As part of Techonomy’s partnership with media company Turner, we are publishing a series of interviews with Turner executives. Turner, a Time Warner company, is a global entertainment, sports and news company. Among its brands: Adult Swim, Bleacher Report, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, ELEAGUE, FilmStruck, Great Big Story, HLN, iStreamPlanet, Super Deluxe, TBS, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), TNT, truTV and Turner Sports.
Bob Hesskamp is Turner’s Head of Global Broadcast Technology, responsible for building the entire broadcast infrastructure, including the transition to fully digital standards, known as Internet Protocol (IP).
This interview was lightly edited by Techonomy.
Q: In the media industry, we’re seeing a shift in technology. Broadcasters are now experimenting with switching from video to IP to deliver content to their audiences. What’s the real value of using IP and why should people care?
A: One thing broadcasters have to look at as an overriding principle is the ability to be as flexible in our production and distribution of content as our consumers are in the way they’re consuming it. Whether it’s over-the-top-digital, the traditional linear networks, whatever it might be, the way people are getting content is changing dramatically right now.
People don’t realize this, but adding or changing the requirements in a broadcast feed is a lot of work. For example, when we created a new feed for Japan, even if it has the same basic content as one of our U.S. feeds, we need to replace the commercials and other components in the signal.
What IP gives us is the scale and flexibility of the IT industry for broadcast. We can use software to dynamically define our infrastructure and determine how we deliver and produce.
IP also provides great scale. So, in our live production facilities we can use software to define the infrastructure of our control rooms, studio and edit facilities to increase our capabilities. Essentially, you can pool resources for major productions or create small pods of resources for multiple small productions.
More specifically for the viewer, if the future of our industry is more personalized and being able to get more relevant content, IP is the way forward.
Q: What does that mean for people who have always worked in traditional broadcasting?
A: They’re not going to be left behind by this transition. Traditional video production is not going away. We’re just going to do it in a different way. All the skills people have around creating production systems and transcoding and compression video for delivery are still extremely valuable. We are actively training our staff on networking and IP principles. Their current expertise will be expanded and applied in new ways across our IP infrastructure.
Q: Broadcasters have been experimenting with the transition to IP for some time now, so what is taking so long for the industry as a whole?
A: The industry was slow to transition to IP because it’s quite complex, and it also took a while to agree on a common set of standards that allow interoperability across vendors. Plus, it requires building a new backend infrastructure (while you’re still keeping the old one up and running).
For Turner, the first phase of IP was upgrading and connecting our Atlanta facilities so that any signal coming in or out of any of our Atlanta locations is available everywhere. Our goal is to eventually extend this to all of our facilities globally. Essentially, this extends our production and distribution environment to anywhere you want to be as long as you can manage the bandwidth between facilities.
Q: What are some other trends in broadcast technology that we should keep an eye out for over the next year?
A: Obviously, everybody is talking about 4K, but it’s expensive and eats up a lot of infrastructure. [4K, or Ultra HD as it’s also known, has enough pixels to fill four Full HD 1080p screens. With four times the pixels it can display four times the level of detail.] Most people can’t really tell the difference between a good 1080p or 1080i signal and 4K, because it’s just more pixels, and studies have found that the human eye cannot perceive the difference unless the TV is very large or you are really close.
However, we believe consumers are going to want HDR [High Dynamic Range]. It is more realistic, has more color depth, and shows well on any screen from your mobile device to your TV. It really makes the image on your television much more lifelike.
Q: What are the key challenges around the broadcast infrastructure that you think the industry will face in 2018?
A: I think it’s going to be opening our minds to think about production and distribution in different ways, so that we can truly leverage our software-defined infrastructure. How do we move more of these workflows into the cloud so that we can scale rapidly? How is our gathering and use of consumer data impacted? Ultimately, it’s about giving fans the experiences they expect. Of course, that’s always a challenge, but it’s one that we embrace and are focused on every single day.
Q: What is the part of broadcast tech that ordinary media consumers least understand?
A: I think people are often confused about what they need when it comes to screen resolution. People saw the big jump between standard definition and high definition, which was a giant change in the aspect ratio. The difference between high definition and 4K isn’t as noticeable to the human eye, but for those who want a more immersive experience on a big screen, it’s something to consider. What’s going to make the biggest difference in the long term is HDR, which will deliver a pop.
I would also say the other thing consumers don’t understand as much is the complexity of sports and news production and how sophisticated the technology is on the backend that brings them the best experiences. And, it’s getting more complex as we move from traditional broadcast to more devices and now to more IP-connected devices. We have a lot of smart people across the industry, including those at Turner, working on this to give consumers beyond what they ever imagined. You can start to see it already in some of the work we are doing with NBA broadcasts.
Bob Hesskamp is head of Global Broadcast Technology at Turner.