For at least a decade, we have been hearing the word convergence, implying that the very different worlds of IT, telecommunications and broadcasting are moving together. This has certainly not been a painless process.
Television has been widely regarded as a conservative industry. The standards that both broadcasters and audiences expected were dependent upon craft skills and highly specialized equipment.
Virtually every operation was manually controlled, and the application of ideas from IT was seen as a threat because of the constraints it was perceived to impose. That the first attempts at large-scale automation came from the IT industry rather than a traditional broadcast manufacturer added to the concerns.
The primary use of computers at this time was to control stand-alone items of equipment such as graphics libraries or character generators. For most broadcasters, the prospect of owning and operating an automated and networked multi-channel facility remained but a distant possibility.
The IT industry had already transformed other business sectors. Its great strength, of course, was to automate repetitive tasks, freeing staff to focus on activities that require human skills, and achieving much greater productivity. Automating the output of a television station was an obvious area in which there were a very large number of dull, repetitive tasks, and thus it was ripe for the application of computer technology.
There were, however, significant challenges in the television industry that do not exist in, for example, banking or telecommunications. Most industries claim the need for real-time systems, yet nothing else has the tyranny of television and its demand for a new picture precisely every twenty-fifth of a second. The new systems integrators, using IT to control and automate television, had to learn how to work in this environment, and at times it was a painful process.
The challenges were ultimately met, and the onset of this new technology has radically changed the landscape for broadcasters. It has given them the opportunity to migrate to full integration and automation and, consequently, benefit from enhanced operational efficiency and a more creative production process. Ultimately, savings made in these essential but non-creative areas can be passed to production, and result in both more choice and better quality programs.
Structure and integration
Now there are both a vital influence of IT practices in broadcasting and a feedback of demands from the broadcast world to IT. Only by bringing the two environments together could, for example, the broadcast video server — probably the most significant single development in technology — have been created. Television has been transformed by the application of data storage and management techniques to the storage and distribution of pictures and sound.
Fully networked and automated digital systems enable all the elements within a studio to work together efficiently as one coordinated entity. This form of tight integration has allowed television news journalists to browse through video archives, edit material and produce finished news stories, all from their desktop computers.
In addition, the ability to provide customized software solutions has become a critical requirement for manufacturers, systems integrators and automation providers alike. Those companies that are prepared extensively to tailor system configurations around the world will be better positioned to maximize the value created by broadcasters’ processes and workflow.
In fact, workflow is one key area where applying techniques derived from IT can bring huge benefits to broadcasters. Typical applications might range from the development of high-level systems capable of taking a “helicopter” view of whole facilities, to the creation of more targeted task management solutions that present individual operators with clear step-by-step instructions about what they need to do and when.
The influence of IT techniques within the broadcast industry is about more than just streamlining operations. Critically, the focus is also on the need to open up new revenue-generating opportunities. The trend for broadcasters to add new channels and new delivery platforms to their existing mix has been made possible by the growing power of IT within television and, specifically, the emergence of multi-channel automation solutions. The rise of automation also has meant that media management has become more important, both in order to move material around stations and to track media within facilities through all stages of its life. That life may also now include repurposing for new media such as the Internet or broadband delivery, and it may also include new applications such as interactivity.
By linking the television program with telecommunications and IT, broadcasters are creating exciting new content that can also represent new income streams. Finally, they allow tailoring of the service to the audience in ever more tightly-controlled specialist services.
Reaching an audience of one
In the past, broadcasters have often been able to rely on making money from a mass market through advertising revenues. This is unlikely to be the case in the future. Today’s new breed of sophisticated television viewer is accustomed to a rich and varied broadcast experience, which might take in pay-per-view, video-on-demand and interactive television. At the same time, such people are becoming more discerning, more demanding and more closely focused on value for money.
For the broadcaster, the main objective will no longer be simply to boost audience share. Instead, in order to retain and expand on its existing customer base, the industry will need to focus more on the level of the individual treatment each customer wants.
Looking to the future
Broadcasting has come a long way since the days when IT was generally viewed with a mixture of suspicion and skepticism. New operational and business models are fully tried and tested, having been put into practice successfully by broadcasters around the world. To a large extent, the conservatism that may have characterized the industry in the past has been replaced by a willingness not only to try out new technologies but also to take full advantage of the revenue-generating opportunities that such use can create.
The application of IT has done much more than transform the administrative and organizational processes within a broadcast facility. It has provided the platform for a wide range of successful new services. As we look to the future, IT will help to make possible a fundamental shift in the way broadcasters approach the television market, i.e. away from an emphasis on the mass market to a much closer focus on the precise requirements of the individual customer. Broadcasting and IT are finally converging in an exciting new world.
Sanjaya Addanki is CEO of OmniBus Systems.