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Executive Profile: Snell and Wilcox's Roderick Snell

DigitalTV: You won the John Tucker Award for Excellence at the September 2001 International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam, recognizing your work in developing standards conversion techniques. Hasnât the world remained a very divided place regarding standards and formats?

Snell: For me, standards conversion always meant more than just the raw 525 to 625 conversion. We always saw it as a kind of cultural exchange. Often, the environment of the conversion was as important as the converter. We got the details right to enable the converter to work under the toughest conditions. If we prayed for confusion in the world, our prayers have been answered. Thereâs 16:9 to 4:3 conversion, and add to that analog to digital, standard definition to high definition, MPEG into DV, DV into MPEG, MPEG into baseband; the chaos just increases. Then there are the IT standards that have been added to the mix. Hours of fun! Standards conversion quickly leads us to format conversion.

DigitalTV: You have always been a very clever promoter of the company. Show giveaways and so forth. Do you get the feeling that the trade shows have lost their effectiveness? For example, Avid has announced that it is withdrawing as a exhibitor at the next IBC in favor of its own road show. Is it being shortsighted? What is your feeling about NAB, IBC, and Broadcast Asia?

Snell: I think one has to confess that exhibitors are feeling a bit exploited. They know that at show times the hotel bills are doubled. And, in that kind of macho world, each booth is expected to be the same size or bigger, or else everyone assumes that youâve shrunk. I can see the kind of movement [in the future] where people who feel that they are financing complex systems may not want look at all this gear expensively displayed. On the other hand, how do you let people know about something new, like HD? If I made a wonderful desktop editor or a new compact HD system, Iâd have to show [it to] people and prove it. We still get people coming to our booth and saying, ÎI didnât know you made all this other stuff other than standards conversion.â Everyone knows that Avid makes editors, but a newcomer has to be in the shows. But the shows have become too big a part of the annual budget. Maybe we should back off.

DigitalTV: Almost a decade ago, European broadcasters began to distance themselves from HDTV, choosing instead to emphasize multicasting and other forms of digital TV services. In response, European set manufacturers brought in sets not fully capable of displaying the best quality pictures. Was that all a mistake? What does the future hold for HD in Europe?

Snell: Iâm an enthusiast for HD myself. If the U.S. had been moving ahead faster, you could say that it clearly was a mistake. But as the U.S. market has been moving rather slowly, our inclination (in Europe) to make sure that digital transmission really worked was probably correct. To do both digital transmission and HD would have meant getting an awful lot of things right at once. Since we focused on digital TV (only) we have had a good take-up on it. Europe has concentrated on the digital, the program guide, languages, interactivity, and so on. It will be easier to go from there to HD than the other way around. Nearly every large screen set sold in Europe has either a line doubler or a field doubler. They increase the resolution of the picture either temporally or spatially. Market-wise, we did put a kind of big stop to HDTV in the home because of the way we set it up. The Australians didnât do that.

DigitalTV: You have been beefing up your U.S. operations over the past few years. You added seasoned managers like John Shike, formerly of Chyron. Has the firmâs U.S. position been significantly strengthened? Have you had to trim any staff or make any budget cuts?

Snell: Have we been successful in growing our American business? Not much, because of the recent climate. But, it wasnât just the problems in the autumn÷there was already a downturn in high tech. We have had to trim our budgets. There are posts that havenât been replaced. All companies operating in the U.S. talk about the percentage of shrinkage in the last year.

DigitalTV: Which products of yours have been the most popular in the U.S.?

Snell: HD products have been one of our biggest successes. Our HD switchers, in particular, have found really good acceptance in the U.S. We have quite a big share in that sector.

DigitalTV: One of the things that has been a factor in your success has been your decision some years ago to diversify away from standards converters.

Snell: We donât say Îaway from,â but rather Îupwards fromâ standards conversion. That is because a good standards converter is a kind of microcosm of the whole television system. It has decoding, sync generation, proc amps, color correction, enhancers, DVE, encoders, compositing, etc. Each one of those areas is a product line when removed.

DigitalTV: Looking five years ahead, and given the many trends, what kinds of products do you think end users will be buying?

Snell: One of the jokes at our company is that Înew technology explodes slowly.â Much of the U.S. is still analog. So, the conversion from analog to digital is still a big issue. Then there is the aspect of how studio VTRs and realtime linear systems are getting replaced by servers and server networks. If you talk to the IT community, they will tell you that they are about to take over the TV world next week. Iâm confident that they will have a lot more trouble than they think, though. They talk about how Mooreâs law is going to benefit them. Why shouldnât similar principles apply to TV? Once I get HD I want 3D and once I get 3D I want super 3D. And, the Hollywood moviemaking craft skills are very difficult to pick up. And, you canât do that with a few PCs. Newsgathering is similar. People donât like editing with a mouse and keyboard. IT will bring interesting improvements in efficiency, workflow, archiving, and shipping. Treating a TV image as a straight data file doesnât work that well yet.

DigitalTV: Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation was quoted recently as saying that he thought there was already a small improvement in local U.S. TV ad revenues. The worldwide economic recession began for the broadcast industry in December 2000. Do you think that things are already starting to turn around in the U.S. market?

Snell: From sheer observation, I find that, based on the job layoffs and the valuation of high tech companies, TV does get hit. But, even if you lose your job, you probably go home and watch TV. Murdoch may be right that the upward pressure to come out of the recession may be led by TV. A return to confidence, if you like. Itâs got to go up this year. But, Iâd put my money on the summer, not the spring, as he appears to be doing.