The greatest impact that television can have on the climate emergency is through the content.
The storytelling through the BBC’s Blue Planet and Sky Ocean Rescue has helped educate an audience into making lifestyle changes which are better for the environment. But, the creation of the content itself and its distribution into our homes creates its own energy footprint.
According to Jigna Chandaria, Lead R&D Engineer at BBC Research & Development, in her DTG Future Vision presentation, the media industry is estimated to be responsible for 2.8% of global energy use and 1.2% of the global carbon footprint.
In 2017 the BBC began a project with the University of Bristol to assess the energy usage of BBC television services throughout the distribution chain. The research looks at understanding the total energy use of the BBC TV services, comparing the different platforms, whilst investigating which parts of the broadcast chain use the most energy and what can be done to reduce it.
Cable, the internet and satellite have a similar level of energy use, but that’s more than twice the amount used by terrestrial television. Drilling deeper, the study found the energy hotspots varied according to the platform.
For terrestrial television, it was the TV set itself, because many displays have the DTT tuner built-in, and Freeview set-top boxes tend to be energy-efficient. In cable and satellite, it was the set-top box, even when put in standby – despite a consumer’s perception that the device is switched off, many activities continue in the background.
When the research was completed, smaller screen devices like smartphones and tablets were a popular way to watch BBC iPlayer. In this case, rather than the device itself, the highest energy component was the home router, which largely has the same consumption whether or not it’s being used.
BBC R&D created a range of future scenarios to try and understand what happens as different variables in the system are changed. The first scenario was “business as usual”, assuming that services would continue as now. “Although we think of transmitters and the transmitter network using a lot of power, it’s dwarfed by the total from all the set-top boxes and television sets,” says Chandaria.
But even “business as usual” could mean a small increase in the energy footprint. As the number of households in Britain increases, so too does the amount of installed TV sets. And while TV display technology is expected to become more energy-efficient, we’re also buying larger screen displays.
The scenarios are, says Chandaria, neither predictions nor policy. But what would happen if there were a 50% fall in viewing hours by 2030? While unrealistic, such a scenario would not be accompanied by a 50% reduction in energy consumption, instead just 22%, mostly coming from TV sets. The set-top boxes with their high standby power would continue to use up the energy.
Other modelling included a shift from terrestrial and satellite to IP – and that could see a fall in energy consumption of 40%, mostly from the lack of set-top boxes.
As part of its commitment to reducing the environmental impact of media technology through industry collaboration, BBC R&D has released its research publicly as a White paper available on its website.