The flight of skilled staff to third party contractors is jeopardising the ability of broadcasters to strike well-informed deals with the new wave of outsourcing suppliers, claims BBC and EBU engineering veteran Phil Laven. "Unfortunately I am not at liberty to go into details, but there have been several examples of major technological problems among European broadcasters," he said. Richard Dean reports.
Speaking at a one-day Broadcast Technology Seminar held at London's opulent Institute of Electrical Engineers in Savoy Place by Canadian technology systems specialist Evertz, Laven said that the EBU Technical Assembly's warning in 2005 that "IT systems are high-risk investments", confirmed in 2006 but voted out in 2007, still stood. "Several Assembly members dismissing the phrase wish they had voted the other way, after experiencing problems with their own migration to file-based operation," he revealed.
"Larger broadcasters may be in a position to obscure such events by putting them down as a pilot scheme or research, but others have taken a big hit on their bottom line. Broadcasters often turn to a systems integrator to obtain their requirements and mediate between hardware and software vendors," continued Laven. "But additional problems often emerge after installation, leading to the retention of the integrator's services for six months or more - none of which was budgeted for when the project was signed off."
Another oversight is the shorter life, higher depreciation and higher maintenance of IT systems compared to the professional broadcasting equipment they replace. This is a consequence of the reversal of the 'trickle down' of solid professional kit to the consumer into a 'trickle up' of miniaturised consumer technology to the professional sector, although Laven was optimistic that reliability will improve over time.
Getting it wrong can be expensive - Laven quoted the example of Finnish broadcaster YLE, where a campaign to withhold some EUR10m in licence fees has been orchestrated among viewers claiming a lack of digital signal, following Finland's peremptory nationwide analogue switch-off at 04.00am on 1 September 2007.
The key issue is a lack of staff with both IT and broadcast expertise. "Italian broadcaster RAI put 25 broadcast engineers through IT training, and only three passed," said Laven. A similar attempt to train 25 IT staff in broadcast engineering fared only slightly better, with four passes.
"It's a rare combination, and those that have these skills are often poached by outsourcing bidders. If you have them in-house, pay them good money to keep them," Laven urged delegates. "Broadcasters must retain in-house expertise if they are to act as educated purchasers, and avoid expensive cost over-runs later."