1.Sky Glass is here – will operator TVs become a real trend?
With the market arrival of the new Sky Glass integrated television set, will these managed devices become more than a passing fad?
The biggest growth in viewing over the last few years has come from the smart TV, as these big screens maintain their prominence in the home.
Tapping into this trend, Sky officially unveiled its first-ever connected TV, called Sky Glass, which bypasses the need for a satellite dish or standalone set-top box (see https://www.csimagazine.com/csi/Sky-integrates-into-TVs-with-Sky-Glass.php). It is the first TV with Sky inside, and the latest major step in Sky’s strategic shift to move its TV service from satellite to broadband.
The streaming TV integrates hardware, software and content into a fully managed devices from the service provider. The development came as both Sky and parent Comcast were thought to be close to introducing their first branded smart TVs, much like Amazon did (see https://www.csimagazine.com/csi/First-Amazon-built-smart-TVs-unveiled.php).
Available via a monthly subscription, Sky Glass comes in three sizes – 43-inch priced at £649, 55-inch (£849) and 65-inch (£1049). The TV can be alternatively purchased for £13 (43-inch), £17 (55-inch) or £21 (65-inch) per month, with the Sky Ultimate TV Package, costing an additional £26 per month.
With Sky Glass, the operator has effectively embedded a set-top box inside a TV. It has deployed something that the company controls in a fully managed environment. CSI understands that Sky effectively built the TV on top of an Amlogic RDK stack, giving that level of control. The hardware manufacturer has not been officially confirmed, but in the United States, Comcast shortly after introduced its own proposition, called XClass TV, in partnership with Hisense, which come loaded with hundreds of apps, 12 months of Peacock Premium, and extends the cable company’s full entertainment experience (see https://www.csimagazine.com/csi/Comcast-officially-unveils-own-brand-TV.php). Comcast said the XClass TV, like Sky Glass, is built on “Comcast’s global technology platform”.
Because Sky Glass is a managed television environment – unlike standard retail smart TVs – there is a profound difference between these types of devices, and the customer experience will be different as a result.
Despite some early issues with performance and quality of service (what streaming platform hasn’t had these at launch?), Sky Glass has been selling relatively well in its early days and the question is how many other service providers will follow in Sky’s footsteps.
“A peer group of one, where the one is Sky, does not in my mind make a market trend. Yes, Sky Glass is innovative but that doesn’t make it a market trend,” says Joachim Bergman, CEO of Dutch multi-screen enabler 24i. “Talking to our Tier 1 customers I don’t see that something they are considering at the moment; it is quite the undertaking, it’s not an obvious play. I see Tier 1s partnering with the big TV makers more in the future, I see that happening much more in the future, rather than building your own television.”
Bergman’s point is that these types of looser tie-ups make more sense for operators in terms of cost, supply chains, apps and other factors.
Others agree to an extent, but think that Sky Glass is the first in the line of many such devices that will become a commercial proposition to be reckoned with.
“It’s most certainly part of a product trend,” says Paul Pastor, co-founder and chief business officer Firstlight Media. “Many of these distributors are trying to push building ecosystems because they have seen what Roku and others have built in terms of their business, what that means from a data perspective, what that means from an advertising perspective and what that means from a store-front, merchandising and revenue share perspective. This is part of a broader trend and we will continue to see these ecosystems appear,” says Pastor, an industry veteran who previously worked for Discovery Communications and The Walt Disney Company on multi-platform and DTC streaming strategies.
“The hard part is it requires more places to integrate yourself in order to get that reach you are looking for. The closed ecosystems – the Apple, Google, Roku and the Amazon environments – people are now saying how do we effectively build a TV? It becomes how cost effectively you can manage all these ecosystems, how these environments get built and whether or not they leverage a common code base. The other key question is how quickly people can get services onto their platform. We’ll have to see how all that develops.”
“Many of these distributors are trying to push building ecosystems because they have seen what Roku and others have built in terms of their business, what that means from a data and advertising perspective. This is part of a broader trend and we will continue to see these ecosystems appear.”
“This is an excellent marketing strategy for a company that understands they need to move from satellite to IP. It’s a very smart move,” says Mikhail Grachev, CEO of SmartLabs, a company initially established in 2007 in Russia as a middleware vendor, before then branching out into video distribution systems, monitoring, set top boxes and integration.
“From a tech point of view, I see this as a STB with a screen, nothing more. This is about building STBs into the screen and replacing TVs with new ones,” Grachev adds. “In terms of monthly payments, it’s a financial question. It will be very interesting to see how successful it will be. Will consumers be prepared to move from an LG set, for example, to Sky?”
Will operator TVs further shrink the STB market?
Amino’s Jamie Mackinlay, says his company is not overly concerned about the impact Sky Glass and other operator TVs might have on the set-top box business.
“Our sustained sales in our core STB business show that once you’ve cleared through this early adoption period on the new technology, to where the customers actually are, people just want it to work well and be easy to find,” says Mackinlay. “A lot of our customers in the States are in the Tier 3 and 4 area, and you look at the demographics and the type of customers there, they are on the 2nfd half of the bell curve when you look at the technology adoption.”
And Mackinlay adds: “It’s not a stretch that we could embed RDK software if we wanted to into a TV like we do into an STB.”
Shortly after Sky Glass was announced, Vewd and Vestel partnered to give any operator the chance to launch their own smart TV in a similar manner, based on a combination of their hardware and software (see https://www.csimagazine.com/csi/Vewd-and-Vestel-offer-operators-own-brand-smart-TVs.php). Their pitch is to allow pay-TV operators to win the smart TV landscape.
“The Operator TV ecosystem is expanding and there will be more partners on the way. We’ve had a lot of discussions with Operators so far, although I can’t name any names,” a Vewd spokesperson told CSI. “We do expect the first Operator TVs to ship in 2022.”
Look out for much more news, insight, analysis and industry thoughts and feedback on this topic from CSI throughout 2022.
2. RDK is making its way beyond tier 1 cable
RDK is going up in the world, finally pushing beyond its traditional cable stronghold. And it’s all about the apps (and chips).
Originally created by Comcast in 2013, the RDK was set up to try unify a fairly complex world of operating systems across proprietary fragmented middleware working on different set top boxes. Like the mobile phone market, pay TV middleware has in the last few years started to consolidate down to 3 key platforms: Linux, RDK and Android TV.
To some degree, RDK has become the default proposition for cable operators, especially the large tier 1s. Looking at the 30 or so service providers to have adopted RDK, the majority are first and foremost large cable operators. This is slowly starting to change with 2021 proving something of a landmark year for the platform in this regard.
This is due to several reasons, namely the introduction of RDK4 late last year and availability on chipsets beyond Broadcom, both of which are now beginning to bear fruit.
From an operator point of view, the old legacy middlewares were very cost-ineffective in bringing new apps on board, which has become crucial in a world dominated by premium video entertainment apps. RDK4, a major upgrade to the open source software stack, allowed them to do just that. As part of the RDK Video Accelerator program, RDK4 is available on a portfolio of set-top boxes that are pre-loaded with the Metrological App Store and enable operators to develop new Lightning-based user experiences and apps. This development effectively turned RDK into a fully functioning OTT stack that would tap into these new industry trends and dynamics.
Just this week, Irdeto brought to market a hybrid satellite RDK stack that helps with the on-boarding and maintaining of (premium) video apps, aimed at satellite and other service providers who harbour ambitions to be content super aggregators. And Netflix’s new DaVinci partner scaling programme now has RDK boxes and devices included, having previously run the Hailstorm programme for Android TV devices. All of this is set to shake up the market further.
In our talks to set-top box manufacturers and other technology suppliers, all of them also identified broader chipset support as a key factor for RDK’s growing popularity and interest from smaller operators. Traditionally, RDK has been a one-chip platform (Broadcom), while the new chip-agnostic approach gives operators alternatives to second-source their SoC or OEM partners if they are too expensive or moving slowly. In particular, the companies we spoke to pointed to Amlogic in particular offering new levels of flexibility that appeals to many.
Before it was cancelled, SmartLabs was meant to be introducing at IBC their new STB based on the Amlogic X4 chip. The company claims it is seeing lots or requests from customers for that type of solution.
“There wasn’t a lot of RDK until the recent version of RDK came out and seems to be very interesting for service providers and we are getting a lot of requests from customers already,” said Mikhail Grachev, CEO of SmartLabs. “The recent RDK platform might be a good option for some operators because it seems to be very easy to deploy and involves less discussions with Google. Putting everything together is a less of a challenge now with RDK.”
Amino, which recently became an RDK Video Accelerator (RDK-VA) member, now has RDK-V devices and software systems ready for deployment (the first device to receive RDK-VA certification will be the R180). The R180 is also one of the first devices to be powered by RDK on the next-generation Amlogic X4 SoC chip.
“We feel with RDK now there is a really clear alternative approach to modernisation that doesn’t necessarily mean you lose control as an operator, and allows people to deploy RDK in a different way,” said Amino’s Jamie Mackinlay. “We think this is going to be an additional option for operators that would more traditionally be a Linux company, with the choices and capability you have there, the flexibility and control.”
According to Mackinlay, Amino has worked closely with Amlogic, whose SoC has a strong SDK that makes it possible for companies like Amino to make products that are as cost effective as Android, and give operators a choice that would not have existed even 6 months ago.
“We feel like we are in education mode with a lot of our customers and helping them to understand what the options are between these different choices they have, and what their path forward is that minimises disruption, maximises their levels of control but gives them the modernisation and new economics they are looking for on shorter lead times,” he surmised, noting interest from the company’s Tier 2 and 3 telco customers in the US.
“Amino has just launched the R18, our first device on RDK, where we see quite promising results in actually getting it to work and also porting apps. The Lightning application framework of RDK is, a little to our surprise, a very strong performing and flexible platform – and that has also dawned on a lot of others. If you’re not confident on Android TV, then this actually does offer quite a lot and with more flexibility than traditional Linux, and that’s why it has been picked up on the market more widely,” added CEO of Amino’s sister company 24i.
Having carved its place with big cable, RDK is now finally on the radar of satellite operators and telcos, set for wider adoption in 2022.
3. AV1 made its way onto TVs
Netflix started streaming AV1 to TVs. The future next-gen codec battleground is not traditional broadcast and IPTV delivery, but the streaming world.
The AV1 codec has been adopted into some chipsets for mobile devices and streaming dongles – and it has now made its way onto the TV. In November, Netflix announced that it was (finally) rolling out AV1 content to smart TVs. As Netflix noted, AV1 playback on TV platforms relies on hardware solutions, which generally take longer to be deployed.
AV1-encoded content is now being made available on TVs from a few major manufacturers. The codec – developed by the Alliance of Open Media (AOMedia), of which Netflix is a member – is also supported on the PS4 Pro game console and some Amazon Fire TV devices.
The newly supported devices must meet Netflix’s specifications for the decoder in order to receive the AV1 streams. According to the Verge, the following devices are certified:
- Select Samsung 2020 UHD Smart TVs
- Select Samsung 2020 UHD QLED Smart TVs
- Select Samsung 2020 8K QLED Smart TVs
- Samsung The Frame 2020 Smart TVs
- Samsung The Serif 2020 Smart TVs
- Samsung The Terrace 2020 Smart TVs
- Any TV connected to a PS4 Pro streaming with the Netflix app
- Select Amazon Fire TV devices with Fire OS 7 and above
- Select Android TV devices with Android OS 10 and above
Netflix said in its blog that “we are working with external partners to enable more and more devices for AV1 streaming” (see https://netflixtechblog.com/bringing-av1-streaming-to-netflix-members-tvs-b7fc88e42320).
Content from Netflix will include 4K and high frame rate titles, initially only in SDR with HDR encoding to come.
Netflix has offered AV1-encoded content for some Android mobile phones since February 2020. The company has been clear that it intends to use AV1 to replace the VP9 codec. Today a Netflix stream is typically MPEG-4 while downloaded onto a device it is typically VP9.
For live content, it still more expensive to make as asset in AV1 today terms of processing time and cost. The sheer amount of processing power it requires means it as not been adopted for this type of content.
In other noteworthy developments on the codec front in 2021, LCEVC (MPEG-5 Part 2) licensing terms were disclosed in May. It came shortly after MPEG announced results of verification tests for LCEVC and VVC video compression standards. LCEVC standard was introduced in October 2020, acting as an enhancement layer to existing codecs. LCEVC’s main proponent V-Nova has promised deployments with traditional broadcasters and media companies, OTT providers, social media and others, but few have publicly come to light since royalties were made available.
Newer codecs like VVC, AV1 and AVS3 are being developed and evaluated for roll out in the coming years to support 8K video services. These codecs are now being evaluated by DVB among others.
While VVC performance is said to be the best among all codecs, it is much more processing intensive than H.264 and also still faces an unclear patent situation at this point.
“Which of the next-gen codecs wins out is going to come down to the chipsets and whether there is a clear enough cost position that makes a user like a sport broadcaster wanting to do direct-to-consumer service play, or a major streamer gets behind one of these new codecs,” says Carl Furgusson, Vice President, Portfolio Strategy, Mediakind, adding that Mediakind has yet to have an operator customer wanting to make a commercial decision to move in the AV1 direction (the company has lot of in-house development on VVC). “And whichever one wins that battle is likely to become the de-facto codec. But the streaming world doesn’t really care about the standards as much as broadcast has done in the past, it’s a bit more wild west.”
According to Bitmovin’s 5th Annual Video Developer report, HEVC adoption has grown to 49% of participants this year. While still on top, AVC usage declined in 2021, falling by 8% compared to last year. Looking forward, the top 3 codecs projected to be added in the next 12 months are HEVC (25%), AV1 (22%), and VVC (20%).
The future codec battleground is not traditional broadcast and IPTV delivery, but the streaming world.
And a few others…
AVOD continued to grow.
Belgium moved to block PVR ad skipping.
A new TV advertising initiative was implemented by local broadcasters DPG Media, SBS and VRT that aims to protect local content and television ecosystem by making adverts unskippable on recorded content and catch-up TV.
Cloaked under the revised ‘uniform’ TV advertising model, recordings of programmes from the VTM and Play (SBS) channels will be preceded by one minute of adverts that cannot be skipped (viewers will still be able to skip the ad breaks during the programme they have recorded). Cable operator Telenet is supporting the initiative and began implementing technology so that viewers will no longer be able to skip ad breaks during programmes while watching its Terugkijk TV catch-up service.
The coordinated national rollout comes in response to more TV adverts being skipped frequently by consumers, which broadcasters and cable operators fear is straining the business models and exerting ever greater pressure on investment in local productions.
The Olympics failed to ignite the 8K flame.
Japanese broadcaster NHK has been at the forefront of 8K for several years and used its home Olympics to promote ultra-high-definition technology and content. But besides Brazil’s Globo, which showed some footage in 8K format s part of its user and technology tests, very few other broadcasters seem to have come on board.
According to the 8K Monitor, which tracks these types of services, NHK’s service, called BS 8K, remains the first and only 8K broadcast service in the world. As of July 2021, only four others showed a limited amount of 8K content: YouTube, NASA, Rakuten TV, and The Explorers.
Many channels are yet to make the leap from SD to HD (and one 8K channel takes as much space in terms of bandwidth as dozens of SD channels).
There may be a pick-up with the Beijing Winter Games in February (there are live-8K rumours) and the Qatar World Cup in November 2022, but more realistically, the Paris 2024 Games are expected to be the first real mainstream occasion once workflows have evolved. CSI understands that there is a major French 4K commitment for 2024.
Industry trade shows succumbed to Covid, again.
IBC, NAB, ANGA and Broadcast Asia were among a host of industry events to be cancelled for a second year running due to the pandemic. Eyes now turn to CES in January and Mobile World Congress in February as the Omicron variant spreads across the world. Organisers have pretty much all admitted that they are unlikely to see pre-Covid levels of attendance any time soon, as the hybrid approach becomes more common.