In-Depth: Ultra HD and the Future of Terrestrial Broadcast TV in France

We attended a full-day symposium held in Paris in June after several postponements due to the sanitary situation. The day was structured around three roundtables, first on the Terrestrial TV of today, then Terrestrial TV during the pandemic, and most importantly for us, the third one on tomorrow’s terrestrial TV in France. The hot innovation topics were all about UHD and interactivity with HbbTV.

The backdrop of the Symposium is a battle that many will be familiar with. Stakeholders from the telecommunications ecosystem would like to see terrestrial TV services diminished if not terminated to free up more spectrum for mobile networks, especially with the rollout of 5G.

The French Digital Terrestrial network was launched in 2005 with 15 SD channels (up from 6 national analog ones) and currently contains 27 FTA HD channels. It is known in France by the acronym TNT. UHD is scheduled for commercial deployment by 2024 when the Paris Olympic games will take place.

The French terrestrial broadcast network is available in about half of French homes, and for the main sitting room TV, TNT reception dropped from 44% to 38% during the last five years. Note that about a fifth of French homes only have TNT access to TV. The French market is also unique with its high penetration rate of IPTV, which is still the most used broadcast network at over 50%. French ISPs that offer this service have been talking of transitioning to an OTT model for years, but as yet, the bulk of French TV is still watched over managed IP networks.

Growing at half a percentage point per year is the 8% of French households without a TV.

Several speakers discussed the main advantages of the TNT network, namely that it is never saturated and that no subscription is required. No data collection occurs, and it’s the most reliable network for linear TV with 97% coverage. The French Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly added that one of the senate’s roles is to ensure all French people have access to essential services while also ensuring that French platforms remain competitive. She reassured the audience that TNT is here until at least 2030.

The first two sessions were primarily an ode to the glory of the French DTT, called TNT – which is the acronym for Télévision Numérique Terrestre and a brand name well recognized by consumers here. Speakers noted that DVB-T or equivalent technologies were growing and embracing new usages like UHD and interactivity in other countries, such as ATSC the US, and several asked why not in France.

Ateme’s CTO Mickaël Raulet commented to us that “the US community of broadcasters and regulator decided more proactively on their future with ATSC acknowledging that OTT distribution is central to the future of broadcasters. The French ecosystem hasn’t done this yet.”

A speaker for a local TV station praised the fact that terrestrial networks provide a critical mass for local stations’ viewership.

The future of the French DVB-T platform

The future in France is 2024, when Paris will host the next Olympic games. The country is set to have a UHD TV penetration rate of 64% by then, according to Sony’s Denis Bajas. TDF’s Arnaud Lucaussy saw four components to TNT’s future:  UHD (it was unclear if this is just 4K resolution or includes HDR), NGA, Interactivity, and Mobility (e.g., 5G broadcast). According to Olivier Huart, France has ten years to get it right. Some things already look favorable, like the senate having created the environment for a simple introduction of a UHD DVB-T2 multiplex and the relative clarity on how interactivity will be introduced with HbbTV. However, issues remain as the regulator doesn’t want to force TV manufacturers to implement the complex and changing specifications required for HbbTV. 

Vincent Grivet, president of the HbbTV Association, described the technology for interactive TV as providing better accessibility and being an open standard. HbbTV started in France and Germany as a response from linear broadcasters to the arrival of the Internet in 2009. Now it is used as a unifying standard so that broadcasters only need to build a single app and not maintain one for each platform. Amazon and Google recently joined the association.

Some sparks flew as Salto, a joint venture between TF1, M6, and France TV, which is the latest French SVOD platform, expressed displeasure that the forthcoming law on the modernization of TNT no longer has provisions for HbbTV interoperability. “New TVs from LG, Samsung, and Sony have direct buttons for global SVoD platforms and no room for local providers. This doesn’t seem like a level playing field, especially as other European countries have more favorable regulations for local operators.”

The tension between service operators and TV manufacturers was palpable during the event.

We discussed this article with one of the global TV brands who told us that manufacturers are by no means anti-HbbTV – « we all support HbbTV but believe that collaboration and working together is the answer, not legal mandating .»

Why is a law needed, and what’s in it?

Although France has a capitalist economy and its society can be called “liberal” (by the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word), the government is more active in the French economy than is the case for most western nations. The “modernization” of terrestrial TV will require a specific law proposed by the government and voted on by the two chambers. The next parliamentary stage for the future law is a vote expected in the French Senate on September 21st.

The law will define how the radio spectrum dedicated to digital terrestrial TV is carved up and distributed among French TV stations. Its implementation will then be controlled by the French regulators, the ARCEP for all things related to telecoms, and the CSA for broadcast-related issues. The merge of these two regulators is still in the planning stage, unlike in the UK, where OFCOM is now the single authority. The law initially contained provisions to compel TV vendors to include HbbTV support, but these have been dropped in the last version to the relief of the set makers and the IPTV operators and the fury of the broadcasters.

One of our takeaways was that there is indeed a shared sense of frustration that the service being painstakingly planned for 2024 will already be out of date technically before it is launched. The DVB-T2 standard was already published in 2009. However, embracing DVB-T2 for 2024 is a step in the right direction, even if some consider this may be too little, too late for the French industry to stay vibrant.

Cédric Davy co-organized this Symposium with Patrice De Goy from Smart Integrations Mag. We asked him for his take.

“In France, on the one hand, we have most of the TV ecosystem stakeholders fighting for their vested interests, while on the other hand, much of the industry’s mindshare – and the regulator’s focus – is taken up by the likely merger between the two leading private TV channels (TF1 and M6). However, successfully planning and deploying a DVB-T2 environment for the coming years to embrace UHD and interactivity is crucial for at least two reasons. Firstly, it will maintain and create thousands of jobs in France. I don’t see failure as an option. Secondly, US-based OTT providers of SVOD and live streaming (Amazon Prime now has rights for French Ligue 1 soccer) would takeover linear TV content just as they are already doing with delinearized content the world over. Until now, public service obligations associated with the French TNT broadcast have offered a small level of protection against local operators and content producers getting sold outright to the few global OTT brands. So, maintaining a healthy broadcast system that embraces the latest technologies is also critical for France and Europe to maintain their cultural independence.”

Cédric Davy

To better understand what’s going on in France, we spoke with NRJ’s outspoken Christophe Cornillet.

He told us that “for UHD to succeed in public broadcasting, countries need a plan, and a conductor to implement it.”.

Regarding a possible dedicated law, Christophe explained to us that “in the planned upgrade to DVB-T2, the parameters chosen for the move from DVB-T favor coverage over bandwidth. The new UHD DVB-T multiplex will therefore be limited to 34 Mbps in the 8MHZ channel. Because of universal service obligations, the French regulator decided that 100% of viewers that have had access to DVB-T must also have access to DVB-T2. With other technical choices, the throughput of a multiplex could then have exceeded 40 Mbps.”

Note that each Multiplex currently includes five HD channels encoded in MPEG-4. A future UHD Multiplex will eventually carry three UHD TV services encoded in HEVC at just under 11 Mbps for video audio and metadata. Over 16 Mbps were available per channel for this year’s trials – this is challenging for live sports using 2021 encoding technology. [Editor’s note: a 31% bandwidth decrease will have an impact on quality (macroblock effects or resolution decrease) unless encoder companies find a better way to compress HEVC using AI-based technologies].

In our discussions with Christophe, we noted that, unlike in previous years, there seemed to be little use of dedicated UHD production techniques (such as wider angles). Like BT sports did a few years ago, the France TV production has been simplified into a single workflow for HD and UHD.

Christophe agreed that there is work to be done on interoperability between devices in the sitting room. The TV Service UI still needs a shakeup to embrace UHD, maybe with the help of the voice interface and AI-based technologies could. That way, there will eventually be a way to tell your TV to raise the dialogue volume level or lower the chroma without needing an A/V engineering degree. Christophe quipped that you only need to ask anyone that’s installed a new TV with a few peripheral devices, a soundbar, a high-speed internet connection, and at least one broadcast network how long it took to get everything up and running optimally. “I’ll wager that your average consumer can’t get it all done in a single day. The new Smart TVs are certainly very efficient, but they are still complex (as the standards and processes implemented are numerous)”.

We noted that despite the difficulties, UHD penetration is ever-growing in France, as one can no longer buy a non-4K screen.

“Consumers want a better image with 4K – the TV sets are here – but we are still missing pertinent content, and even if you have that content today, there are still issues with bandwidth and HDR rendering. The business model isn’t clear enough for the improved experience to be monetized sufficiently for operators to recoup the extra investment in production and distribution.”

At NRJ, we did three sets of experiments with UHD to understand: (1) down and upscaling between 4K and HD, (2) HDR throughout the workflow, and (3) the optimum compromise between resolution and bitrate. We learned from our PoCs that most French channels would start their UHD journey with HDR in an HD resolution. Our second PoC illustrated the interoperability challenges around how devices interpret HDR in the stream as we were getting very different results on different screens. Therefore choosing a TV can still be challenging, and some manufacturers have more advanced HDR processing ability than others.

“The existing French TV stations know how they will have to create future TV signals but need to understand better what and how sets will interpret them.”

Bandwidth occupied a lot of our time, with Christophe pointing out that if all channels migrate to 4K, the lineup will need to be slashed from 30 to 18 channels. That’s why there will only be a few 4K DTT channels after 2024, and most will use 1080p (in HDR with a wide color gamut).

Cornillet isn’t holding his breath for VVC to save the day just yet. “The issue with VVC or other new codecs is that broadcasters will only consider them when over 80% of installed TVs and players can decode them. In France, an average of 4,5 M new TVs are bought every year, so with 26M households, we need six years to have all homes with at least one screen with the latest standards.”

Actors are waiting for the French regulator (CSA) to update relevant roadmaps.

“4K and even 8K will open a new era for production with new camera angles and movements.”

“What’s doable is different from what’s needed. TV is still essentially a passive experience. UHD should first address this use case. Interactivity will be a good value-add as long as it’s never intrusive.”

In France, broadcasters were hoping to leverage HbbTV as one of the critical technologies to gain new targeted advertising revenues.

Christophe Cornillet, NRJ

HbbTV is a pan-European invention to bring interactivity to broadcasters, initially championed by French and German operators. There were originally 11 channels using the technology in France. Still, Arte and NRJ are the foremost users (see article below) despite more dynamic deployments in other markets.

All French TV channels had agreed on the UHD plan in terms of definitions (4K and/or 1080p, HDR, WCG). The sticking point is in the business model.

Ateme’s Mickaël Raulet shed more light on why operators may not be getting their way in France: “There are issues of representation in the French industry associations. Broadcasters feel under-represented within existing industry bodies and have created a new group called ATET. The EBU represents all international broadcasters but has only a single voice within other bodies such as DVB. Having a single entity is suitable for lobbying but can lack influence for standardization.”

NRJ’s Christophe continued, “to Improve ARPU – to pay for UHD costs – we need HbbTV for interactive services and better (personalized) ad revenue. The lack of provisions for this is causing many stakeholders to be up in arms about having to deliver UHD without new revenue.” The practical issue for future legislation is whether interactive services are just an optional label or obligatory.

When we asked Christophe why TV Set makers weren’t more supportive, he explained that the targeted ad market has already whet many appetites. Global TV brands (with the FAST initiative) and network operators (ISPs) (with Targeted Advertisement in their IP Multicast STB in conjunction with broadcasters) are doing their own experimentation in the advertising market.

A global TV brand we spoke to about this article disagreed, noting that the core HbbTV standard itself only enables a basic but acceptable, targeted advertising capability. They said that “a full seamless targeted advertising requires additional not-insignificant resources to be integrated into TVs. This requirement is why Targeted Advertisement is a separate independent specification beyond the core HbbTV specification requiring a different business approach to be taken.”

 Cornillet continued, “Ecosystems were simpler when nobody ate the other’s lunch. Now, the promise of future ad revenues and service aggregation/editorialization have become battlegrounds, and the regulation is late for our new world. The main question is who will control the data”.

We finished our discussion with Christophe Cornillet on a more optimistic note. “France is the only country in Europe to have only HD channels over DTT without using DVB.T2. We are a country of beautiful images, and we all want to progress. We just need a clear and coherent calendar and will be ready for the 2024 Olympics in any case.

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