At Show, Watching Gadgets For Now and Tomorrow

Related: B&C's CES Preview

With media companies struggling to keep up with rapidly changing consumer electronics trends and dramatic increases in the viewing of video on Internet-connected devices, the International Consumer Electronics Show has morphed into a must-attend event for top TV technologists and digital executives, who will be eyeing an ever-widening array of products on display January6- 9 in Las Vegas.

Some obvious areas of interest are new TVs, streaming media devices, 4K production technologies and developments in the mobile world. But the two dozen executives interviewed by B&C also say they’ll be paying close attention to some more obscure areas such as eye motion technologies for better understanding of how consumers view video and wearables, which probably won’t have much of an impact on their businesses for several years.

“The thing I’m most interested in looking for is the expansion of video on alternative devices, whether it’s phones, watches or what have you,” says Vito Forlenza, senior director of TV Everywhere content and product strategy at Comcast Cable. “So we’re always watching for new ways for people to consume video at home or on the go.”

Matthew Strauss, senior VP and GM of video services for Comcast Cable agrees. With the operator already offering some 75 channels for live streaming and 300,000 pieces of on-demand content on various platforms, he stresses that the lines between TVs and other devices are very much blurring. “You could say that a TV is now a piece of glass and any device that can securely renders TV,” he says. “When you approach it that way, a computer, a laptop, a mobile device, a tablet becomes a TV where we can deliver the full cable TV experience.”

As competition for online and mobile audiences heats up, new features on these connected devices are particularly important, others say. “We believe we have the most innovative shows on TV so we want to provide the most innovative experience of consuming that content,” says David Wertheimer, president of digital at Fox Broadcasting Co., which has seen more than 16 million downloads of its Fox Now app.

“The hardest part of deciding which platforms we have to say no,” he adds. “There are a lot of them that look amazing but the audience potential is pretty low. So you have to be strategic about it.”

In those device strategies, connected TVs are getting more attention. “We were an early partner of Google TV,” says Jimshade Chaudhari, Dish director of product management. “It seems like Android TV will be their next attempt and we’ll be looking closely at the Android TV platform.”

Others agree. “Google TV was a botched attempt by Google to get into the TV business but I think the latest version is really fascinating,” says Josh Cogswell senior VP of multiplatform product at Viacom, who says he’ll also be looking closely at streaming media devices and gaming consoles.

Future Stock

Widespread adoption of 4K by broadcasters and cable networks is probably years away, but Chaudhari says Dish will be closely monitoring UltraHD developments, particularly in declining set prices that might boost penetration.

A number of programmers say they’ll be looking at 4K production technologies. “We will be taking a close look at cameras and acquisition technologies,” particularly smaller 4K cameras, says John Honeycutt, chief technology officer at Discovery Communications, who says he will also be paying attention to technologies that simplify multiplatform distribution, big data tools, recommendation engines and software for tracking eye movements so they can better understand how users consume media.

Tools to improve recommendation engines and the user interface will be particularly important for the TV industry as it battles competition from over-the-top providers, says Matt Murphy, senior VP, digital video distribution at Disney and ESPN Media Networks.

Murphy notes that cable operators were the first to launch VOD in the late 1990s but failed to make the product appealing to consumers. “One could argue that the [multichannel video programming distributors] ceded the VOD market to Netflix who put in poster art and much better search and recommendation into their VOD to make it a very compelling experience,” he says.

“Today, the experience of the apps on Roku and Apple TV are also very compelling. It is imperative for the MVPDs that they continue to improve their offers so they are offering the same if not better experiences than the ones consumers are already getting on these over-the-top apps.”

Still More Mobile

Connected devices of all types will be a major focus for CBS, which has recently launched two new over-the-top products. “It seems like every year for the past seven has been the year of mobile,” quips Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and GM of entertainment, news and sports at CBS Interactive, who adds that devices are now “really ubiquitous.”

Beyond mobile, DeBevoise says the next big trend is in the area of streaming media devices, where prices have been falling and a number of new devices such as Amazon Fire have been launched. “You have a real battle for the living room,” he says.

“There has been a lot more competition there in the last 12 months,” says Julia Veale senior VP of business and product development and management for the Showtime Anytime offerings at Showtime. “I have a feeling that will continue until there are some winners and losers.”

These devices also open up some opportunities for improving search capabilities, says Dish’s Chaudhari. “Amazon Fire does a great job of integrating voice capabilities so that searching isn’t as difficult,” he says.

Executives will also be looking under the hood at a wide variety of technologies to help deliver more content over IP networks.

To help streamline the process of delivering this content, a number of tech firms, operators and programmers, including Comcast, Charter and the Fox Networks Group launched the Streaming Video Alliance in November, say Chris Knowlton, VP of Wowza Media Systems, which is a founding member of the group.

As much as possible, the group would like to make the processes for delivering content to multiple platforms much more efficient and standardized. “If traffic doubles or triples over the next five years as many are predicting, the infrastructure needs to be optimized to handle that,” Knowlton says.

In addition to watching developments in 4K and connected TVs, GW Shaw, VP of U-verse and video product marketing at AT&T will be closely monitoring wearables, the connected home and the Internet of Things.

This reflects a growing interest by multichannel and broadband operators in rolling out home security services. “I think the connected home has so many legs to it in the future,” Shaw says.

Wertheimer at Fox agrees. “Tying all of these devices together—TV, mobile, smart watches—gets really interesting for second-screen, interactivity and how you promote a show,” he says, adding that they will also be taking a close look at virtual reality, where they have already done some experiments with Oculus Rift.

Better measurement and ad solutions have also become a top priority for operators and programmers, says Ashley Still, senior director of product management, Adobe Primetime. Adobe recently agreed to work with Nielsen to improve cross-platform measurement.

Jane Clarke, managing director of the industry group Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (CIMM) notes that many of the newer connected devices also offer ways to improve measurement. Many consumers don’t yet use the new wearable devices, such as smart watches, but if they become more popular, they could be equipped with apps and sensors to monitor a person’s exposure to various media.

“There are already a number of companies doing passive measurement,” Clarke says. Symphony Advanced Media, for example, has installed apps on smartphones that use automatic content recognition technology to detect the media a person is viewing, both inside and outside the home.

Wearables also offer opportunities to monitor a person’s psychological response to media via heart rates and other methods. “It’s kind of down the road, but there are a lot of advertisers and media companies that think it would be possible to measure engagement that way,” she says.

More immediately, connected televisions are beginning to provide a large footprint for targeted advertising and measurement and there is a large amount of work being done on big data systems that might combine the numbers from these various connected devices to track a user from the time they viewed an ad, to their purchasing of a product.

These efforts will require much more work, she stresses, in part because the data from the devices need to be conformed to a nationally representative sample. But some connected TV advertising platforms “are already able to provide instantaneous, real-time ratings for 2 million people and they say they will be able to cover 10 million in 2015,” she says.

CES Tech That Has Got the Look

TV executives interviewed for this article say they’ll be closely watching these key technologies:

Ad tech. Executives will be closely watching developments in programmatic ad systems, dynamic ad insertion, big data and a number of other advertising technologies as they work to boost digital revenue.

Connected and 4K TVs. Higher resolution sets and TVs with Internet connections offer ways to reinvent the TV experience.

IP all the time. Cloud services and encoding, compression systems, IP-based infrastructure, content management and a number of other technologies will be on display to streamline the process of delivering massive amounts of content over the Internet.

More Mobile. New developments in processing speed, screen sizes, mobile hubs and user interfaces make this area top-of-mind for virtually everyone; app developers are also watching the impact of larger smart screens and cheaper, smaller tablets on the devices landscape.

Over-the-top services. CES typically brings some news about the launch of new over-the-top services and this year’s could include additional details about previously announced offerings from Sony and Dish.

Wearables to Watch. How this category, which will be one of the hottest topics at CES, will impact the TV industry isn’t clear but early applications could be programming alerts on smart watches and tie-ins to lifestyle fare, sports programming and home security systems.