The changing landscape of television was on full display this week as industry leaders gathered in Las Vegas for the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show. While a parade of top executives steadfastly maintained that over-the-air broadcast television is alive and well, they also sounded warnings that the tides of technological change, especially in the area of virtual reality, may soon overwhelm them.
“We can feel the competition gathering around us,” said Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of ABC Television, during his keynote address to NAB attendees on Monday. “This is a time for urgent, smart action.”
As if to lead his industry by example, Sherwood chose the occasion to announce ABC Clearinghouse, a “turnkey opportunity” for ABC stations to distribute their live feeds and local video via on-demand digital channels. It has been reported over recent months that the Disney executive was frustrated by how slowly ABC affiliated stations across the country were moving into new digital channels for their content. Sherwood’s clearinghouse is a way to speed up the process and make digital migration easier.
Less than an hour after delivering his remarks, Sherwood could have walked about a hundred yards away and seen a prime example of the new competitive world he and his fellow broadcast TV executives are facing. Neal Mohan, who became YouTube’s chief product officer five months ago after leading Google’s display advertising division, announced several key new initiatives for the video on-demand giant before a packed house at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Mohan’s Monday news included an announcement that YouTube would become the first major platform to offer live 360 degree video, with plans to roll-out the new service at the Coachella Music Festival this coming weekend. Both YouTube and Facebook have been active players in 360 degree video streaming, a technology of significant importance because it is the key ingredient for virtual reality or immersive multimedia content.
“Live streaming in virtual reality is a game changer for my industry,” said Niko Chauls, director of applied technologies for USA Today, during a discussion on virtual reality earlier this morning.
Mohan also announced that YouTube would be introducing spatial audio, which will allow viewers of 360 degree video to hear sound from the direction where it originates. “It will make you feel like you’re in that front row seat for a Beyoncé concert,” said Mohan.
Sherwood’s prodding of his stations and Mohan’s live streaming video news are the background music for what has become the biggest story at the NAB Show this week: virtual reality is coming to the TV industry like a freight train.
Starting with a panel discussion by filmmakers offered by The Foundry (a creative software developer) on Sunday evening and continuing with conference sessions throughout the week, NAB Show attendees had the opportunity to see recently produced virtual reality examples. Rooms were packed and the lines were long to test out virtual reality content at various venues in Las Vegas this week, including a crowded virtual and augmented reality pavilion in one of the conference halls.
“Immersive entertainment is going to be real this time,” said Rob Bredow, the chief technology officer for Lucasfilm.
The legendary “Star Wars” film production company recently launched its own virtual reality-branded content called “Trials on Tatooine” where users don an HTC Vive headset and explore the surface of a planet. “Now we have the technological ability to strap a theme park to our face,” commented Ted Schilowitz, the futurist for 20th Century Fox.
As if to underscore the immersive technology’s gathering momentum, Mohan revealed on Monday that YouTube has seen virtual reality playback and watch time grow 400 percent “just in the last month.” So, it comes as no surprise that companies like YouTube and Lucasfilm are diving into the virtual reality pool as fast as they can.
Some television executives see potential in virtual reality for news and documentaries as well. Ryot has been collaborating with the Associated Press and a number of news broadcast groups to shoot and distribute documentaries in virtual reality, covering everything from earthquakes in Nepal to the Brussels terror attacks.
And there is an even more groundbreaking technology looming on the horizon that could really transform how we broadcast the world around us. South Korea has just granted a patent to Samsung for contact lenses with a built-in camera and sensors that are fully controlled by blinking.
An inescapable reality for television executives today is that technology is transforming their industry, whether they like it or not. Even Disney’s Sherwood, who chose the occasion on Monday to aggressively defend the power of broadcast TV, also acknowledged that more content is uploaded to YouTube in a 60 day period than was transmitted in the first 60 years of television programming.
“We need to make great stuff,” said Sherwood. Now he just needs the rest of the broadcast industry, including his own stations, to come along for the ride.