ENG cameras a tough sell in today’s fractured landscape

These days selling video cameras to TV stations is a tough way to make a living, yet the manufacturers of the myriad of available products for electronic newsgathering say the outlook for cameras sales is “strong” for this year and beyond. They key to success, they say, is to know whom your customer is and how any new camera will fit into that customer’s existing workflow.

With new types of competitive models continuing to emerge from all corners of the technology spectrum and broadcasters’ budgets being reduced nearly every year, the prospect of offering ENG or studio cameras for more than $25,000 and finding a wiling buyer are pretty much over. The prospect of designing and building a camera that is attractive to a large number of people is getting harder and harder all the time.

“I think limited budgets leads to everything,” said Joseph Facchini, vice president, Media and Production Services, for Panasonic Broadcast (opens in new tab). “Necessity is the mother of invention and when broadcasters have to do more with less, that leads to innovative changes in the way people work. This leads to new technology and new types of cameras. It slows down the buying process, but drives manufacturers to really work to design products that allow customers to adapt.”

Most would agree that the video production world and its camera buying habits is a lot different than it was three years ago. Selling products like the shoulder-mount Panasonic AG-HPX500 2/3-inch P2 camcorder (for around $19,000) is getting tougher and tougher. Looking to gain a larger share of the ENG market in these tough economic times, Panasonic also offers an 8 lb., HD shoulder-mount camcorder (the AJ-HPX300) that records to P2 solid-state cards with three 1/3-inch “3-MOS” sensors for roughly $10,000. Yet, even this model has been hard to sell in quantity.

“The handheld camcorder market continues to grow at the expense of the shoulder camcorder market,” Facchini said. “The thing that’s interesting is that it’s growing faster than the shoulder camcorder market is declining. This creates an opportunity for a manufacture to create better handheld models.”

Rise of the CMOS sensor

It was in 2008 that the advancement of the CMOS sensor as a cost-effective alternative to traditional-style video camcorders began to shake up the common notion of what a video camera could do. It led to cameras of different shapes and with higher resolutions and new features not previously within reach of local stations’ budgets. And it brought down the price significantly, reducing once sizeable profit margins to the point that manufacturers have to sell a lot more units to make up the difference.

In order to boost sales, manufacturers had relied on most stations making the transition from SD to HD digital newsgathering soon after the analog shutoff on February 17, 2009, but those transitions have occurred a bit slower than some would have predicted. Indeed, some stations still acquire their news with standard-definition (16:9) cameras.

“The ENG market is pretty saturated [right now],” said Alec Shapiro, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Broadcast and Production Systems Division at Sony Electronics. “Most stations made their format decisions over past three years. For those stations that have not made a transition to HD field acquisition, they will do it when they can and will make purchase decisions based on their workflow and operational needs.”

Shapiro said his company continues to sell a wide range of cameras across its XDCAM HD (optical disc), XDCAM EX and NXCAM product lines—ranging from $4,000 to 19,000—by employing a “solutions approach” selling strategy for its ENG customers. The idea is to focus on production workflow and station operations in addition to the camera’s features.

“While budgets may be limited, our customers seem to know very well what they are looking for and what they can afford,” he said, adding that despite the onslaught of competition, Sony continues to sell cameras to television stations “every day.”

Sony’s lightweight (8 lbs) PMW-EX3 compact camcorder—with interchangeable lenses—includes three ½-inch “Exmor” HD CMOS sensors and various workflow features, and costs around $8,000.

Know Your Customer

The prevailing wisdom among most camera manufacturers today is: figure out a station’s workflow and then target a camera to fit that application. Many admit that doing this has helped sell cameras. For example, Grass Valley does not offer a handheld ENG-style camcorder—like Canon, JVC, Ikegami, Panasonic and Sony do. Yet it continues to find success in supporting large live sports and entertainment events with its LDK 3000+ (CMOS sensor) and LDK 8000 Elite HD (CCD) cameras.

According to the Grass Valley website, a typical LDK3000+ configuration costs $84,433 (including camera head, triax camera adapter, 2-inch viewfinder, LDK3000+ base station, OCP400 and tripod adapter). The list price of a comparable configuration based on the LDK 8000 Elite series starts at $ 105,887.

Indeed, these cameras are not cheap, but provide a good example that price is not the only deciding factor when making a camera purchase. In the case of Grass Valley, its cameras fill a multiformat need that many mobile production companies and production studios can’t seem to live without.

“We’re active in the broadcast market, not the ENG market from a camera’s perspective,” said Ronny van Geel, director of Product Management for Cameras at Grass Valley. “Within the broadcast market, we are both strong in the segment that’s attracted to the LDK 8000 Elite Series [mainly mobile production companies] as well as the segment that’s attracted to our LDK 3000+ Series, which are purchased for studio use and fixed operations of all kinds.”

Coming up with the next big thing in cameras can be confusing for camera designers, as customers’ habits have changed so drastically over the past few years. Stations continue to buy handheld camcorders, but many—especially in smaller markets—won't pay more than $6-8,000, allowing them to put more cameras on the street. Yet, the advent of the DSLR and its ability to capture high-quality stills as well as 1080p/24 video images certainly hasn't helped in this regard. Even Apple’s iPhone has been used for special types of newsgathering.

Due to product confusion and a more savvy buyer, some video journalists today that would have purchased a video camera for $6,000 now buy a DSLR for around the same price, but it comes with interchangeable lenses and other video-friendly features.

Building Cameras People Want

“It’s not difficult to sell in today’s market when you're offering cameras that broadcasters actually want,” said Larry Librach, vice president of the Broadcast and Public Sector at JVC Professional Products Company. “Our market share of cameras in the broadcast market has increased over the last 38 months. While many of our competitors continued to offer expensive, heavy, and power hungry models with older, less efficient encoding technology and expensive proprietary media, JVC developed lighter, small form factor cameras that consume less power—and, most importantly, fit seamlessly into the broadcaster's budget and workflow.”

JVC said it has been successful selling lots of 1/3-inch cameras over the past year to stations and production studios looking for affordable solutions. Its ProHD line of cameras—including the shoulder-mount GY-HM750 (at up to $7,000) and the handheld GY-HM150 (for around $3,000)—can acquire footage as edit-ready (.MOV) files that allow fast editing without the need to ingest or copy files from one media type to another. According to the company, this is exactly what hundreds of broadcasters are doing in order to produce high-quality newscasts on a shoestring budget. In fact, many would not be able to afford the transition without the cost benefits of these smaller cameras.

Features Over Form Factor

While some companies have made the necessary changes in design and feature sets, others appear to be having a hard time adjusting to the new market forces. At Hitachi Kokusai Electric America, Sean Moran, Vice President of the Broadcast Division, said they are finding it difficult to penetrate the ENG market because “our product has several disadvantages; price, size, and features.”

Its cameras (the SK-HD1000, 2/3-inch CCD model and the Z-HD5000 2/3 CCD camera system with a dockable HDTV P-2 recorder) weigh up to 18 lbs (with lens), making them much heavier than the one-piece camcorders offered by others in the business. The SK-HD1000 starts at $38,285 ($58,000 for a fully configured HD studio/EFP package) while the Z-HD5000 costs from $19,328 to $35,865, with an HD lens.

“Although the Hitachi 2/3-inch sensors will outperform the other inferior sensors, customers are being pushed to purchase a lighter, more cost-effective solution,” said Moran. "Our typical camcorder sale is to existing end users that have studio cameras and want the flexibility of docking a recorder to it at any time to gather some video. Unfortunately sales to the broadcast community have lessened over the years, which I find hard to comprehend since we offer some of the finest broadcast cameras on the market today at the most reasonable prices.”

Operations Over Features

Regarding workflow, all of these companies offer related video production products—video switchers, servers and editing systems—that can help sell cameras to stations looking for a total end-to-end solution. And that’s helped camera sales.

“[2011] was very good for us,” Grass Valley’s van Geel said. “What we recognize is that the overall cost of operation is an increasingly important factor for our customers. With our full product portfolio to support the camera’s we sell, we don’t think it’s really difficult to sell cameras in today’s broadcast market. And we’re proving it every month.”

However, as production industry websites like VideoJournalistToday can attest: smaller, lighter, and cheaper is winning out among today’s young video journalists.

“Anybody that thinks camera sales will go back to the way it used to be, with proprietary recording formats and big, heavy hardware, is crazy,” said Dave Walton, vice president of Marketing Communications at JVC. “The reality is that today’s small cameras can produce very high quality HD video and station management wants one-person video journalists for each camera in the field. DSLR cameras can give you a nice creative shallow depth of field, but that’s not what a journalist needs.”