The Future of TV

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Is broadcast television dying? Are we all turning into online binge-watchers? Will viewer data soon decide which shows are and aren’t made? Is 4K about to blow our minds? What about sport? Stuff has the answers to at least some of these questions

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THE HOUSE OF CARDS REMAKE HAS BEEN A HUGE HIT FOR NETFLIX

[section label=”Legal or not, it’s changing SA TV”]

Legal or not, it’s changing SA TV

Say goodbye to channels, schedules, 720p and ratings flops. Netflix is leading the way towards a new television utopia…

“Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please,” read the tweet. Any number of the Emmy-winning show’s fans could have tapped out those 40 characters and hit send, but those words came from Barack Obama – a man who could probably send you to Guantanamo Bay for ruining his favourite TV show before he’s had a chance to fire up the White House iPad. 

There are two things that have made it possible for us to spoil a TV show for the world’s most powerful man: social media and Netflix. Like it or not, the internet has fundamentally changed the way we watch TV – and not even Obama can stop it.

Understandably, Netflix likes it very much. Since it launched its streaming service in 2007, it’s become the byword for online TV. With over 40 million subscribers ‘tuning in’ to its on-demand content across the world, it got the planet addicted to Breaking Bad and brought Arrested Development back from the dead. 

Thanks to making whole series available to watch in one go, it’s even given us a new hobby: binge watching. When series two of House Of Cards went live on Valentine’s Day, the average fan watched a whole five episodes in the first 48 hours. A very dedicated 1% of European Netflix subscribers even watched all 13 episodes before going back to work on Monday morning – although there’s not much chance they had many people to discuss it with around the water-cooler. It’s the kind of behaviour that’s just not possible with traditional broadcast TV.

Debatably, SA is essentially too small to support multiple broadcasters or at the least the infrastructure has been unable to keep any of the new kids on the actual block. It’s a good thing when one provider offers the cream of all the international networks on one platform not to mention sports coverage that’s untouchable globally, but it’s not so good for a whole bunch of other reasons. Bundles are how providers make money and  we currently pay a hefty fee for broadcasts we don’t utilise.

Unlike regular broadcasters, Netflix is actually a hybridized rental service first and is rapidly evolving into something more significant as a broadcaster. As it stands, movies usually spend time in the cinema, followed by a rental stint and then on to the dumping ground of TV. Netflix tends to offer more dated TV-stage movies as well as  ‘box sets’ of series, all in one place for about R100. DSTV is conversely trying to offer premium stuff at a premium price via BoxOffice – something that smarts in the face of a R700 plus rental.   

The general consensus amongst the angry mob is that Broadcasters are getting rightly shafted because they are forced to license content from providers only to be undercut by Netflix. This is not really the case, especially in SA. 

Netflix isn’t miraculously allowed to broadcast content that old-school broadcasters have licensed. This setup is applied globally including the US and somehow, like the iPad, Netflix falls into a bracket that has never been serviced before. 

The best-kept secret about Netflix is that it’s not actually
a direct competitor with broadcasters like DSTV, at least not where most of the brass tacks is bandied. Netflix tends to carry missed shows, made available in advance of a new series to allow people to get up to speed. Data shows more people are tuning into new seasons of a show on the local broadcaster once they have caught up on Netflix. 

There are more caveats to the symbiosis, things like sports, reality TV and a host of other genres are non existent on Netflix while exclusive shows like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black air first on Netflix. 

Online TV isn’t just about content and consumption– it’s leading the way in TV tech, too. When the latest 4K TVs from Sony, Samsung and LG hit the shops, one of the only ways to make the most of their extra pixels will be with a new Netflix app. To begin with, 4K shows will be limited to House Of Cards, Breaking Bad and the kind of nature documentaries that are practically made for showing off how great your pixels look, Of course, where new tech exists, SA is often far behind and while the mob is toting pitchforks at 720p from DSTV, they likely wont even get that on Netflix with the state of local internet.

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4K streaming doesn’t seem possible in an age of YouTube buffering – but thanks to the H.265 codec, Netflix is able to stream 4K video at bitrates comparable to current HD streaming. And it really is Ultra HD video, delivered at 3840×2160 resolution. Netflix’s trailer for House Of Cards season two – its showcase for the 4K format – looked pin-sharp: you could see everything from individual hairs to the fibres of Kevin Spacey’s sharp suit. A demo reel of digital 4K footage looked equally stunning, with fine gradations in desert rock faces clearly visible even with my face pressed up to the screen. The demo was certainly impressive, though it’s worth noting that Netflix’s TV and HEVC decoder were connected to the internet via an Ethernet cable, highlighting the fact that, even with H.265, bitrates for 4K streaming will be high.

With the BBC pushing some channels to purely online as of 2015, is this a sign that the world is moving away from aerials and satellites and replacing them with broadband connections? Until
we get reasonable bandwidth locally it’s not likely and while everyone loves to slag the monopoly they have pushed very hard to improve local bandwidth for exactly this purpose.

Satellites are rather expensive to rent pipe on and if SuperSport is anything to judge by, DSTV would make a stellar online broadcaster, albeit a costly one. Hopefully when this great day dawns and we do finally come into all of this fibre tearing up the suburbs, SA will leapfrog the set top cable/internet epoch of the US and Europe to jump straight to online.  Just don’t expect it anytime soon. In the meantime, while DSTV works to put its on demand content at the fore, Netflix is working with TV manufacturers so that its own apps are treated the same as standard TV channels. Traditionally, games consoles have been the number-one way of watching Netflix on a TV, but the biggest growth now is in smart TVs. We want to make ‘internet channels’ equal to broadcast channels so they fit in seamlessly rather than having to go through a separate hidden menu.” Imagine that, the TV options on our consoles actually being used. 

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If you’re a satellite TV subscriber with a data plan, you can keep the highlights of the game or the full event in your pocket by linking your DStv account to a mobile device. The result is the ability to stream a TV signal through a 3G capable mobile device – restricted to MTN and Vodacom for the moment – and if you’re as creative as the Stuff team generally is, you could stream that stream through an AppleTV or a similar piece of hardware to give you a full-screen experience. Or, you know, watch on the go, as was originally intended. There are still some bugs to be worked out but it worked well enough for us to watch a full South African cricket clash using the aforementioned setup.

And it’s not just TVs that Netflix wants to integrate with. For the most dedicated of addicts, wearable fitness-tracking tech might be about as exciting as an empty fridge, but at a recent hack day a group of Netflix engineers came up with a more sedentary use for Fitbit’s activity-monitoring wristwear. Synched with your Netflix account, it can tell whatever device you’re watching on when you’ve fallen asleep, fading down the audio and pausing the video. At the nodding-off point it’ll insert a bookmark, so the next time you fire up Netflix you can resume from the same moment. 

[section label=”Hack to the future”]Hack to the future

Evers is keen to point out that the hack day was about giving teams the opportunity to have fun and experiment in areas they don’t normally work in, but that doesn’t mean these concepts will never see the light of day: “It’s too early to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw some of the concepts in products at some point.”

[section label=”I want in”]I want in. What do I do? 

As of right now bypassing the regional restrictions is a legal grey area and while you are paying for your content and are karmicaly cool, the law might not feel the same way. 

While Wired magazine advocate the term ‘piracy as a form of protest’ we exist to explain how new consumer technology works. There is no debating that DSTV has a killer bundle that would be hard to match anywhere else in the world. There is also no debating that you shouldn’t have to pay for bits of the bundle that you don’t want. You may have to wait a few days for Game of Thrones, you might be able to torrent faster and you might feel that you are being ripped off and entitled to better. What you shouldn’t feel is that Netflix is a substitute for DSTV unless you are content to spend your consumption on content that’s 99% 2013’s or older and don’t care about anything outside of movies and series. 

The reality is that even if we don’t smell legit Netflix here for the next decade, its impact is already being felt hard around the world. TV networks are not famous for being magnanimous or partial to adapting unless threatened. If the networks are being bruised into new distribution models you can be sure the benefits will flow down the line. 

As big as our local satellite provider is to us, they are probably the little guys in the boardroom when package negotiations take place. While you shouldn’t expect any company to choose customers over shareholders, DSTV would most likely benefit greatly from offering its services online rather than over the orbiting money vampires it’s forced to operate through.  

And if it doesn’t, you never liked your DNS in any case.

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