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In-depth at NAB I

An air of optimism pervaded NAB this year as the signs of economic recovery gradually emerge. However the broadcast industry in its traditional form may have been left behind, to be slowly but surely replaced with a radically different media world. NAB analysis by John Ive, IveTech.

An air of optimism pervaded NAB this year as the signs of economic recovery gradually emerge. However the broadcast industry in its traditional form may have been left behind, to be slowly but surely replaced with a radically different media world. NAB analysis by John Ive, IveTech.

The era of multiple screens, all requiring cost effective access to video content has accelerated the cause of Internet Protocol (IP) both in production and delivery. Organisations thinking in terms of alternative delivery as an ‘add-on’ to conventional broadcasting may be in for a shock!

The demise of tape changes the landscape
In the past two years we have seen a rapid acceleration in the demise of tape. Sure, lots of tape is still being sold but much of it for legacy equipment. The number of new products featuring video tape recording is minimal, with solid state and hard drives dominating. Even the profile of the intermediate solution, file-based optical disk storage, is low.

Acceptance of this change promotes further the advance of IT-based systems, as the need to return video to the classic SDI and HD-SDI video interfaces diminishes. In fact a quick review of the product exhibits at NAB promotes the impression that, between the camera and the display, there is very little need to return to the traditional video domain.

In most cases IP is the ubiquitous transport of choice, suitable for delivery to all screen types and across all physical carriers. Live production may remain as the last bastion of conventional video infrastructures.

The specialist human interface used for editing remains unique but the platform is now IT-based and therefore connects directly with an infrastructure optimised for video, but no longer unique to the media industry. A defining aspect of the equipment and system suppliers emerges. The well known names; Sony, Panasonic, JVC and so on, formerly VTR specialists, are now capitalising on their expertise in camera and display design. They all of course have other products and would probably be disappointed by this generalisation, but in terms of ‘best of breed’, it is point products such as cameras that they do best.

Content production as a business
So who then is filling the vast space in between camera and screen? Slowly but surely we are seeing new names emerge, with solutions reflecting the significant changes the recession has helped to promote. Media asset management, a topic several evangelists have been promoting over the past few years, has finally come of age but the story continues. In enterprise environments, the parallel between traditional manufacturing (product production, resource allocation, supply management, warehousing, delivery and billing etc.) and the business of producing video content is growing.

Workflow, a topic that graces every product brochure and promotional literature, is something that the other industries have managed and refined for many years. It is therefore not surprising that the tools in use for these applications are starting to find a home in broadcast and media production.

For enterprise scale organisations, buying decisions are increasingly dictated by business rather than technical imperatives. Additional factors include the integration of management software and greater integration of back office systems with front end creative processes. If picture quality can be maintained at or above the necessary minimum, then deciding factors will move to other criteria such as business efficiency.

These trends open the door to alternative suppliers, either entirely new small enterprises or large corporates such as IBM, Microsoft and Cisco, who now see a larger and redefined media industry big enough to engage with. NAB proudly announced that 200 hundred new companies took exhibit space this year and from the number of unfamiliar names promoting enterprise-wide management systems, it seems the trend is further confirmed.

Where’s the money?
So, where this is leading? Slowly but surely to a truly IT-based infrastructure with traditional peripherals attached – cameras, editors and displays. It would be an interesting exercise to consider the potential value of the industry and to consider whether the infrastructure or the ‘peripherals’ offer the largest revenues.

Interestingly the IABM market study identified services, which includes outsourcing and system integration, as one of the biggest revenue categories in Europe, equivalent to product sales. This goes to show that the days of the dedicated black box are numbered or at least no longer taking centre stage.

Once again a quick tour round NAB (in fact a quick tour is not practical due to the large size) confirms that operational television increasingly exists through the portal of a computer display, keyboard and mouse. The value is in the software and the IT infrastructure. Are the traditional industry suppliers ready for this?

The value of the remaining hardware is rapidly approaching commodity levels. More adapted consumer products were on display and prices are plummeting. There is no substitute for artistic and creative talent, but low cost operational hardware in capable hands can produce spectacular results.

Programme makers have options beyond expensive cameras from Sony and Panasonic. SLR cameras from Nikon and Canon are now fully capable of shooting in high definition. Alternatively products from newcomers such as Go-Pro with $299 HD and 3D cameras for sports use – in addition to the now well-known Red camera for movies – all challenge conventional pricing wisdom.

In the editing domain Apple with Final Cut Pro has redefined how editing workstations are priced and marketed. They too are now peripherals on an IT infrastructure.

The project market for individuals has grown as editing software becomes more cost effective. The crowds around the Adobe booth (pictured at top) visibly demonstrated that. Here companies, in addition to Adobe and Apple, such as Sony (Vegas) and Harris (Edius) have products that remain remarkably popular and have maintained the price/performance ratios at a reasonable level.

Companies wishing to retain the high value of their products and presumably a decent profit margin have turned to the movie industry, where production ambitions and budgets can accommodate those aspirations. But there is not enough room in this business for more than a few specialist suppliers.

Then of course there’s 3D
No NAB review could miss commenting on 3D. In fact if it were not mentioned, readers would be suspicious that I didn’t attend, as the topic – and it’s technology like the 3D camera from Panasonic pictured – was unavoidable.

I was struck by a comment raised by one of the chairmen at the SMPTE 3D conference preceding the exhibition. Having treated us to a rich selection of 3D content during the day, he invited the delegates to keep the polarised glasses with the comment “you will need them”. How right he was, with just about every exhibitor wanting to demonstrate that they can do 3D too!

For many broadcasters, in particular the public service variety, 3D is a solution looking for a problem. But there is no escaping the fact that suppliers have decided we need 3D, most likely led by those who have consumer interests and flat panel displays to sell. I can’t help thinking that it will take off, but only when the timing is right such that it doesn’t come with a hefty price tag for both broadcasters and consumers. The jury is out as to whether 3D will become mainstream, or an added feature for specific opt-in programming.

As many commentators have observed, done well, 3D really does add value and recent cinema releases have demonstrated that. Unfortunately, there are enough bad examples to clearly demonstrate that we have a lot to learn about the art of 3D.

And finally…
In summary, NAB (and IBC) are important indicators of the direction in which our industry is headed. It is interesting to step back and take a helicopter view of the exhibition and carefully consider the impact of the new companies exhibiting. In so doing, we can observe the subtly less dominant role played by the majors and a new order starting to emerge. Broadcast is no longer broadcast but a part of a much larger media eco-system and the age of the truly IT-based infrastructure is well advanced.

Sometimes these changes are slow to develop over the years and therefore go unnoticed, such that those in denial are suddenly left behind. With the advent of IP-enabled large screens, it seems that the era of IP – which is now a universal transport for media delivery to television, mobile and computers over cable, wireless or fibre – has truly arrived and with it an inevitable new order!