. The last 10–12 weeks or so have altered the way broadcasters are thinking about migrating to the cloud. Earlier omg, they had a lot of cloud activity and customers migrating, but it was a deliberate, multi-year. But once COVID hit, it became, get me to the cloud and get me to the cloud yesterday. Some broadcasters were ready to work from home because their workflows were already cloud-based.

One can see the value of IP. Companies are now offering turnkey editing solutions in the cloud. They are launching cloud-based software-based solutions, which allow production teams to customize workflows and include apps like multiviewers, router panels, test signal generators, switchers, graphics renderers, clip players, and recorders. These technologies and solutions mesh and integrate well with the inevitable shift toward IP, from on-site boxes of hardware to cloud-based virtual machines and IP-based production, and broadcast infrastructure. For all kinds of studio-based live production, there has been a shift toward automation. As control rooms become IP-based, decentralized from hardware, most of the equipment is being operated by a skeleton team from just about anywhere.

Remote post-production
Traditionally, post-production, especially non-broadcast-based post like serving commercials, episodic television, and feature films, has been one of the last outposts of facility-based machine rooms of physical equipment and rooms requiring editors and artists to be physically present. Even this is changing rapidly with high-end cloud-based workstations and storage or at the very least high-quality remote operation of physical equipment from remote working sites over broadband connections, complete with calibrated remote monitoring.

Remote post-production is fast becoming a viable workflow for many teams these days. The TV and post-production sector are behind the curve compared to other industries in using remote-working technology, but one can see it kicking in (post-virus) not least because of pressures from the cost of operating. But one cannot get away from the interpersonal nature of the sector. Virtual meetings, conference calls, editing at home, end-to-end encryption messaging through WhatsApp, and signal with desk phones diverted to mobile phones, are other tools at its disposal.

The sector is in need of having the flexibility going forward to offer clients the choice of on-site or remote working.

Broadcasters turn to cloud storage
If there was ever going to be a single event to test the capabilities of the cloud storage and file transfer solutions that have emerged during the past decade, then COVID-19 undoubtedly fits the bill. While the main differences to the viewer are likely to be a greater variation in picture quality and an increased opportunity to view on-air contributors’ bookshelves, the impact behind the scenes has been significant and complex. Bandwidth was the number one challenge, which is directly linked to the need to move large media files.

Reducing the need to move large files around has become more critical with domestic bandwidth now more of a concern – especially as the sheer fact of the lockdown has yielded more regular spikes in internet traffic. Hence, there has been an increased demand for technologies that allow content to be worked on remotely without the need for subsequent re-uploading in its entirety.

There is a heightened awareness of file-identification times and ease of transport from multiple sources among broadcasters. Inevitably, with more users likely to be drawing from a larger number of sources, accessibility has to be delivered in tandem with robust content protection. Quicker content preview and commenting features are also proving to be beneficial. The industry has also placed an emphasis on rapid identification of the required content when and where it is needed.

While effective cloud-based workflow for new production is one priority concern, then access to, and management of, archive material is another. With filming essentially halted worldwide, companies are now relying on either content that has recently been shot or their archived content in order to continue to monetize during the pandemic. Hence, there is a substantial surge in demand for platforms, which make it possible for companies to service their entire library of archived content from end-to-end entirely in the cloud.

The requirement to share content across multiple types of storage is also having an impact and leading many broadcasters to embrace a hybrid philosophy. Observing the demand from IT teams to spin up storage and manage it entirely remotely but with the ability to access and share content on any type of storage. A hybrid cloud approach is becoming the best approach for media companies. While many organizations had already been looking at greater adoption of cloud storage, the current crisis has been something of a catalyst.

Virtual broadcast gallery
Broadcasters are creating a virtual studio gallery operating at a larger scale. Several broadcasters have taken the decision to reconfigure its output for a series of live remotely produced programs. Links are via broadband and 4G. Some on-screen talents have had broadcast cameras set up in their home, others have remote controlled PTZ cams. Some are even using the latest iPhone, enabled for broadcast use. The vision mixers have a monitor for all feeds at their home. Hence, broadcasters are managing to take apart a gallery and relocate it in different locations.

They are creating a new format that goes alongside development of 8K, Dolby Atmos for mobile, and object-based broadcasting. Many are using several technologies to continue broadcasting, often from people’s homes, utilizing widely available video conference systems like Zoom through to more professional set ups with VMix and Skype TX. Some broadcasters are still able to broadcast with small OB setups.

From 4G to 5G, virus forcing the evolution
The global lockdowns have come just too soon for 5G mobile services to help mitigate disruption to production and content creation. Instead, broadcasters have turned to existing 4G/LTE mobile services to help with field events, involving multiple participants from home. While this has enabled many productions that would otherwise have been unable to take place or would have been too expensive, it has also exposed limitations of existing mobile services and highlighted the benefits that emerging 5G services could bring.

4G started to usher in remote production over mobile in 2013, with broadcasters attracted by the potential to extend coverage more widely in the field and save the exorbitant costs associated with traditional satellite, based outside broadcast vehicles (OBVs). This effect has been amplified by the lockdowns, which has meant many shows or events previously shot in studios have been distributed across often a significant number of homes. In those cases, sending out OBVs is neither practical nor affordable.

5G is expected to solve remote-broadcasting issues because its higher capacity reduces or eliminates the need for bonding; network slicing enables different services or use cases to be insulated from others and given their own quality of service (QoS).

The problem is that 5G is not that widely available, largely confined to just trials and nascent deployments with the exception of China. The challenge is that 5G involves a marriage of technology and new infrastructure to meet its promises of supporting many more devices at much higher bit rates up to theoretically 10 Gbps and at lower latencies down to 1 ms for local communications. The core technology components are now mostly in place. But to enable communication at these speeds, the radio cells must become smaller and be more densely packed in much greater numbers, while the backhaul infrastructure will have to be upgraded in many cases to carry the greatly increased traffic back to the operators’ core networks.

Meanwhile, broadcasters have been conducting trials to determine the potential of 5G for video production and identify challenges to be faced. They have highlighted how avoidance of the need for bonding over 5G reduced the complexity associated with set up for remote production, and the higher quality opened up new creative possibilities for use of such cameras in conjunction with conventional gear. The ability to transmit to producers in near real time meant that remote production teams can be located anywhere, while the near instantaneous wireless connectivity enabled by 5G allows cameras to be untethered.

Bonded cellular’s moment
The home environment presents specific challenges when it comes to sending broadcast content back to the station like internet connectivity. Often, home internet connections are not robust enough to handle the demands of broadcast-related activities. As a result, many broadcasters have turned to bonded cellular. While bonded cellular technology has helped transmit live video feed back to the station’s studio, it is also being used to send video, audio, and information to the person in the home studio.

Media consumption in the time of a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way media and entertainment (M&E) is consumed. One of the most serious consequences of the lockdown in countries like China, India, Italy, Spain, France, or the United States has been the forced increase of streaming services usage among their population. The last 8–10 weeks have dramatically changed the way of working, socializing, and interacting; as consumers adjust to the new normal, streaming, and social video have become even more important to many global households.

A trend that the COVID-19 is likely accelerating is the shift to over-the-top (OTT) for older consumers and cord-cutting for younger consumers. For younger consumers (18–34), traditional/linear TV viewing decreased in March while OTT viewing increased. Likewise, traditional and OTT viewing are up significantly for above 35, including people ages 55 to 64, indicating that many of these consumers may be making more dedicated forays into the format.

As the major sports leagues have suspended or cancelled their seasons, interest in sports programming has waned, and audiences have gone elsewhere – entertainment and online gaming. The disruption of sports events is reflected in a decrease in reach of, and engagement with, sports websites or sports mobile apps. Overall viewership for sports TV programming has been decreasing since March, and the interest still continues to decline.

It is obvious that the multi-month loss of traditional sports will accelerate cord-cutting. And while some of these subscribers will come back once sports resume, many would not, and those that do will return via lower-priced and month-to-month virtual multichannel video programming distributor (vMVPD) services. But more importantly, the pandemic’s greatest impact on pay-TV would not stem from the acute shocks of suspended sports seasons, but the long-lasting consequences of a recession. In addition, the accelerated decline of both pay-TV subscribers and pay-TV ad revenues will strongly harm all traditional media players at the time they are most exposed.

The COVID outbreak, presenting an alternate lifestyle, has re-instigated the debate on cinema versus video-on-demand (VoD). The lockdowns are ensuring the promotion and prospering of VoD platforms for providing content, and enhancing the shelf life of previously released movies. Periods of theatrical release have been shortened, resulting in movies directly releasing on digital platforms. Building viewership and establishment of digital platforms, particularly in niche markets, should allow for a smooth transition from theatrical releases to VoD openings. Global lockdowns and physical distancing are here to exist, resulting in big banner and starrer films conceding this change.

This is a boon to all streaming services, especially those new and/or relatively undiscovered. A new subscriber/user is not necessarily a long-term one. It is clear COVID is driving record levels of free trials, which should lead to extra sampling, and thus give many services a shot they would never have had. It also means the cost of customer acquisition, which has skyrocketed in the streaming wars, has plummeted, thereby, increasing lifetime values. There is an increase in free premium content, acceleration of some of the content schedules that were out there to really bring attention into this space. Consumers are seeking new entertainment options, and distributors and content owners are looking to tap into that trend.

The challenges
With millions of people under lockdown orders because of COVID-19, streaming-media usage has seen stratospheric increases. But while the pandemic has introduced opportunities to super-serve consumers, it also has created new challenges for all companies in the space. What do OTT businesses need to pay attention to right now? There are three factors: economic uncertainty with unemployment rates at all-time highs; increased competition for attention; and impact to content-production pipelines.

The big challenge in the long term is that the outbreak threatens to disrupt their fundamental business model. With a slowing global economy, users may choose to opt-out. Fair to project that if the outbreak does not subside soon enough, then the streaming industry should be bracing themselves for a seismic impact.

The different monetization strategies require different considerations across the entire lifecycle of production, distribution, and measurement. There will remain a lot of strategic tension between open and closed models on pretty much every dimension. The lack of live sports is pushing up consumption in other areas, with month-over-month growth in news, significant increase in gaming, and the highest rise in entertainment content. The combination of more video usage and longer viewing session times has resulted in a massive increase in data traffic. This is a big challenge for ISPs and network providers.

With TV shows and sports being called off, streaming service providers are facing a glut of content to provide their viewers. Streaming service providers are fearful that this glut of content, along with the looming threat of a recession ahead, might cause their users to opt themselves out of their streaming subscriptions. Severe losses are occurring for streaming service providers, who relied on sports streaming for both advertisement money as well as subscriptions from sports fans. The postponement or cancellation is not only disrupting the scheduled coverage but also advertising arrangements, sponsorship deals, and promotional events. The tectonic shift, as a result of mass unsubscriptions, may lead to job losses and eroding profit margins/revenue for OTT streaming companies. With the cancellation of shows, it may lead to glut even when the outbreak subsides.

The aftermath
While the long-term implications are yet to emerge, the M&E themes, according to KPMG India, which will likely come into focus as the post-coronavirus reality becomes clearer are:

Behavioral changes and habit formation post COVID-19. Consumer behavior is rapidly evolving as the world adjusts to a new normal, where social distancing, work-from-home, and virtual meetings are the norm. Demand for at-home digital media is expected to grow significantly, as habit-formation and ease of access emerge as drivers. OTT platforms and digital media have already been attracting new consumers and expanding to new locations and demographics. The virus outbreak will magnify the already apparent shift from laptop/digital devices viewing to large screen TVs – providing a significant fillip to broadband internet/fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) companies. Even once the crisis passes, the psychological overhang from the virus might mean it would take some time for consumers to embrace external consumption models again, especially in areas that have been the worst affected by this crisis. Here, the recovery in consumption of outdoor M&E could lag other geographies that could have been relatively less impacted. This could pave the way for innovation and outreach solutions, wherein consumers turn to virtual live events and new delivery models to connect.

The future is digital. Online gaming consumption will likely become even more popular with younger populations, while older people will likely favor traditional TV content, delivered through a digital ecosystem. The demand for OTT originals, which is identified as a competitive differentiator should restore and players can be expected to gradually roll out original, targeted content for specific audiences once the lockdowns start to ease. Innovation and the ability to leverage technology to reduce lead times will be critical here, as the focus on new content may result in working capital being locked up across the value chain, leading to higher cash flow requirements.

Challenge of monetization.
While digital media consumption is increasing, monetization will likely remain a challenge. With the global economy already under stress, key ad-spend sectors have seen significant traction. Most media outlets derive a significant percentage of their revenue from advertising, and the current pandemic has brought advertising to a standstill in many sectors including fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), financial services, automotive, and e-commerce. The recovery of such sectors will play a critical role in helping media outlets leverage the surge in media consumption for monetary gains. Till then, leading advertising spenders will continue to keep a tight lid on expenditures.

Technology leveraged across the supply chain. From content creation through distribution and monetization, M&E companies are expected to increase their dependence on technology to create cost efficiencies and revenue enhancement opportunities. Companies could place an increasing amount of reliance on artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) to predict consumer behavior in these uncertain times and thereby improve loyalty.

Preparing for the next wave
If there is any positive for the broadcast industry amid a worldwide crisis that has cleared out newsrooms, shut down entertainment productions, halted major sports, and hammered advertising revenues, it is this: COVID-19 has created an opportunity to stress-test distributed and virtualized workflows that stations and networks were already considering for the future. Gone are the days where production is managed and delivered from one hub. The crisis may be the catalyst for industry-wide adoption of cloud technologies and virtualizing content, especially as the technology is becoming more cost-effective as security, connectivity, machine learning, and content solutions continue to rapidly evolve.

Production is quickly moving away from conventional coax and shielded twisted-pair connectivity in the television plant. There are no typical workflows anymore. Broadcasters are and will be creating what they need from what they can get. But critical to success will be proven automation technology. Remote is the future for enterprise and facility level media companies, production companies, broadcasters, and post-production facilities. Even smaller teams can easily take advantage of the services for collaborative workflow. It will be virtual, scalable, and operational, rather than capital-intensive and high risk. AI has an important part to play, from managing agency feeds to clipping stories, as they are first broadcast for catch-up and social media. ML is going to be increasingly important if this situation continues. The home studio setups have evolved in the last 8–10 weeks as broadcasters fine tuned remote production workflows, created new ways to use existing technology and tools and upgraded equipment. Also, a bonded connectivity solution is the need of the hour, using cellular connectivity to be able to bolster the broadband and provide the necessary stability and resilience. While reasonably fast broadband is now widely available, it is subject to fluctuations and is generally asymmetric. That is a particular issue here because it is the upload speed that is of greatest need.

Cameras need racking remotely, so universal camera-control systems are required. A studio automation system is needed to bring all the elements together into a reasonably simple command workflow. This could be the moment when virtual reality really takes off. PTZ cameras with tracking data are helping site individual images into the whole more naturally. At the hub, a VR system is needed that can accommodate multiple moving cameras. All remote feeds are brought to a central hub, which might itself be a virtual production center. In this hub, there are all the attributes of a broadcast: a director creating the pace and flow; vision switching and audio mixing; graphics; quality control; and the rest. Networked tools will make this possible – as long as the collaboration required is understood. As the industry continues to take steps toward a virtualized software-based approach, there will be native cloud-based solutions leveraging elastic computing to bring even greater flexibility and efficiency to media production and processing applications. All of this means that choosing equipment, which is proven and capable of practical and low-latency remote operation, will be pivotal in the years to come.

With most big customers effectively ceasing capital spending for the near term, a big revenue hit is being experienced that will lead to further consolidation by bigger broadcasters and the shuttering of some smaller entities. The cancellation of this year’s NAB, and the shift to virtual marketing it has necessitated, could also have a lasting impact on the way broadcast technology is sold.

For most industries, the lockdowns and social distancing measures around the world are crippling. For video-streaming services, however, they currently are a godsend. By providing affordable content, attractive offers, free trials, and accommodating theatrical releases, OTT and VoD are heading toward becoming the main sources of entertainment. The situation of physical distancing and lockdowns created by the pandemic has presented streaming services an opportunity to engage with users and allow exploration of content. The non-availability of any other platform is resulting in a steep escalation in subscription, wider viewership, and establishing a practice of absorbing online content.

Some of the shifts in streaming behavior certainly will continue post-pandemic, representing an inflection point in use cases. Streaming video providers will invest in OpEx optimizations to lay the foundation for a bigger shift from linear broadcast to OTT, going forward. To cope with the closure of cinemas during the coronavirus crisis, film distributors are moving their new or recent titles onto streaming services ahead of schedule. OTT streaming businesses are in triage moment but they still must set the groundwork for the future. All content productions have been shut down, so streaming services may suffer from a dearth of content in a year or two. Loyal customers, no matter how bored they are, will not put up with re-runs of old shows forever.

Hence, broadcasters are ready to remotely produce content; remotely playout content; and remotely monitor channels. The technological infrastructure is in place – from acquisition to production to distribution, all can be handled remotely and in the cloud. In case of video streaming, it seems unlikely that so much daytime video viewing could continue, for instance, once people return to the previous normal. As with other dramatic changes imposed by COVID-19, it remains to be seen how many of these trends will hold up after the crisis ends.

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