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Navigating the evolution of free-to-view television: which will be the winner in shaping the future landscape DVB-I or HbbTV OpApp?

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I’m a strong believer in the need for and importance of free-to-view television services, as a foundation of TV ecosystems around the world. These free-to-view services are going through a major transition as television delivery moves from being primarily broadcast delivered (DTT and satellite) to being primarily internet delivered. Many people may believe this has already happened, but we are not there yet.

Open standards have been fundamental to the successful rollout of broadcast digital television and I believe the same will be true as we move to internet delivered television. While some have argued web standards are enough, it simply does not work having a television with a web browser and search bar. Viewers need a curated experience to discover and deliver the television they want to watch. Curating that experience is getting harder and harder with the increasing number of channels, combined with time-shifting and video-on-demand.

Who curates the free-to-view experience both from a metadata and a user experience perspective is a key topic of debate. Two standards that stand out in supporting a curated internet television experience are DVB-I and HbbTV OpApp.

Next week in Munich is DVB World 2024 and one of the key areas of conversation will be the status of DVB-I, particularly the ongoing activities in Germany and Italy.  DVB-I is right at the start of its adoption curve adoption curve as is HbbTV OppApp.

To me it has at times seemed that DVB-I and HbbTV OpApp are competing technologies. Therefore, as competing technologies one would be the winner and one the looser. However, I am now of the opinion, that with the latest version of OpApp specification, published in November 2023, they can both be winners and both will be fundamental in how free-to-view and for that matter pay-TV services evolve.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about here is a quick explainer.

DVB is the international standards organisation for broadcast video, it is used around the world (with a few notable exceptions) and it ensures that a TV made in Korea can receive TV signals in France. DVB-I is a relatively new standard from DVB, that brings the interoperability of broadcasting to internet delivered video and supports the convergence of broadcast TV and internet TV.

HbbTV is a standards organisation for interactive TV, it standardises how broadcast and broadband user experiences are supported on TVs, enabling a TV application created in France to run on a TV from Korea in living room in Germany.  A standard HbbTV application is delivered by a content provider to enrich their content and services and lives alongside the native user experience provided by the TV manufacturer. HbbTV OpApp applications can replace that native experience, enabling a service provider to provide their own user experience without a set-top box. OpApp has sometimes been called a virtual set-top box.

In summary DVB standardises the meta-data for television and HbbTV standardises delivery of the user experience for television. So why would anyone think there was a conflict?

The conflict comes down not to technology but what I would describe as opposing philosophies.

One view is, as we move further into a world of hybrid television (broadcast and internet), the main user experience should come from the TV manufactures, they should be the curators of services and what is required is interoperability of meta-data to support this.  The opposing view is that a local or regional service providers should be the curators of services and they should provide the user experience on the television. What is required for this, is interoperable of applications.

The UK market provides examples of both. Here the DTT service Freeview supports a hybrid version combining broadcast and broadband service called Freeview Play, which launched in 2015. Freeview provide the meta-data that describes the available free-to-view broadcast and broadband services, with the core user experience provided by TV manufacture using this common meta-data. Freeview play has been very successful and is now the largest connected TV platform in Europe. Freeview Play doesn’t use the DVB-I standard for its meta-data format as it predates it, but certainly was an early proof-point that standardisation was needed in this area.

Freesat (the free-to-air satellite service in the UK) took a different approach to Freeview and for hybrid services it developed its own user experience to put onto set-top boxes and televisions, the first iteration of which launched in 2012. Freesat didn’t need a standardised meta-data format as the data was all handled within the Freesat application. These Freesat service predated HbbTV OpApp, but Freesat experience were a large part of the requirements that went into the first version of OpApp.

Why the difference in approach, especially when the two businesses had common shareholders in the BBC and ITV?

This came down the competitive landscape it which they operated. Freeview Play’s main objective was to maintain the prominence of public service broadcaster services on internet connected television. Whereas, Freesat’s mission was to win Sky subscribers over. A Sky subscriber had high expectation of the TV user experience and were more likely to switch to Freesat if that user experience could be matched.

Fressat and Freeview have now merged their businesses and their services are evolving into Freely. Freely will build on Freeview Play’s capability to combine broadcast and internet services but will be able to support TVs without a broadcast connection, in which case all service will be internet delivered. Freely will also, like the Freesat service have its own UI, that will replace the native TV UI. To do this Freely will use HbbTV OpApp.

What the evolving standardisation process has shown is that for OpApp to work well it is better if the meta-data for services is available to both the application and the underlying TV operating system and this data sharing model has been included in the latest version of the OpApp specification. This specification standardises on DVB-I for the shared meta-data, making DVB-I a foundation for OpApp.

It is this version of OpApp spec that Freely is using, however it is not using DVB-I. The OpApp specification enables alternative non-DVB-I data models to be used and it appears Freely has chosen to continue to use the existing Freeview Play data model. There are a number of reasons why they will have chosen to do this. I believe that this is a short-term tactic around risk management and time to market, and that they will more than likely move to DVB-I in the future.

I’m not alone in this view, Peter MacAvock, Chair of DVB,  in an article in the most recent edition of DVB Scene, took a similar view.

“Freely has chosen to stick with existing service-discovery mechanisms deployed in the UK, at least for now.”

In summary, even if you are unsure about which curation model is the best one (TV native UX or operator UX) and which will dominate, DVB-I will be able to underpin both.

I believe all free-to-view operators should now be planning how they will adopt DVB-I, while keeping a close eye on the developments of HbbTV OpApp. Pay-TV operators would be advised to do the same.

Matthew Huntington is a product strategy and communication specialist and available for consultancy and job offers.

 

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