SVG Sit-Down: SES’s Thomas Wrede on MX1 360, OU Flex, Future of UHD Sports Content
Growth in HDR and HFR will be driven by growth in screen tech
SES and its subsidiary MX1 had a busy IBC 2018 in Amsterdam last month, rolling out a bevy of eye-catching demos, highlighting their primary transmission platforms for M&E, and announcing new partnerships with broadcasters and content creators. At its booth, SES erected a massive screen set up with commercial live customer UHD feeds, highlighted its MX1 360 unified media platform and MX1’s OU Flex product, and announced new deals with QVC and Channel 4 in the UK, Kiwisat in the Caribbean, and Insight TV in Latin America.
SVG sat down with SES VP, New Technology and Standards, Thomas Wrede to discuss the demos and announcements made at IBC, how he expects delivery of 4K and HDR content to evolve, satellite providers’ role in the rapidly growing OTT and streaming market, and more.
What big announcements did SES make at IBC 2018, and what was demonstrated at the stand? Was it a successful show, and what were some highlights for you?
This year, we focused on the picture quality we deliver and the video services we provide. For the first, we had a large screen set up with commercial live customer Ultra HD feeds, which are really powerful to see first-hand. For the second, our services, we had an area where customers could experience our MX1 360, the unified media platform from our subsidiary MX1. MX1 360 gives customers the power to manage and deliver linear and non-linear content to any broadcast, VOD, or OTT platform.
We also had a demo of MX1’s OU Flex product, which gives broadcasters the ability to distribute their live feeds with satellite while using the same connection to feed OTT platforms and use internet services. In fact, this product has since been improved upon. A new partnership between MX1 and Smart Media Labs announced at IBC meant that the new OU Flex can connect smartphones and mobile cameras at live events. This will give sports fans an even more immersive experience as it will allow them to watch close-ups of the action on their smartphone while sitting in a stadium.
Other announcements included how our customers QVC and Channel 4 in the UK continue to leverage our premium neighborhood of 28.2/28.5 degrees East for broadcasting service. Meanwhile, Caribbean viewers are benefiting from extended content offers: our customer Kiwisat upped their channels by 50% just six months into operations. The broader Latin American audiences will also be able to view Insight TV’s 4K offering of adventure and extreme-sports content, using the newly launched SES Latin American UHD platform.
We are seeing increased interest in 1080p HDR — either instead of 4K HDR or upconverting 1080p HDR to 4K — in the U.S. sports business. Have you seen this trend, and what is SES’s reaction to it?
We are definitely familiar with this trend and also see broadcasters discussing the use of 1080p HDR instead of 4K. This is based on the belief that the end consumer cannot actually recognize the difference between 1080p HDR and true 4K, but going down this path presents issues in two different areas.
The first is consumer confidence. When a person goes into a shop and invests in the latest 4K TV-screen technology, it necessarily follows that they want 4K content. The problem then comes when they discover that the content they are receiving is only in 1080p instead of 2160p. It is a bit like buying a powerful car and then finding out all the roads in your state have a speed limit of 55 mph.
The second is how it translates to content. For viewing the latest Hollywood blockbuster or serial drama, it might not actually make a huge difference: the cinematography for dramatic formats doesn’t necessarily push the technological envelope. Sports is a whole other matter. When a viewer sits down in front of their screen to watch a live game, the advantage that you can get from the 4K resolution is clear. When you are dealing with 2160p, the depth of field is dramatically different from that of 1080p, and, despite assumptions to the contrary, the consumer who buys a 4K screen can understand this.
Based on these two factors we always encourage sourcing native 4K content as much as possible, as well as broadcasting in 4K. To facilitate this in the U.S., we created a dedicated Ultra HD platform in 2015, which combines UHD content, satellite transmission, playout services, and reception equipment. The platform is now home to the world’s largest single bouquet of linear 4K UHD, and we have taken this approach and created the Latin American Ultra HD platform.
How do you see the 4K HDR transmission/contribution ecosystem evolving, and do you believe 2019 will be a big year for 4K HDR?
The ecosystem continues to evolve, and already the majority of our customers are using HLG [hybrid log gamma] technology as their preferred standard for broadcasting HDR. Yet, as screen technology advances, it is also becoming common for the TV screen itself to manage the variety of HDR-transmission technologies that still exist. This is minimizing compatibility issues and opening up the market for more and more broadcasters to use HDR.
As video-content production snowballs in 2019, it is logical to assume broadcasters that have already begun with 4K will now start adopting HDR. We expect this in particular for European pay-TV providers, who should see HDR as a new way to differentiate as 4K becomes mainstream. Our customer Travelxp launched the world’s first 4K Ultra HD channel in HDR in 2016, and their success has definitely paved the way for HDR. Having begun service on our North American Ultra HD platform, Travelxp 4K made its debut in Germany in 2017 with our subsidiary HD+.
SES is making a push to serve the rapidly growing OTT and streaming market. How do services like VOD Everywhere and OVP help accomplish this? How will these platforms serve the sports-streaming market in the coming years?
People all over the world are starting to demand individualized content that gives them control of what they watch. Providing this kind of service is complex, and difficult in some areas of the world. With MX1 360 and our Online Video Platform (OVP), we deliver powerful solutions to make it easier for our customers to enter the OTT and streaming market. MX1 360 is our unified media platform, bringing together a full range of media services, including content management and delivery to all linear and non-linear broadcast, VOD, or OTT platforms. To extend this further, OVP gives content owners, broadcasters, and telcos and/or MNOs [mobile-network operators] a simple tool that empowers them to offer dedicated online video platforms quickly.
In some situations, connectivity on the ground is not enough to deliver the high bandwidth that streaming requires, and we have another two solutions for that. Our VoD Everywhere offering allows our customers to use satellite to provide an instantaneous and rich video experience on-demand on any device. The second, OU Flex, enables broadcasting on location that combines linear distribution with internet connectivity for feeding OTT platforms and communication with the home studio. I have already talked about the extension that allows smartphones in the range of OU Flex to be connected as well, which is an exciting new capability for the sports industry. VoD Everywhere is also particularly interesting for the industry as it goes beyond other solutions with the addition of live event broadcasting with start-over functionality.
More and more satellite service providers are embracing hybrid IP/satellite solutions. How is SES looking to adopt this model, and do you see its having a future in the industry?
I think hybrid is key, and SES has adopted this approach already. Today, we offer a powerful package that augments the capabilities of SES Video with the end-to-end services of MX1. MX1 gives our customers the possibility to set up a hybrid distribution, whether the content is going to our significant DTH neighborhoods, major OTT platforms, or dedicated viewing portals.
In the end, our approach gives our customers the ability to offer enriched consumer experiences, and that is why we provide it. Feeding to OTT platforms allows our customers to deliver catch-up services to their consumers and also farm big data about viewing habits that can inform strategic planning. At the same time, satellite is a mainstay of distributing live content to large numbers. This way, they complement each other, and we are able to respond to the complete diversity of our customer’s needs.
Have you seen any demand yet for 8K transmission?
The growth in 8K, like 4K before it, is going to be driven by screen manufacturers. Companies like Sharp, Samsung, and LG are already selling 8K screens, and, just as with other technologies, 8K screens will become more and more accessible as the technology is adopted by the consumer. In particular, I see the trend to use TV screens to display art as a driving force for the first wave of 8K adoption. For widespread adoption of 8K broadcasting, we would really need a next-generation video codec that delivers 40%-50% more bandwidth efficiency than what we have right now. SES is already preparing for 8K, though, and we broadcasted our first demo of 8K from Astra 3B during our Industry Days event this past May.
Any other major trends you’re seeing in live sports production or M&E transmission?
High frame rate offers an exciting arena for growth, and the sports industry in particular should be pushing for it. HFR would bring a huge advantage to live coverage of athletic events as it would mean fewer motion artifacts and less blurring, giving the viewer an experience closer to real life. Now it is up to the production crews to use the right camera equipment and to the flat-screen manufacturers to develop and sell HFR-capable display devices. It will take a few years for HFR to take off, and, given the potential windfall of offering HFR live sports content, the industry should have a vested interest in pushing this technology ahead and also standardize it, which will then encourage consumers to invest in the necessary new screen technology.