Extraordinary Broadcast Delusions and the Madness of Clouds

While sorting through my overloaded bookshelves at the weekend, trying to clear out the I-know-I-won’t-ever-read from the yes-I-will-when-I-just-have-more-time titles, I came across a book I enjoyed back in the 1990s – Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. First published in 1841, Mackay chronicles and details a series of popular follies that swept along various groups and societies, in a herd like manner, to over invest and ultimately abandon what at first seemed like a great idea, until it clearly wasn’t. At which point the same herd looks back and derides the whole business as obviously flawed and doomed from the start, before heading off in search of The Next Big Thing.

One example was that of Tulipomania, a boom to bust scheme that briefly engrossed Dutch society in 1636 as people from all walks of life suspended reason to trade in ever escalating prices for tulip bulbs. When reality finally intervened some people were left with red faces, big losses and (a few) black tulips.

So what has any of this got to do with TV? Well, as many of us will be heading off to the land of the tulip for IBC in Amsterdam in a few weeks, it’s interesting to look back at our own industries past delusions and also assess any potential false dawns at this years show.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look back very far to find our first contender – 3D TV. Anyone visiting IBC, NAB or CES from 2008 through to early 2012, let alone their local electronics retailer, would have been forgiven for believing that stereoscopic 3D broadcasting really was the future of the medium. On the back of a resurrection of 3D cinema we lost the run of ourselves. Ignoring the practicalities of Roy Orbison style glasses for everyone, arguments over seating positions and a void of available programming the whole industry went on a splurge of manufacturing, marketing and broadcasting until we realised that nobody was actually watching. At NAB this year you could be forgiven for wondering if it was all merely a strange dream as no trace of 3D could be found anywhere. The only place you are likely to see it at this years IBC is if you peel back a few layers of paint on the vendor stands.

Prior to 3D TV, the last Next Big Thing was probably Interactive TV. At the dawn of the new millennium, as digital TV was being deployed in many countries, we were promised (or in fact were promising) a world of TV commerce, TV banking and TV pizza ordering. Surprisingly for all involved, Joe/Jane Consumer didn’t fall in love with button based remote control navigation, 1980s era 8-bit computer graphics and slow/barely connected services.

In both cases it is hard to say with certainty whether these were good ideas with flawed technology implementations or just flawed ideas. If it’s the former then the story is not yet over for both as technology improves, but if it’s the latter then they wont be returning anytime soon. Either way we strain consumer confidence and interest when we over-promise and under-deliver like this. Comebacks are possible however. Remember version 1.0 of the mobile internet? Painfully slow GPRS connections to WAP based pseudo websites on small screens with button based controls. The concept seemed dead until Apple gave us the iPhone, 3G came along and the rest is history.

So looking forward rather than back, what does this years IBC hold in terms of potential follies? Two of the contenders must be 4K and the Second Screen and both have connections to the previous two failures.

3D TV launched on the back of an expensive but successful HD rollout. Consumers were swayed by HD, going out to buy new sets and signing up for HD broadcast subscriptions. 3D TV seemed poised to maintain that momentum, but having failed it might make the introduction of 4K harder. There is the issue of programme availability (in common with 3D) and some practical considerations. Even with good content, for many consumers with sub 60″ sets, the uplift in image quality if not going to be as apparent as that between SD and HD on those same TVs. Unless we see average screen sizes stray into the huge territory, the benefits of 4K (and certainly 8K which is already being prematurely touted as its near term successor) will be restricted. Then there is the tricky business of distribution. Even with HEVC/H.265 we are talking about lots of bandwidth and over zealous implementation of compression ratios will damage the whole quality proposition of 4K. We are still waiting for 1080p broadcasts so lets not oversell ourselves on 4K too soon.

Then there is the Second Screen, in many ways the plausible heir to Interactive TV, it could be what the iPhone was to the WAP based mobile internet – the real deal. Certainly in terms of interactivity it solves the usability problem by replacing a crappy TV remote with a PC/tablet/smartphone and it also solves the connectivity/speed problems of old. Finally, and very importantly, consumers invented second screening themselves, we have just coined the phrase to describe it. But there are also a number of issues. First there is a problem of definition – second screen activity covers a large swathe of behaviours unrelated to the TV programme in front of the viewer. Then there is the lack of standard mechanisms by which a second screen application can interact with either a TV set or a TV programme. Finally, there is as yet a limited number of breakthrough examples of programme relevant second screen apps. We are back to the fundamental question of whether current technology is holding back a great idea or it’s just not a great idea and only time can answer that question.

Finally, to round off the gratuitus repurposing of Mackay’s title – The Madness of Clouds. Actually there is too much to say on this subject in a single post so I will write up a second one shortly dedicated to the topic. Needless to say, the words Broadcast and Cloud will be common currency at this years IBC and having invested a lot of time over the past couple of years in this area it is an important discussion point. Cloud means a lot of different things to different people and there are good, bad and downright ugly examples on offer at the moment but more on that later.