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IBC '99: Between virtual and digital

For IBC 99, we reported the confusion that existed about what the digital age meant for broadcasters and viewers. What became clear was that broadcasters were making plans for interactive multi-channel services that would include Internet access, Video on Demand (VoD) and High Definition TV (HDTV).

The International Broadcasting Convention - IBC '99, which took place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, this year gave attendees an equal amount of confusion and clarity about what the digital age will bring to broadcasters and viewers. But one thing is clear and that is that broadcasters are having an adventure with their plans for interactive multi-channel services that will be included in Internet access, Video on Demand (VoD) and High Definition TV (HDTV), some sooner than others.

It was identified that in terms of subscribers the digital satellite platform is the fastest growing in Europe, followed by the cable platform. Many of the digital satellite service providers are currently launching interactive applications. Tests for Return Channels using ADSL technology and even GSM mobile phones are beginning to be introduced across Europe.

TV and Web

Java is considered the last common application interface in programming (API) in Europe (where support is for DVB-MHP) and in the United States (where support is for ATSC and the Cable Labs format), to offer interoperability in the interactive world.

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However, there is an ongoing debate about where the Internet fits within interactive TV services. "The Web as it exists today is not suitable for TV," said Regis Saint Giron, technical director of Open TV, located in Europe. "There is clearly a need to develop Web services, especially for TV."

The Web has a completely different nature from television. It is a much better online information service than what TV entertainment streaming can achieve. Additionally, the remote control, as an integral part of the TV, is not suitable for easy web search. This also includes Video-on-Demand (VoD) applications. All three (TV, VoD and Web) need a completely new interface design if they are to be offered to the viewer as a simple tool to control them, using the TV or a set-top-box.

From the point of view of broadcasters, the question is how the Internet will affect the very services it has reached. The broadcaster will continue to provide its content to the viewer, but if at the same time it offers a different route, it may inadvertently lose it. So the suggestion is to launch a limited Internet service over TV channels controlled by the broadcaster.

"Existing content on the Web is not suitable for TV. Broadcasters at one time were very excited about the Internet, so much so that they continue to offer some Internet services but in a controlled way, where they can keep their audiences and not divert them in other directions," said Said Giron.

Video-on Demand- VoD

The VoD issue this year at IBC was largely overshadowed by the digital confusion created in broadcasters and viewers alike. However, VoD will probably stay for some time.

"Video-on-Demand is broadcasting with a limited number of return channels. Today this is a "push" model (service that is delivered directly to the viewer) but it can change to a "pull" model (entertainment service that the user seeks by his own decision), especially with the change of technology that will significantly lower prices. However, the push model will continue to exist because people enjoy entertainment," Saint Giron said.

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It is expected that the way entertainment will be paid for will also undergo a dramatic change. Broadcasters who have charged their audiences with a TV license are now reviewing this method. They are eager to turn Digital TV into commercial services that generate a source of income. "80% of people spend their free time watching television; however, only 20% of their leisure time budget is devoted to this activity," said Tony Ball, CEO of Bsky B, a UK operator of digital and analog satellites. But without thinking about it, the technology is here, everyone agrees that the success of digital will depend a lot on the content it offers. This is why the BBC in the UK is severely criticised at present: it is trying to set up a digital television with a £24 TV licence tax, while still supplying very poor content. "The BBC will need to enrich the core of its services rather than ask for more money to fund its digital services," Ball said.

This is just a typical battle that takes place between several broadcasters that offer services on different platforms, since no one wants to miss the opportunity to be among the first to offer some kind of Digital TV services.

Definition Television - HDTV

One of the hottest topics at IBC was the introduction of High Definition Television (HDTV). Although North America, Japan and Australia have shown their fervent support for this format and are planning these services, Europe has made a more cautious approach. According to Phil Laven of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), European viewers cannot distinguish between the image resolution offered by HDTV from that offered by standard TV (SDTV), although they prefer the 16:9 wide format instead of the old 4:3 screen type. "Most people watch in VHS format, which is below SDTV (Standard Definition) quality," Laven said. "A jump from VHS to SDTV (for European viewers) is equivalent to a jump from SDTV to HDTV."

The EBU argues that HDTV is more perceptible at an image size three times larger (3H) and most Europeans enjoy watching TV at a size 6 times larger (6H), leaving no room for distinction. But the main issues between European broadcasters and the EBU are about the guarantee of recovery of investment in HDTV. Making programs on HDTV in the first place is expensive and as for the justification of the costs, the broadcaster community wants to ensure that they will be seen by the majority of viewers on all platforms (terrestrial, cable and satellite). Ensuring this is a bit difficult since receiver prices rose impressively when more than one front end is added to them. Broadcasters are worried that users won't pay a high price for TVs to watch HDTV signals.

At an IBC conference, HDTV was compared to quadraphonic sound, meaning it's doomed from the start, so why spend money on this, even if those prices can be reduced, especially through the widespread use of digital displays, such as plasma screens. Large volumes, on the other hand, will be guaranteed through good programming, especially in the free on-air transmission model.

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Australia has shown a more adventurous spirit regarding HDTV than the old continent. The Australian government has given a free channel to its broadcasters so that they can invest money in the realization of HDTV programs as part of the Digital TV range. And before this channel is returned, the formation of an ideal platform to launch these services is expected. So based on the EBU's arguments, Europe is lagging behind the United States, the Far East and Australia in the development of large-scale HDTV equipment and the introduction of its broadcasting system.

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