It is rare to have an industry as influential as post production for primetime broadcasting that is dominated as significantly as Avid rules over TV production and post. But after this year's 60th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, Avid was able to boast that all of the award winners across 31 categories used at least one system from Avid or its Digidesign, Softimage, Sibelius and M-Audio brands. In total, more than 140 nominees in 38 categories used Avid brand systems.
That's quite an achievement for a company who earlier this year, just before April's NAB convention, announced a multilevel shake-up of its executive team and a major revamp of its complete product line. Their press release called the move "New Thinking," saying it was "a customer-focused campaign designed to improve the way the company connects with all of its users and prospects."
It was indeed a significant move. They merged Avid Xpress Pro software into the Media Composer line, simplifying a somewhat confusing product listing and lowering the price to boot—from $4,995 down to $2,495—and offered a credit for those who had purchased after Jan. 1. In addition, they brought out new software versions of Avid Media Composer (Version 3.0), NewsCutter (Version 7.0), and Symphony (Version 3.0) software, as well as new hardware configurations, Mojo DX and Nitris DX.
Among many improvements over the previous Adrenaline hardware, the DX architecture replaces FireWire 400 I/O with the PCI-e bus, resulting in up to a 20X data transfer acceleration.
"Our number one goal is to continue to provide solutions to our customers that enable and inspire them to unleash their creativity. We feel we were able to successfully meet those requirements with our DX solutions," said Kirk Arnold, Avid's executive vice president of customer operations. "The rapid adoption in the market has proven that we've made good on this promise."
Stephen Semel, editor of "Lost" with the Avid console. The new NLE's empowered by DX started shipping in June. Soon after, Darin Kerby, president of Catalyst Post, a major rental and technical support facility in Burbank, Calif., purchased 25 Media Composer Nitris DX systems and immediately placed them on productions such as TLC's "10 Years Younger," Fox's "Family Court with Judge Penny" and TBS' "10 Items or Less," among several others.
"With these new DX-based systems we have been able to jump to eight core Intel Macs running up to 3.2 GHz dual processors with eight gigs of RAM," Kerby said. "And, while the previous Meridien systems capped out at Apple's 10.2.8 OS we are using the latest 10.5.5 version of Leopard now. Newer versions of third-party software demand that level of operation."
Of course, the new Avid systems also run just fine on Windows Vista, either the 32- or 64-bit operating system versions.
"The new Avid NLEs have already affected our business remarkably," Kerby said, "and we predict that within the next 18 months we will be 100 percent on the Media Composer Nitris DX systems."
NEW DX SYSTEMS
Another edit system facility supporting major Hollywood productions is Digital Vortechs, and its CEO, Jim Longeretta, considers the speed of the new systems as important to the assistant editors as it is to head picture cutters.
"They can do more multitasking during their daily workflow which speeds up the data wrangling. One very useful advantage is the new DX-based NLEs can burn multiple timecode windows in real time, which eliminates a lot of rendering time when producing DVDs for review," Longeretta said.
Ironically, for some of Hollywood's top editors, the upgrade in Avid's technology is less important than the fact DX architecture lets them step into HD post with the same reliability SD Avid had provided in the past. Multi-Emmy nominated editor and winner of an ACE award, Stephen Semel, has started using a Media Composer Nitris DX system this season to cut ABC's "Lost" in high definition.
"The new Media Composer Nitris DX systems present the source material to me flawlessly," Semel said. "Certain bells and whistles are different from our previous Meridien-based Media Composer, but my responsibility is the picture cut, which is simply faster and more stable. While we can create temp opticals in our Avid Media Composer, final VFX are created on other systems and handed back to me for inclusion in our cut for approval from the producers. But for narrative picture editing, I feel the new DX systems live up to what Avid had promised."
Of course, editors can always ask for improvements.
"Avid has done a good job of supporting the myriad of new codecs that seem to be coming from camera manufacturers at an ever increasing pace," said Bruce Dixon, an editor and chief technology officer at EFX Media, a full service video production company in Arlington, Va., and organizer of the Washington, D.C. Avid Users group. "What Avid still needs to add is the ability to mix frame rates in the timeline. Mixing HD and SD was a good start. Now in Version 3 you can mix interlaced and progressive footage. The next step is mixing frame rates. Avid's FluidMotion timewarp technology should be harnessed to convert footage in the timeline that is the 'wrong' frame rate."
So it looks as if Avid's "New Thinking" is providing editors with better tools at a lower price. That's good for the creative community. But has it paid off for Avid's bottom line yet?
Avid's third quarter earnings results were released on Oct. 23, and revealed revenue of $217.1 million for the three-month period ended Sept. 30, 2008, compared to $226.8 million for the same period in 2007. Much of that decline was due to one-time charges from their restructuring and inventory write-offs over the past year.
The Q3 report also included plans to divest Avid's Softimage 3D animation products, and four days later they announced that their Pinnacle PCTV hardware line would be sold to rival Hauppauge Technology by the end of the year.
Steven B. Frankel, a financial analyst with Canaccord Adams who tracks Avid, said, "It's been a pretty rough quarter but if you peer below the surface on the quarter there are some signs that the turnaround is beginning to have some traction. The company has sold off two businesses, have announced a significant reduction in head count that will shrink operating expenses significantly next year, and have focused their business on being customer driven."
The day following Avid's Q3 report, leading financial services firm J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., said, "Avid's restructuring is welcome and could pay off in much improved operating margins; however, none of the prior restructuring initiatives conducted by Pinnacle or Avid in the last four years has paid off in sustainable growth and margin improvement. We think the risks remain tilted to the downside. There is execution risk involved, and timing—outside of management's control—is awkward, as it coincides with a likely slowdown in 2009, we believe."
Still, Avid remains a cornerstone of the post-production business. Here's hoping all the best for them. There is no firm word whether Avid will be exhibiting in the Las Vegas Convention Center at the 2009 NAB Show, but we'll all rejoice if they decide to return victoriously to our industry's most important annual event.
Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, CA 90266 or at JayAnkeney@mac.com.