HbbTV: A decade driving the digital TV transformation

Opening pic of HbbTV report

In June 2010, the first version of HbbTV 1.0 was published. That’s was only the beginning. Since then, more and more European broadcasters have decided to join the evolution of digital television, defining and promoting new standard specifications for hybrid broadband TV transmission. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the HbbTV’s first release, TM Broadcast speaks with Vincent Grivet, Chairman of the HbbTV Association.

How was HbbTV born?

The idea of HbbTV was born around 12 years ago when, in an independent manner, both German broadcasters around IRT and French TV players around France Télévisions, TDF and TF1 started working on an open specification which could help broadcasters to take advantage of the new possibilities offered by the hybrid or dual connectivity of the new connected TV sets. This was to be based on web standards, HTML and JavaScript, unlike the earlier DVB MHP that was based on Java. Then they realised that they had similar interests and thoughts and combined their efforts, and eventually the HbbTV Association was formed to serve as hub for the development of this new specification. A little bit later, in 2014, HbbTV merged with Open IPTV Forum.

What have been the milestones of HbbTV history?

The first version of HbbTV 1.0 was published in June 2010 as ETSI 102 796, and in a certain way this was the real birth of HbbTV. Same year, RTL Television launched HD Text, a new information service using HbbTV in Germany. Also in 2010 several Spanish regional broadcasters and later Mediaset and RTVE started HbbTV pilot services. In July 2012, French public broadcaster France Televisions launched with the support of TDF a quite innovative HbbTV based start-over service. It was already named Salto at that time. In Summer 2014 the first HbbTV based service FreeviewPlus was launched in Australia and in November 2015 the UK Freeview Play service, using the HbbTV 2.0 version, was started. In 2017 Italian broadcasters published their first HbbTV services on their channels.

We assume one of the pursuits of HbbTV is to establish itself as a worldwide broadcast reference. How far are we from that objective at the moment? Do you consider that HbbTV is already a solution applied worldwide?

To be honest, being a specification with “worldwide” coverage is not a goal in the DNA of HbbTV. We were born in Europe and there was a conscious decision to focus on Europe and not trying to be a worldwide solution – what was referred to as “boil the ocean”. And we were  inspired and tasked to address the business and technical needs of mostly European TV broadcasters who participated in our working groups, and this will probably remain the case for many years, even the more as certain key areas of the world like the USA, Japan, Korea and China are embarked in different technologies.

We should also not forget that in practice HbbTV is very much linked to broadcast TV standards by the DVB Project that also has a strong European history. But because the technology providers and consumer equipment or chipset manufacturers are largely globalised companies (obviously when they are large companies, but even when they are of a medium or small size), there is a real global dimension in HbbTV, which is a very interesting prospect. This has been reinforced recently as we started our work on our new Targeted Advertising specification. We saw for instance quite a number of advertising-oriented US companies becoming members of HbbTV, including certain “giants” whom everybody can name. Additionally, various African Middle-Eastern or Asian countries are in the process of deploying DVB-T2 terrestrial broadcast networks. Doing so, they have an obvious natural trend to also envisage deploying HbbTV, considering the vast array of additional services which may be created on the basis of the T2 network layer. And we should not forget about the remote, but highly significant deployment in Australia and New Zealand.

Vincent Grivet (Source HbbTV Association)

HbbTV is commonly defined as an interactive television standards provider and developer. How will the end user benefit from HbbTV technologies?

This is a very important question, which I like very much, because although HbbTV works as a network of sophisticated B2B TV and technology experts, we should never forget that our ultimate goal is to enable richer TV experiences for consumers. And indeed, this is what HbbTV is making possible for the end user. It is the possibility to access non-linear services such as VOD, replay or interactive services (e.g. voting, angle and camera selection etc.). This is provided in addition, and actually starting from the classic linear broadcast services the consumer is used to access. And the special way or added value of HbbTV is that these news services are fully integrated and consistent, from an end user point of view, with the classic linear TV services; for instance, there’s no need to change the “source” of the TV and download and launch a special app from an entirely new menu. The HbbTV apps are automatically and invisibly uploaded without the end user having to do anything. The apps are shown when it is relevant, and the associated functions (like playing from the beginning a live programme, which has already started are accessible by a simple end user action like pressing the red button of the TV’s remote control.

It is much more an extension and enrichment of the range of TV services, while pure OTT services are more akin to using your TV in a totally different way, like a PC with a very nice screen or a very nice screen connected to a PC or a dedicated streaming device. Maybe another way of expressing it would be to speak of the “enriched TV channel” created with HbbTV, to be compared with an “enriched TV set” when OTT apps for instance are added in the TV set next to the classic TV services.

And progressively, there are more end user benefits which HbbTV is making possible like the easy access, on a TV set of national TV aggregation platforms like Freeview, Loves TV and soon Salto for instance. Another important benefit which results from the new OpApp specification, used for example by HD+ in Germany, is the option to access a rich operator bouquet without the need to add a set-top-box which in many cases is a not a so desired object, be it for its perceived technical complexity, its energy consumption or the mere fact that it is another visible device in the living room.  Further new end user benefits will be added by the latest HbbTV specification ADB2. It will allow for end users not receiving traditional broadcast signals but using IPTV, satellite or cable set-top-boxes to still access the HbbTV services proposed by the TV channels. Seeing advertisements which have been selected to be relevant for you will be an additional benefit brought by HbbTV with our new soon to be published Targeted Advertising specification.

What technologies “live” in the core of HbbTV?

A very interesting aspect of the HbbTV technology for TV manufacturers and application developers is the fact that that the main core technologies in HbbTV are web standards including HTML and JavaScript, broadcast standards from the DVB Project, video compression and distribution standards from MPEG and the specifications for integrating TV and web standards developed by the Open IPTV Forum. Building on all these open and very well deployed and admitted standards is probably one of the reasons behind the success and wide adoption of HbbTV.

You keep working in different broadcast areas. What are your latest developments?

As said a moment ago, our new “babies” are principally OpApps that enables a service operator to precisely drive the end user experience on a TV set without the need for a set-top-box, ADB2, which makes it possible to use HbbTV services even when the TV does not receive a classic broadcast signal, and TA, our new specification to improve the Targeted Advertising  process. This is indeed quite a lot, keeping in mind that our latest specification HbbTV 2.0.2, which embarks all UHD and next-gen audio features, was published only slightly more than a year ago.

Since your creation in 2010, HbbTV has gathered lots of support from many broadcasters and technological partners. Can you provide a summary of some of the more relevant agents that support HbbTV?

German broadcasters have been highly engaged in HbbTV from the beginning and we are pleased to see this being confirmed as time passes. France has also been a founding country for HbbTV, but one must unfortunately acknowledge that the initial enthusiasm vanished for quite a few years. Luckily, we have many signals that broadcasters, including the new Salto platform partners, are now realising the value they can create with HbbTV and we see intense activity again. Italy and the UK are interesting cases, where initially another national interactive TV specification existed and has been used. But the key broadcast players including BBC, ITV, RAI and Mediaset switched to HbbTV, and they are now developing a continuous flow of services and innovation. Spain has also been a supporter from the beginning and now has a very pro-active HbbTV strategy, embodied for instance by the Loves TV platform. We are also always happy to hear of countries and players, although we do not meet them often, unfortunately, which seem to be quite active with HbbTV, such as Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia and others. There are many countries in which agile smaller tech companies highly skilled in HbbTV are growing, serving the global HbbTV market. In this quick world tour, we should not forget about the global consumer electronics and TV manufacturers who have been committed and highly active contributing partners for the HbbTV ecosystem from the very first days, although they often operate from remote countries where HbbTV is not deployed. Without them, nothing would exist, because people need a TV set to access the rich array of HbbTV services. They are critical partners and ecosystem participants, and it is a major objective to protect their engagement in this open ecosystem.

We are also very happy to see certain absolutely newcomers, often US-based, sometimes digital giants that everybody knows. They develop active HbbTV strategies including the new Targeted Advertising specification.

HbbTV - European television

You recently held the 2019 HbbTV Symposium and Awards. Could you explain to our readers more about the event? What does it provide to the HbbTV community?

The annual event has been running for eight years. It has seen considerable growth and changed over time. In the beginning, it was the gathering of a few passionate engineers with maybe 50 to 100 participants.  Now, I think we can proudly say it is one of the important summits of the TV industry, where roughly 300 people from 15 or 20 countries gather; not only engineers, but also a growing number of marketers, advertising specialists and business executives. For me, this is a very exciting and rich event, where you meet and discuss with peers, you hear and learn about important market and technology developments, and you get a sense of the trends and dynamics of the fast changing TV and broadcast world.

How will the future of HbbTV be?

It is a bright future! We are lucky to have it in our hands, thanks to the many years of accumulated efforts by the community, a set of very robust and valuable specifications. These are absolutely synced with the current urgent needs of end users and operators or broadcasters who serve them, and they are widely recognised for being that and being increasingly adopted. The HbbTV specifications family is also a safe and pragmatic manner for manufacturers to make sure their products are relevant to the consumers. Our challenges are now more in ensuring that we keep up with the promise, in terms of maintenance, support and interoperability activities, and this might become more challenging as time passes. We also need to continue and further enhance our visibility and market education activities to help the ecosystem to fully understand and embrace HbbTV. HbbTV as an association was the inventor of a technology a few years ago. We are now more and more in charge of an ecosystem and we need to take care of this community.

This report was originally published on TM Broadcast International 76

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