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CES: Technology BroadcastersNeed to See

While the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas later this week always produces some highly hyped new gadgets, much of the big news at CES this year for broadcasters is likely to revolve around a new look at technologies that have been around for some time. Tablets, mobile devices, connected TVs—and to a lesser extent, 3D—are expected to top the list of billboard items TV executives need to be following.

New Ways to Watch TV Programming

“One of the biggest things that the broadcast community should be watching this year at CES is streaming video of all kinds, but especially professionally streaming television and movie content,” notes Brian Cooley, CNET editor at large. “Streaming is nothing new, but it has really taken off in the last six months, and this will be the first CES where streaming TV has arguably been front-and-center more than anything else that’s happening.”

And that streaming video is being enabled by a slew of new devices— TVs, Blu-ray players, game consoles, tablets, smartphones—that are connected to the Internet. Like streaming video, this is nothing new: Game consoles, TVs and Blu-ray players with Internet connectivity have been on the market for a while. But it’s the scale at which these devices are " ooding the market that’s especially notable.

Paul Gagnon, director of North America TV Market Research at DisplaySearch, estimates that connected TV accounted for perhaps 10% of the TV sets sold in North America in 2010, but they could account for a quarter or a third of all sets sold in 2011.

Many of these should also be easier to connect. Stephen Palm, technical director for Broadcom’s Broadband Communications Group, notes that manufacturers have made great advances in using a variety of tools— wireless, Ethernet and even powerline technologies—to connect more devices. “Making it easier for users to connect all these devices without a lot of fuss and muss will be a big thing for 2011,” Palm says.

But business breakthroughs will probably be more important than technological advances. “The interesting thing for CES this year will be which content provider they have lined up for their TV and devices—who’s playing ball and who’s not,” Cooley adds. “Right now, the major networks are staying off Google TV. Will they be able to negotiate something and announce it at CES?”

Probably not. Google TV has had to delay some TV launches planned for CES, and programmers remain hesitant to give the search giant a toehold in the lucrative TV business.

But there is little doubt that these connected devices could also have a major impact, altering the way broadcasters brand themselves, promote their programming and peddle ads to sponsors.

With operators such as Comcast offering hundreds of channels, 30,000 VOD titles, and more than 150,000 titles online to subscribers, finding content has become a huge problem. “We’re a company that builds TV grid guides,” notes Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist at Rovi, which produces guides that are available in 113 million homes. “But we really believe the grid has become less effective and you have to start thinking of something that looks more like portals.”

To overcome that problem, operators are increasingly looking to use iPads or other connected devices in the home to help viewers find content and interact with it. Comcast, for example, has already deployed an iPad app that allows subscribers to use the tablet as a sophisticated TV remote control to change channels, program DVRs and search for content. In late December, Comcast launched similar tools for laptops, notes Matt Strauss, senior VP and general manager for Comcast Interactive Media.

But this is only the first step in a much more sophisticated use of tablets and smartphones by operators to provide interactivity, discovery tools and even interactive advertising. “We are just in the early stages of this, but it opens up a whole new way to interact with the TV,” Strauss says.

This is important for broadcasters because the use of tablets, smartphones and other devices by operators to help their subscribers find and interact with content would also make it easier for broadcasters to develop interactive apps around their programs and develop sponsored applications that might serve up interactive ads during programs.

“In 2011, you will see networks increasingly come up with apps to take advantage of this,” explains Bullwinkle. “Eventually, you will have cable boxes talking in real time to iPads and other devices. It will make the iPad and these other tablets amazing devices for interacting with entertainment and ads.”

Mobile DTV Is on the Move

“A lot of people are saying that CES will be a mobile trade show,” says Louis Gump, VP of mobile at CNN. “That isn’t true, because there will be all sorts of things. But mobile will be a big topic this year, and a key part of that is the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets.”

Research firm Gartner is predicting that worldwide tablet sales will hit 54.7 million units in 2011 and grow to 154.2 million units by 2012, while iSuppli predicts worldwide shipments of smartphones will break the 300 million unit barrier in 2011 for the first time.

Until now, few of those devices could get mobile digital television signals from the 70 stations that are currently on the air. But CES 2011 will be key for broadcasters planning to launch mobile DTV signals later this year. The main associations promoting mobile DTV—the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the Mobile Content Venture and the Mobile500—will all be exhibiting, with OMVC setting up shop behind the Panasonic booth.

Once again there will also be a Mobile DTV TechZone, where consumer electronics manufacturers will be highlighting their mobile DTVcapable devices. The offerings will include converters that allow existing iPhones, iPads and other existing devices to receive signals, along with new devices that have built-in receivers.

Anne Schelle, OMVC executive director, notes CE manufacturers seem encouraged by broadcasters’ plans to roll out the services to around 40% of the country in 2011. She notes that there will be more than two dozen mobile DTVenabled devices on display at CES, up from around a dozen last year. These devices will include PC platforms equipped with mobile DTV receivers, smartphones, car entertainment systems, converters, tablets and other gear.

“With the advent of the iPad and a new influx of tablets coming into the market, having a device with mobile DTV capability is a great differentiator,” Schelle says.

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