The Smithsonian channel will be launching a 4K on-demand service in April this year. According to the company, it is the first US network to do so. The Smithsonian's fare of stories and documentaries will be available to Smithsonian channel subscribers through their existing pay-TV providers. The service will be launched with ten hours of 4K programming and will be refreshed each quarter.
The Smithsonian channel is offered by Smithsonian Networks, a joint venture between CBS Corporation's Showtime Networks Inc. and the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex -- with 19 museums, nine research centers and affiliates around the world. Smithsonian Networks also operates Smithsonian Earth, a new subscription-based video streaming service delivering original nature and wildlife content.
The channel is working with major pay-TV operators in the US to finalize launch plans.
Janice Janik, senior vice president of sales and affiliate marketing for Smithsonian Networks, spoke to Telco Transformation about why this is the time for 4K, given the increase in ownership of 4K televisions and increased interest on the side of distributors to deliver the content for them. (See Sales of 4K Sets to Rise 40% This Year, Says CTA and Level 3's Alexander on Delivering 4K Video.)
Telco Transformation: What exactly is planned for the April launch?
Janice Janik: The plan is for the 4K programming to go live in April, though exactly when, what, and where depends on the agreement that we will work out with distributors. To get up and running, we have to plan a little ways out. Consequently, we already have the 4K content and format ready to go. We see the on-demand content as a way to reinforce our channel and for distributors to retain and confirm value of the distribution they give us. Our job is ultimately to grow the viewership and the ratings from the linear channel. The VoD model for 4K programming totally fits that goal of supporting the core channel.
TT: When did you start planning to offer 4K programming?
JJ: In early 2016. When we launched in 2007, we planned to start out as all HD. That was really a big deal at the time. At this point, though, the market for HD appears saturated. As we wanted to be ahead of the curve, last year we began to assess the marketplace to see what was emerging from the new trends and technologies. Though some expected 3D to be the next big thing, it turns out that people -- and women in particular -- didn't want to wear those glasses to gain an enhanced viewing experience. VR suffers from the same problem -- that need of viewers to wear something. In contrast, gaining an enhanced experience via 4K is a lot more user-friendly. As 4K was particularly appealing for programming made specifically for the nonfiction world, we concluded that it was the right fit for our brand and the kind of content, focused on nature, space, history and culture, that we provide.
TT: What convinced you there was demand for 4K programming out there?
JJ: We're responding more to what we anticipate to be consumer demand. Consumers love the visual impact of 4K but had not been motivated to spend more money for it. Though still higher than standard TV, now 4K prices are coming down even more quickly than HD prices came down, and 4K adoption is happening at faster rate than we saw for HD. Distributors want to meet that consumer demand. Some of the largest of the distributors, like Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), etc., have made statements about plans to embrace 4K. Consequently, the timing is right for 4K now, both on the consumer end and the distribution end.
TT: What are the challenges of creating 4K programming?
JJ: Money! The cost is about 20% above normal programing. But that is declining fairly rapidly. The more widespread it becomes, the more the price comes down. Even within the last year, we saw reductions in production cost. Another challenge at present is a lack of universal standards for the format. However, groups like the UHD Alliance and others in the consumer electronics world are working on arriving at a consensus for it. I really believe that in 2017 there will be a standard emerging that will help on the programming, distributor, and the device side. (See UHDA's Schinasi on Defining Premium UHD.)
There are also some constraints when you talk about bandwidth. Our distributors have to determine how much bandwidth they are willing to allocate 4K from a consumption standpoint. We provide content to them, and they're the ones who have to determine how many hours they will give it. The distributors are the ones in touch with the consumers directly, so it's up to them. It's also up to them to communicate and clarify what the customers need to get 4K in their home as there is some confusion about what is entailed to get the 4K experience on their devices. There are a lot of great choices and great excitement, but sometimes we forget that our consumers may not be as plugged into all the technology jargon as we are.
— Ariella Brown, Technology Writer, Telco Transformation