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NAB 2010 analysis

In advance of a formal review of NAB in terms of long-term technology analysis and patterns for Europe later this month, Fergal Ringrose gives his initial observations on what NAB 2010 meant for the business of broadcasting technology in general.

In advance of a formal review of NAB in terms of long-term technology analysis and patterns for Europe later this month, Fergal Ringrose gives his initial observations on what NAB 2010 meant for the business of broadcasting technology in general.

Out on the show floor NAB 2010 was a far, far busier and buzzier show than NAB 2009. On the Tuesday of the show NAB released a ‘total registered attendees’ figure of 88,044 for NAB 2010 – compared to 82,650 in 2009. Just to be clear here: these NAB attendance figures are utterly meaningless. Each year IBC receives a huge ‘total registered attendees’ figure, but then counts each delegate in on the ground and monitors multiple returns per delegate, to give us an accurate number for actual ‘attended attendees’.

NAB doesn’t do this. They don’t count badges in (that I could see) and they don’t scan badges each time you enter a hall to check whether you’ve been there before. And anyway, how can they release ‘total’ show numbers, half way through the show? Putting these things together, doesn’t it make their ‘total registered attendees’ figure of 88,044 utterly meaningless? So let’s just leave it that NAB 2010 was a far busier and buzzier show than NAB 2009…

In the US, local advertising revenues and broadcast group stock prices are on the rebound following the worst year in the history of television – the year in which the DTV transition took place. And US broadcast network events such as the 2010 Superbowl, the Grammys and the Vancouver Winter Olympics achieved record numbers.

So can we dare talk about a “renaissance” for over-the-air broadcasting, as NAB Executive VP Denis Wharton claimed? This renaissance, according to the NAB spin, also comprises 3D TV, mobile DTV and multicasting developments.

Of course, the battle for spectrum allocation (‘use it or lose it’) is so intense in the US it dominated proceedings at NAB more than anything else. Interesting to note that many US local stations are filling their spectrum allotment with high definition – approximately 200 stations now transmit local news in HD, which is apparently showing a significant return on investment. How many HD news channels are there in Europe?

On mobile television, it was also instructive to learn that there are now some 45 ATSC stations on-air today with mobile DTV. However it may be the case that mobile DTV is actually being used by US broadcasters as a way of using up spectrum in order to block an FCC plan to repurpose that spectrum for wireless broadband services.
Incoming NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith (a former senator from Oregon) said one of his key priorities was more effective advocacy for the broadcast industry on Capitol Hill and at the FCC. “I know politics,” he said. “And perception is reality. One perception is that broadcasting is a technology of the past.”

The other perception the NAB organisation must overcome, it appears, is that it’s a straight fight between broadband and broadcast for spectrum. Does it have to be a winner-take-all, or can the broadband and broadcast industries co-exist? Can the NAB persuade the FCC and Capitol Hill that broadcasting is actually a spectrum-efficient media?

It was significant that NAB took place during the 2010 Masters at Augusta. Two weeks after the show the head of Panasonic’s TV business, Hirotoshi Uehara, said the Japanese electronics company would boost its 3D TV output following the “sell out” in less than seven days of its entire US stocks. The demand was enjoyed by other 3D set-suppliers following the announcement that TV network CBS would capture the US Masters golf tournament in 3D.

Panasonic has increased 3D production output by 30% to cope with the demand. Uehara also predicted that the initial lack of broadcast 3D content was not so much of a concern because all of Panasonic’s sets are capable of internet connection. “Recently more people are watching television via the internet, and that is unlimited, so I think there is a chance that the breakthrough for 3D will be via internet TV,” he said.

Consumer devices
It’s rare to see the business being taken so completely by surprise by the user community. The DSLR HD video production revolution is so stunning in its velocity, vendors around the camera have been caught off guard and are frantically trying to catch up. It’s a huge opportunity for them because the DSLRs are so small and ‘amateur’-looking that they need professional rigs around them in order to both function properly in professional production and be taken seriously by interviewees and bystanders on location.

And I guess it’s rare for Canon to find itself with the busiest, buzziest stand at the show! The trend is that area around the TV camera is increasingly dynamic with constant innovation in new products (witness this DSLR explosion), techniques and workflows. That’s why we are working on a brand new product, TVBEurope’s Acquisition News, dedicated to the exciting world of professional camera news and technologies. Launching later this month … watch this space!

At NAB, a number of companies were calling new applications developed to run on the Apple iPad as ‘apps’ — but are they really apps as such? Surely the iPad itself is the app? This device will be used in multiple situations throughout the broadcast production chain, as a new control surface for all kinds of processes that previously required dedicated boxes and devices. The iPhone is too smalll and notebooks are too big or else just the wrong form factor: unbenownst to Apple (probably!), the iPad is set to be a breakthrough device for professional control of live video applications.

It’s about workflows
The confusion in the marketplace and in the wider economy makes it very difficult for vendors to plan ahead. “For manufacturers it’s a challenging time,” said Grass Valley’s Jeff Rosica. “We’re having to listen very carefully. We set our priorities and set our goals almost on a monthly basis so that our R&D investment goes to the right place.” And contrary to a perception that the larger vendors pressurise the marketplace into accepting their technologies, Rosica said simply “we’re pressured by broadcasters to meet their business plans.”

NAB 2010 reinforced for this observer the evolutionary tenets that vendors must now (1) be open, not proprietary and (2) provide service-level agreements, not just point products. If you are involved in open workflows you can win, or be involved with, contracts that would otherwise pass you by. And a real commitment to world-class service can close a contract that otherwise could not be attainable. “What broadcasters want are workflows. They want systems,” said Quantel’s Steve Owen.

“Traditional news organisations are having to make some pretty painful changes,” observed Chyron’s Michael Wellesley-Wesley. Users no longer consume news according to the linear schedules of news organisations, and individuals can make something go viral across the internet before the news media can even react.
Solutions for the future must be “based on workflow optimisation and resource recovery – and that’s not just about losing head count,” Wellesley-Wesley said both vendors and broadcasters must now work towards a 5:1 ratio: that’s a 5:1 change “in price performance and return on investment”, in order to be competitive in the future. That’s a daunting – perhaps impossible – aspiration to achieve.

Telestream’s Dan Castles also noted declining revenues in traditional distribution channels; the need to reduce costs and automate; and the growing number of new distribution channels demanding constant content. But he said “the move from tape to files has created pockets of efficiencies – islands – but it’s very immature today. We need to truly leverage what file-based can achieve.”