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Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
Sep 8

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9/8/2011 10:04 AM  RssIcon

By Larry Thaler, Positive Flux

A typical approach to preplanning attendance at a trade show is to create a list of devices we need to replace or technologies we need for upcoming projects, and then looking up which vendors carry these products and setting some priorities. Booth tours and demos get scheduled; perhaps we may stop at a booth or two not on the schedule when something catches our eye. This tried-and-true approach has served to maximize our investment in time and travel dollars.

As we approach this year’s IBC, I propose we look at the opportunity differently. We are in a cash-constrained environment, where every investment needs to provide immediate return. Considering equipment alone is not sufficient, we need to think about operational impact and production efficiency before writing a check.

Fortunately, IBC is held in Europe.

Right now, there is no place on earth where there is more fiscal pressure than Europe, but European vendors are an adaptable bunch. We expect IBC to be loaded to the brim with more than just equipment, but creative, cost-effective solutions tailored to today’s environment.

Instead of looking for devices, I suggest we approach IBC looking for game-changing technologies and especially services. Which services will improve our business? Make us more agile? Allow us to service more platforms? Make us more efficient? What can we implement to generate cash or save capital?

Shared production services is one area where there is huge upside opportunity. We define “shared services” as any production or distribution service that provides functionality across organizations. The services may be centralized or distributed, open to all comers or only those inside a larger corporate organization. They can connect big or small organizations and have a limited number of members, or thousands. In any case, just like in computer networks, the value of the shared service grows with the square of the number of participants. In short, the participants in these services gain the leverage of scale, reduce the cost of overhead, and gain access to new and unique approaches.

According to our recent survey, the HD transition has just begun. Only a small percentage of U.S. stations are taking advantage of even the simplest shared services. Concerns about loss of control, lack of quality or the complexity of the transition are frequently cited reasons for not pursuing them. Although the study focuses on stations, the lessons are just as relevant to cable programmers, Internet video producers, and industrial and educational television organizations.

Although 70 percent of stations report sharing news clips, that means that fully 30 percent are not even taking this simple initial step.

But sharing production capability does not necessarily equate to lower quality or loss of control. As an example, the stations that share video clips are able to improve the quality of their story-telling by bringing in stories from outside their markets — a low-cost way to expand their on-air coverage while exposing their audience to national or regional stories. Typically, the quid-pro quo for getting this advantage is that the station simply shares its own material with stations outside its own market — a clear shared services win-win for most stations. The net gain is improved audience experience with lower cost and continued editorial control.

Another example is graphics, where sharing is really in its infancy. Only 22 percent of U.S. TV stations are sharing images and animations. Technologies and services for automated over-the-shoulder graphics workflows exist that are capable of freeing up creative personnel to focus on expanded animations, in-house show openings and production services for advertisers. These systems leverage the power of cloud resources and common elements to provide an instant library of faces, places and images for instant insertion into news run-downs while providing a customized look for each programmer.

Graphics for a big news story that breaks overnight are available to participants in a shared environment, while the same graphics may not be affordable in a dedicated one. How many stations today can support an overnight graphics crew? In a shared environment, an immediate response is possible.

Shared graphics also enable breaking news animations to be syndicated, potentially bringing cost-offsets back to the station. A station creating an amazing topical animation is just one example of content, created locally, that could be syndicated nationally — improving viewer understanding while generating income for the station. Services are now being created to enable this sharing in new and controlled ways.

Our analysis shows even a 10-percent expansion of centralized graphics as a shared service would reduce cost to the U.S. TV stations industry exceeding $35 million annually, while improving on-air quality.

We touched a little earlier on the three main objections to shared services and provided arguments that quality and control do not need to be impacted, and in fact can be improved. What about the third objection: the concerns about undertaking a complex and difficult transition? When we talk about shared services, we are often talking about something more difficult than changing a piece of equipment. We are changing workflow, people’s responsibilities, and, yes, some reorganization is often needed. Sometimes unions are involved. Although these changes are often difficult, they are made easier by having a good plan and by clear and consistent communication from the top.

On a recent project to transform a TV station from tape-based editing to desktop editing and digital workflow, we knew that we were headed for a difficult organizational change. Prior to beginning the project, the general manager, who is a “leads-by-example” type of executive, went around with his camcorder interviewing the staff in a light-hearted way, asking them what their responsibilities were. He then went home and edited a fun piece on his computer. His point, “As one of the oldest and least technical people in the organization, if I can do this, you can too!” He understood that change was difficult and tried to make it fun and appealing. The transition was a success, and the quality of the station’s output went up, the number of platforms supported went up, and total cost went way down. Transitions can be hard, but they can be done well.

How many more shared services can you think of? Our survey revealed central-cast weather, pooled photographers, shared newsroom space and many more. Before you head to IBC, take a look through your operation and ask yourself: “Which portions of our operation are of strategic importance and which would be better if we allowed them to be powered by the masses?” Then seek out providers who can help you leverage shared services to improve your operations.

For more ideas about shared services, see our survey results or our blog Flux Reports.

About the author: Before beginning Positive Flux, Larry Thaler served as vice president of engineering for NBC Universal. During his 26 years there, he led efforts to transform production and distribution across the company’s broadcast, cable and new platform businesses, including the TV network’s HD conversion and the creation of the famous “Today Show” studio. In two years with Positive Flux, he has assisted media companies in transforming their operations to embrace new multiplatform workflows. He can be reached through the company’s website.

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