The 'Digital Transition' Becomes the 'IT Transition'
Underlying all the noise about information technology (IT) at NAB2003 is a quiet subtext that renders the phrase "digital transition" obsolete and signals huge changes ahead in the business of over-the-air broadcasting.
There are some very good reasons that most of the world's major television equipment manufacturers are focused on moving broadcasters from a video-based infrastructure to one built on Internet protocols.
Yes, most of IT's publicized benefits are true. It's more efficient, flexible and-since computer networking is now quite mature-far less costly than constantly upgrading to proprietary broadcast-centric A/V systems.
Having a broadcast infrastructure connected to the Internet is also a natural extension of the news and information culture. If nothing else, zapping video anywhere around the globe in an instant is really cool.
However, what's not being said -- at least openly -- is that going IT allows traditional broadcasters to bail out of a shaky business model while still having no clear vision of their future. The beauty of IT is it doesn't care what business you're in. A file is a file is a file-whether it's a video file for TV, an audio file for radio, a text file for a newspaper or an HTML file for a Web site.
It's no secret that traditional broadcast equipment sales have been in the tank for the past few years. One of the causes-besides a lousy economy-is that more than a few station owners are not exactly certain where over-the-air television broadcasting is headed in a multichannel pay TV universe.
Forget HDTV, which is being handed to cable operators on a silver platter. Just look at the broadcaster's lukewarm embrace of standard definition DTV to see a textbook case of cold feet. Uncertainty reigns. The one thing the owners do know is the old days of easy money are long over.
Equipment vendors, starving for sales, are making a strong pitch that a broadcaster can't go wrong by investing in IT, if for no other reason than it's the universal information delivery system for all global businesses. For broadcasters, it's a win-win technology. It allows those with vision to better leverage their programming assets, run a more efficient operation and spend less money at the same time.
And, just in case FCC chairman Michael Powell gets his way on ownership rule changes, the station owner is set to take the convergence path by combining his operation with other types of local media. What better way to run a combined print, TV, radio and Web than with an IT-based infrastructure?
One of the really smart guys in the broadcast infrastructure business is Chris Golson, a longtime Sony veteran who is now senior director of media industries at SGI. He has observed the broadcast industry migrate from analog to digital to attempts at centralization.
"Now we know centralization is not the panacea," said Golson. "You can't centralize and do everything out of one area. There's new thinking now. Broadcasters must manage their assets better. To do this, the infrastructure needs to be IT-based. Not format or video-based-not in HD, Betacam or DVCPRO. It's in file form and you can convert any file. It doesn't matter. It's just a data file.
"In the old days in television, you had to worry about encoding, decoding and loss of resolution," Golson continued. "In the new day-as a file format-you can transcode it to anything you want."
This is not futuristic thinking. The shift to broadcast over IP has already begun, with most activity so far in Europe. Expect some major American broadcasters to reveal their plans at NAB.
Also expect the "digital transition" to give way to the "IT transition" and watch it move swiftly since there's now an economic incentive to make it work.
Since this transition has barely begun, the potential winners in a newly converged multi-outlet media space are far from predictable. If broadcasters are to dominate, they'll have to wake up from their deep DTV sleep and seize the opportunity. "Don't assume it will be the broadcast station that will drive it," Golson said of IT media convergence. "It may be the newspaper that drives it with the TV station as the subsidiary."
Remember one thing, Golson added. "The business models of media are fast changing. The asset is now more important than the medium. When we grew up, the medium was it. That's not the case anymore."
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.