Is the set-top box dead?

Set-top box The standard set-top box will need to evolve

Earlier this month, I was asked to take part in the John Logie Baird lecture and discuss whether the set-top box is dead.

The set-top box is the device you plug into your TV to get access to digital channels via satellite, cable or digital terrestrial TV. Of course, the name itself is a relic of bygone days: in this age of flat screen televisions, no one balances the box on top of their set any more. (I suppose 'set-bottom box' doesn't trip off the tongue.)

But that's not all that has changed. Televisions now come with built-in digital tuners, so you can access Freeview or Freesat without the need for a separate box, and smart TVs let you access on-demand television programmes from the internet. Or you might watch the programmes via other devices plugged into your set, such as your games console.

Start Quote

Alix Pryde, director of distribution

The set-top box is not an endangered species. Instead, it is one that will continue to adapt and evolve and pass the audience test of natural selection to thrive”

End Quote Alix Pryde Director of distribution

So is the era of the set-top box over? I firmly believe the answer is "no".

If I were feeling provocative, I might have argued that it's the TV with a built-in tuner that is dead. I was at the International Broadcasting Convention earlier this month and saw Cisco's "living room of the future". It didn't have a TV, it had huge flat panels covering the largest wall. These were 'dumb' screens that you would feed with content from your smartphone or tablet.

But it would be bad form to proclaim "the TV is dead" at the John Logie Baird lecture, a tribute to the man who not only invented television, but foresaw its great potential. (As long ago as 1943 he proposed a 1000-line TV standard that would have been as good as today's HD TV.)

And it would been especially bad form that day, as plans had just been revealed to rebuild the Crystal Palace - the largest glass structure in the world - which was home to John Logie Baird's experimental television service until it burnt down in 1936.

So just as the glass palace itself proposes to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes, likewise I contend that the set-top box will continue to reinvent itself, and evolve to serve audience needs.

In particular, it will meet the three tests that we at the BBC hold dear as a public service broadcaster: reach, quality and value for money.

What does that mean in practice? I think it relates to five reasons why we use set-top boxes:

1. To upgrade our TVs

We don't want to have to buy a new set every time a new wave of technology comes along. If you bought an "HD ready" TV a few years ago, it wouldn't have had an HD tuner built in. It wouldn't have been able to access the internet, or digitally record programmes. But by progressively updating your set-top box, you could surf each wave without replacing your set.

John Logie Baird in 1932 John Logie Baird in 1932

Over the past four years, I've been heavily involved in ensuring digital switchover went smoothly. The Digital Switchover Help Scheme's set-top box for elderly and vulnerable audiences played a vital role in ensuring that no one was left behind as the country made the switch from analogue to digital.

The transformative power of the set-top box was brought home to me when I witnessed a 405-line television from 1936 (the very year the BBC launched TV) converted to digital via a box!

2. To record programmes

If you're a regular user of a personal video recorder then you will tend to use it as your default tuner, even if there's another tuner built in to your TV set. PVRs are available for free-to-air as well as pay platforms - so, for a one-off payment and no ongoing fee, you can easily record your favourite programmes. Increasingly, TV sets are available with built-in PVRs, but a TV is harder to upgrade as storage gets cheaper. Of course, in the future you will probably store your recorded programmes in 'the cloud', but that's a decade away for most people.

3. To access pay-TV platforms

Companies such as Sky, Virgin Media and BT often give away or loan high-spec set-top boxes to customers for free. These boxes act as the main gateway to TV services for 50% of UK homes. Importantly for the pay-TV companies, they are very valued by customers, who then have an incentive to stay with the platform. These boxes aren't going away anytime soon.

4. To connect our TVs to the internet, and stream video and music

HDMI dongles are beginning to come on to the market, such as Google Chromecast, which you might think of as a "set-side box". They could offer a combination of connected TV functionality with free-to-air broadcast TV platforms. Or you might have an Apple TV or Now TV box alongside your existing set-top box; a "box-top box" as someone in the lecture audience put it.

5. As a home hub

The latest boxes let us deliver content to multiple screens around our homes. This is a relatively new, but increasingly important, function of the set-top box.

In summary, the set-top box is not an endangered species. Instead, it is one that will continue to adapt and evolve and pass the audience test of natural selection to thrive.

Or, to put it another way, judging by the proliferation next to my telly, the set-top box isn't dying, it's multiplying…

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