EBU (European Broadcasting Union). A past and future commitment based in technology
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is an international organization of public service corporations grouped within the broadcasting sector. It was founded more than 70 years ago with the aim of improving the radio and television service through partnership. This association was based on three pillars: technological assistance through collaboration, the exchange of content and the defense of its own interests. In addition, EBU operates two of the world’s largest content and information exchange networks: Eurovision and Euroradio.
Broadcasting media have been built on technology and, even today, the EBU remains at the forefront of technological innovation. From the very beginning, the corporation was involved in the research and development of color television or was involved in the way in which Hertzian waves were used for television broadcasting. Even during the 80’s it developed together with the SMPTE the technical standardization of digital television through the standard called “ITU Recommendation 601”. These are just samples of the history of technological development that the EBU promoted. In TM Broadcast International, we called Switzerland to talk with Hans Hoffmann, Hans Hoffmann, Head of Media Fundamentals and Production, EBU Technology & Innovation, about the future plans of EBU regarding media technology.
What is the role of EBU in the transformation and evolution of European Televisions?
EBU is an association of public service media. And its focusing area is not only Europe, but beyond this continent. This means that you will find within its organization almost all European public service media operators plus our associates around the globe. We have associates such as NHK in Japan, KBS in South-Korea, as well as CBC/Radio Canada and more in the US and Australia. We can say that EBU is a globally operating organization whilst the footprint is, of course, Europe predominantly.
The role of this organization is serving the interest of their members. As regards technical activities, Technology & Innovation Department represents public medias’ interest and positions in emerging media technologies. This means that we communicate the user requirements of our members, consolidate the user requirements into clear messages toward standardization or consolidate new technologies, whether this is in production, or in distribution.
Also, we engage with the consumer technology industry around how our media content is actually consumed and presented. In addition, there is another area where we are highly active. The EBU engages with international regulators to ensure that the requirements of EBU members are also reflected in the forthcoming regulations. For instance, the WRC-23 is an event where the topics of spectrum frequencies will be discussed in various forms.
I have not yet described all the legal activities we run, the activities in co-productions of our Media department or what the other arm of the EBU, Eurovision Services, is doing, but I think this would too broad for our interview. [Laughs]
Of course, that will be too much for this interview. Regarding technology, what are the transformation challenges for European broadcasters in the coming years?
The digital transformation challenge is expressed by the word “digital” on its own. Public service media operators must be able or have to develop the capabilities to serve the audiences with digital products. When we talk about digital products, we are speaking about everything that is not linear television or linear radio. We are focusing on digital representation. This represents content via applications on any of the devices that already exist, and the devices to come.
We certainly know that the smartphone is the device where much of the media is consumed. This knowledge has implications for an organization like EBU.
There are challenges are in the workflows that creation process has itself, but also in what type of distribution mechanisms we are going to use. Additionally, there are also challenges in terms of how the data is used in order to present the content to the consumer, recommendation engines, indeed.
That is one transformation process that many members have been and are undertaking. This process is not only about technology, but technology is an important factor in production processes: the move to cloud, the move to IP based productions, etc. More IT and software skills will be required, but also that creative staff, whether they are journalists or just another creative; have to be equipped with the necessary skills to manage the new digital formats.
The digital transformation involves workflows, media processes, distribution, recommendation engines, etc. Could you give some extra information about this transformation across the EBU members? How are they making this transformation and at what stage are they?
As we said, the EBU represents a plethora of different broadcast organizations. The big ones, of course, will have sufficient innovation capacity to be leading the game. Then we have other EBU members who follow developments from a more distant position and will adopt technical specifications or transformation initiatives when they are ready.
Let’s concentrate a little bit on the leading broadcasters. What we are seeing is, first of all, media creation process related, that there is a move towards the use of IP-based infrastructures. In order to defend and have a sustainable investment policy, standardized interfaces and infrastructures are necessary. The SMPTE ST 2110 specification is very important in this context, because it safeguards the investment in live IP infrastructures and the interoperability of systems from different manufacturers.
But standardization over IP infrastructures is just a first step. The crisis around COVID has shown that remote production and the use of the cloud is a very important evolution on media creation. Immediately, you can edit and prepare this content through remote workforces. And these workforces can come from the homes of your employees or from the collaboration between different broadcasters. Everything is changing, the workflows that are needed to create and distribute content are very different from those that were in use previously.
What is the status of the transition from HD to UHD among EBU members?
We have seen a number of significant changes. The most important is that the audience is put into the center of all considerations. Whether it is a sound experience, a visual experience or a content personalization experience, we need to satisfy the demands of the audiences.
You have mentioned UHDTV and this is an immersive media experience that normally requires a large screen, so it’s more for the family enjoyment. But we should not forget that also a modern smartphone or a tablet can give you an immersive experience. UHDTV is not only resolution, but also higher dynamic range (HDR) and wider color gamut (WCG). According to our observations, this is now widely accepted by the industry and it provides much higher impact of experience than only focusing on resolution. HDR in particular is a very important topic. We are currently developing clear recommendations for European broadcasters about producing, exchanging between broadcasters and distributing with UHDTV and HDR.
What are the main advantages for a broadcaster of going over IP and how are they related to immersive media?
The reason to change to IP is additional flexibility. You can produce in conventional HDTV. But you can produce HDR content on that same infrastructure and when you decide to produce UHDTV, you can scale to the required capacity without having to replace the whole thing. Broadcasters gain scalability, flexibility, higher efficiency, multi-format capabilities, from moving to an IP-based production system. Or, even, to a cloud-based production system. We have several EBU members who are already transitioned some of their facilities to IP-based production systems. There is the BBC in Cardiff or our associate member CBC/Radio-Canada, whojust we on air with their new building in Montreal.
Will an IP-based system transform into a cloud-based system?
I think we will see a hybrid scenario. For some applications you will need to have very hardcore IP-based production infrastructures. For other, we already see that members are using the cloud. The use of one technology or another will depend on the specific application. Also, there will be a wide number of private clouds, not just the public one. There are many considerations which ask for private cloud, including media cybersecurity, which is an important topic at the moment for discussion.
In the old SDI world or HDSDI world, where there was no IP infrastructure, the attack surface was very limited, but today, when we move to IP, when we connect to the public internet, there is a high risk for attacks and members are very concerned.
How is EBU involved in solving these security problems?
We have a dedicated group, which is called the Media Cybersecurity Group. The group joins all the chief security officers of our EBU members in a confidential conversation and we have created a community. There they share their experiences and they develop strategies, and also, develop recommendations, which are partly technical.
Security testing systems before you install them in your facility, for example, an awareness and management of all ports, APIs and other potential attack vectors, so that not anybody can actually hijack your equipment. Operational recommendations related, I can give you the simplest example, – don’t write your password behind the screen of your PC. [Laughs]
This is old fashioned, but it happens really often. Many failures are human and not so much technological. But the broad objective of EBU is to provide guidance.
Another very important element is the European activities around cloud and security. The EBU has recently joined the consortium called Gaia-X. It is a European-led consortium that seeks to develop a common response to community members for the use of secure and trusted cloud services. We are the first media association in this big consortium, and EBU is going to play the role of providing the requirements of media organizations. I think it is a very important milestone for Europe that echoes our demands and feelings.
How will 5G communications affect broadcasting? What are the biggest challenges that European broadcasters will face?
From the EBU point of view you can find a lot of activities related with 5G communications. We have started to separate these activities. One is related to the consumer space, business to consumer, a broadcast mode in 5G; and the other one is the application of 5G in production environments, business-to-business.
Also, EBU is hosting the 5G-MAG association. There, we try to get industry and users together. On the other hand, we are running a number of EU projects, for example, we have been participating in an EU project called 5G-Xcast, and lately, we are participating in a project called 5G-Records. This last one looks after the professional applications of 5G, business-to-business, in order to find a replacement for current production methods in 5G technologies.
Do you think our production facilities, systems and infrastructures, are they absolutely going to change with 5G, or will they be hybrid?
Yes, I think it will. The world is a hybrid world. You never have a broadcast organization, which is only 5G-based, that’s impossible. Also, from the business point of view, that makes no sense. But in contribution applications or certain event production applications it can make sense. When you go out to an outdoor event, for example, you produce in a stadium, the application of 5G makes a lot of sense, because you save costs with this new infrastructure, you add flexibility and you can offer new forms of content to the audience.
This infrastructure will be driven by putting the audience at the center of interest, plus, in this way, multiple business opportunities will be generated.
How does the EBU transform the distribution among its members?
I think what we are going to see is that we are going to still have a strong usage of linear broadcasts, of course, in the European media space. As we all understand, the move to OTT is inevitable, and the move to using player-based recommender systems to deliver content on any end device to users is coming. So distribution is going to change, again, towards a hybrid environment, in which, on the one hand, there is a strong use in those countries that need terrestrial or satellite services, but there will also be a predominant use of OTT. You will see a predominant use also of hybrid environments, such as DVB-I and HbbTV, which is already there. I think this is not to be stopped, is rather to be reinforced.
Our EBU members are already deploying these types of IP services in terms of large-scale distribution. If we look at different countries, we find different formats. Some see their evolution towards an IP-only world, others towards a hybrid world. In both cases you find linear or non-linear channels together. I think this is definitely the root. We will also see the incorporation of 5G into this model, but, for a long time, we will have terrestrial services available.
How involved is artificial intelligence in data processing, and how is EU taking that into account?
The use of audience data as well as other data only makes sense if you can process, analyze, and draw the right conclusions out of the data. For this purpose, the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence is important. We have actually several activities and programs running in this context. One of them is called the AI and Data Initiative (AIDI).
Also, we develop machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence tools. But one of the most important topics is to understand, on the one hand, what these tools recommend and, on the other hand, what they actually calculate when they receive the data.
You have to understand the algorithm and how it is designed. You don’t necessarily have to understand the algorithm itself, but you should at least have a broad understanding of the tools. That is why, later at the newsroom, these tools will be used to help fake news detection, for instance. In addition, these tools are used to provide recommendations such as, for example, through our PEACH system, or “A European Perspective”, a translingual news service launched by EBU and our members.
These tools are also used in much tougher functionalities, for example, in automation, in detecting whether networks are at the limit of their performance or whether there is a problem that you haven’t seen and is coming. We see a wide variety of applications of AI and machine learning tools, both on the creative side and in deciding hardware infrastructures.
We have another project which is called EuroVOX. This is also a toolset designed to provide real-time translation between languages. One of the main objectives when our Director of Technology & Innovation, Antonio Arcidiacono, came was to overcome the language barriers in Europe. How can you do that?
You can use these cloud provider tools on text, which is very suitable for subtitling, or which is good for news and text translations. Then you can even go further and say translate spoken languages. This is a useful purpose for European audiences, and we can get to develop it through some of the tools that we are providing.
One last short question, how the EBU is developing this whole guidance across media technical infrastructure?
We have several labs in the EBU. We have also digital living room. We have an IP lab, where we study the IP production and cloud-based operations. We are now doing in T&I, much more practical, applied research tasks together with universities. I am very happy that T&I department and Antonio Arcidiacono actually took this move. Now we have a high commitment to universities and research labs. So we really are building communities and bringing together science and the art of making better media.