In slightly more than two years, analog broadcast TV will be dead in the United States. In the run-up to the FCC’s February 17, 2009 deadline, U.S. broadcasters are going all-out to get their DTV stations on air.
Of course, the move to DTV is about much more than switching from analog to digital TV broadcasting. Also in the mix are fundamental changes in the ways broadcasters produce, transmit, and store content—goodbye videotape, hello media server!—and the competitive market they now operate in: Hello multichannel centralcasting! Hello broadband!
Since 1981, National TeleConsultants (NTC—www.ntc.com) has been advising broadcasters on dealing with technological and business change. Its client list includes all Big Five networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS), plus CNN, Microsoft and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
To get a handle on where the broadcast industry is today and where it’s going tomorrow, we spoke to NTC managing partners Peter Adamiak, Eliot Graham and Chuck Phelan.
Television Broadcast: These are changing times for U.S. broadcasters, what with the transition from analog to digital in both transmission and infrastructure, and from SD to all sorts of resolutions. But what does all this change really mean to them?
Peter Adamiak: Not only are we transitioning from analog to digital, but we’re transitioning from hardware and systems that are based on proprietary architectures to open systems that are based on standard IT hardware and software architectures.
There’s another key thing that’s also changing, and that’s that the responsibility for the system working as a complete solution—and working the way the customer expects—is transitioning from the vendors of those proprietary systems to the end-user himself, because he’s now more in a role of being the ultimate integrator using numerous smaller products as opposed to one huge solution.
Eliot Graham: This transition of responsibility to customers and users and away from the vendors includes a whole range of things...not only obvious functionality, but performance, reliability, usability and integration with their legacy systems and assets. So there’s actually a huge responsibility that, more than ever, is being transferred to the end-users and organizations.
TVB: I can’t imagine the end-users will be happy about that. As it is, they’re already overloaded. How are they supposed to cope with this?
Chuck Phelan: Well, one of the things that we find increasingly our customers are asking us to do is study workflows and techniques that are used in their production and distribution systems so that rather than making—essentially—a digital copy of their analog techniques of working, we take advantage of the new technologies’ multiplicative capabilities, so that you can really leverage things.
For example, a digital disk-based storage system doesn’t just replace a tape recorder. You can think of it as simply replacing a tape recorder as it’s got an input and an output, but it’s capable of doing many more things. It can have multiple outputs simultaneously, and has instantaneous search capabilities: Multiple people can work on the same thing at the same time, even as it’s being ingested. So all of these added capabilities imply a great deal of study that has to take place before you even begin to engineer the solutions.
TVB: Must broadcasters aggressively seize the business opportunities offered by new technology? Or can they sit back and do what they always did in analog, but in digital?
Phelan: You have to either be moving forward or you’re stagnating and potentially moving backward. The business opportunities are that significant cost-savings can occur as you map workflows into the new technologies so you’re able to save money in doing that. If you don’t do that, conversely, you’ll be essentially left out in the cold with respect to repurposing assets in the media and entertainment industry and the television broadcast industry, because repurposed assets have significant value.
If you’re able to multipurpose those same assets to transmit them in high definition, in standard definition, to cell phones, in podcasts, over the Internet, you have an opportunity to make revenue from each of those distribution channels. If you don’t do that, you’re going to see your revenues shrinking because the traditional dollars that have been spent on television broadcast advertising are now being split over a wide range of distribution and delivery channels. So those who don’t take advantage of leveraging the business opportunities to make dollars in each of those areas are going to see their revenues decreasing rather than increasing.
Adamiak: Another example, and this goes back about ten years ago, is when NTC was brought in to help NBC and Ziff Davis launch the Ziff Davis TV channel. That was one of the first experiences we had where content that was being developed for live broadcast on a cable channel was simultaneously being repurposed and made available as a streaming feed on the Internet.
What that does is it brings a new class of viewer to the table. They were pioneers at that time and the technology was in its pioneering stage but it exposed new viewers that otherwise might not have been interested in seeing the show or might not even have had access to it because not everyone had access to the ZDTV channel on their cable systems.
Graham: Another extension of this is the need for change in the dynamics between the various constituents within broadcast organizations in the way budgets are developed. There really needs to be a closer association between the technology and production constituents and the “C suites,” because all the new needs are so tightly intertwined with rapidly changing business dynamics. Traditionally these groups have not been as communicative as they should be. We think that’s one thing that really needs to change.
TVB: This implies a pretty large cultural change for broadcasters. Do you think they’re ready for this?
Graham: It depends on how you define a “broadcaster.” Are we talking about a traditional broadcaster? Are we talking about the overall organization? Or the engineering, production or finance people? And I think that no matter what your answer is, the answer is “yes.”
Phelan: You’re right. It’s a big cultural change. We have to start thinking about things in a very different way. I remember a funny story that I won’t attribute to its author, but a number of years ago, a significant technology person in the broadcast equipment vendor space was musing on the fact that, “This stuff is never going to catch on because just imagine you’re five minutes away from game time and up comes on your computer screen a message that says: UNABLE TO LOCATE SUPERBOWL.PRG.”
TVB: Speaking as a broadcaster, then, much as I don’t want to I’m willing to accept that I can’t just hide in the sand or simply duplicate my digital plant. But this said, can I go to an outside consultant and say, “make all this problem go away?” Or do I need to accept the fact that I’m going to have to change as well?
Adamiak: I think it’s inevitable that change is going to happen. But, again, I don’t think in our experience we’ve ever met a client that was that resistant to change. What they were concerned about is changing in the most efficient way and without adversely affecting their ongoing operation.
Phelan: I think the answer to that is we cannot eliminate risk. Our job is to mitigate risk. There’s no such thing as 100%, but we try to get to as many “nines” as we can.
Adamiak: The cost issue, and the risk mitigation, really comes from experience and determination of what best practices exist out there that have been tested and proven by others. Some of our clients want to make sure there’s absolutely nothing experimental in their solution. We also have clients that want to be right on the cutting edge. And in both cases there’s a different quality to the risk and the cost. And our job is to help them understand that.
James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.