The Technology’s Really Cool. And It’s Where The Industry’s Going

Usually we resort to big metaphors when we try to describe a National Association of Broadcasters convention. But Mrs. Glaser drilled into me the meaning of “synecdoche” when I was in her ninth grade English class, and the NAB convention drilled it into me again.

There’s always lots of useful gear and market intrigue on offer at NAB. Some years, there’s even lots of new useful gear and intriguing new business potential at NAB.

This year, not only were all of these conditions fulfilled, but the business news concurrent with the event so obviously was made possible by the wave of technology change—in other words, with the gear and tech services for sale on the show floor—that, class, we must see this NAB show as part and parcel, cause and effect, small part of the thing that symbolizes total thing, for/to/with all Hollywood/TV/advertising entertainment. Like the blood on Macbeth’s hands (thank you Mrs. G) it is a synecdoche of the larger killer happening.

Everywhere I looked at NAB, opportunity was reconnecting itself into new networks. Surely the uptick in attendance and buzz was about multiple end-market booms:

  • The clear deadline reality of HD;
  • The reality, finally, of a digital cinema transition;
  • IPTV (booming much more outside than inside the U.S., but a little boom here, too, nonetheless);
  • The sudden mainstreaming of Web video, now available for primetime shows and features from major networks and studios, as well as from your wacky nephew;
  • The introduction of competing mobile video services;
  • Continuing rapid growth for digital signage;
  • There must be another trend or two here, but I can’t think of any.

What all these obviously have in common is that they’re about new networks for distribution. (HD included, of course: what HD’s really about, as a business proposition for broadcasters, is using the new digital-mandated spectrum to disintermediate the cable operator, at least from enough homes to increase broadcasters’ bargaining power for retransmission rights.) What they have less obviously in common are far lower production/post-production/serving/distribution costs, due to high-capability software running on commodity hardware. In other words, all the new useful gear at NAB is making possible multiple new video business models.

Omneon’s MediaGrid server, this magazine’s cover story for April, is the second infinitely scalable storage/server design to come out of the video business. First was Avid’s Unity ISIS this winter, but Avid is packaging ISIS as bulletproof for core major-network apps, and won’t have to slide down the price scale until competition forces it.

Here’s the first true competition. What does this really mean? Pundits have been opining that that web video is delightful except that servers can’t keep up with the load of a world watching TV on the Internet unless they go to file sharing a la BitTorrent and Morpheus. In file sharing, the file owner doesn’t have to pay for the storage. But, of course, the file sharer doesn’t have to pay for the file.

Well, this new generation of servers is like BitTorrent in a box. They can scale and handle vast video distribution cost-effectively, first benefiting broadcasters and production houses, and then video-to-home. Competitors will arise, too, from the likes of EMC and Akamai and Google. And Warner Bros. use of BitTorrent itself to distribute movies is itself competition. Video will be served.

And video will be produced in just such distributed ways...or is it film? The first production models of Grass Valley’s Infinity camcorder and of Blackmagic Design’s HD Extreme card, the move by Avid Technology to turn its flagship Media Composer into a $5,000 software set, the radically innovative overarching TV station origination software set from tiny German firm Cinegy: these may seem to be disparate phenomena, but they’re really all part of the same trend.

Grass Valley VP of worldwide strategic marketing/business development Jeff Rosica says, “We’re recognizing the inevitable. Let people use whatever storage media they want.” It’s all about allowing any product but yours to become a commodity. And sometimes, it’s about embracing the commoditization of your own product, while betting that you can race ahead building it more profitably than any competitors can.

Some specifics:

Throughout the lifetimes of many videographers, there have only been eight pro video camcorder manufacturers to choose among. Now suddenly, video cameras are a hot new business. GV’s Infinity is only one of the most widely known of a new generation that includes new models, too, from Sony, Panasonic and JVC. And, fascinatingly, it includes ARRI, with a working model of its film-style digital video camera for the first time, after years of previews. Olympus has entered the pro video camera business with a prototype camera/disk recorder combo resolving at 1,600 lines, using four 2/3-inch imagers with 8.3 megapixels each, for 4K shooting. Start-up Iconnix Video uses 1/3-inch imagers but does 180p from a very tiny camera head. Fellow start-up Red showed PowerPoints and carved wood models of a camera using its own 12-megapixel chip with 4:4:4 output via a proprietary codec. Immersive Media Corp. showed its 360o Geo-Immersive system that uses 11 cameras in spherical sync to provide omnidirectional video with three hours capacity per removable disk drive at HD res, which can be viewed in QuickTime or Windows Media. Colorspace showed prototypes of its multi-frame-rate/speed digital cameras using standard 16mm and 35mm lenses and assembled in a turnkey with Assimilate Scratch post software. And Silicon Imaging’s single-chip (its own CMOS) camera records native Adobe Premiere format and will do likewise for Apple Final Cut Pro by 2007.

Availability of big new imagers from merchant semiconductor companies plus commodity storage and the move to multiple hi-res formats means the video camera business is up for grabs.

“The economics of this are fascinating,” says Blackmagic Design’s Simon Hollingworth, in charge of worldwide product marketing. “You buy the chips in volumes that nobody ever sold them in before, and those volumes are made possible as much by your competitors as by you, and then it’s a race to sell the cards for less than anybody ever has to more people than have ever bought them.”

As Blackmagic Design and fellow Australian archrival AJA Video chase Matrox and Avid with a multitude of HD, multiformat and other top-quality video cards, costs for HD post-production are falling to the floor. The same sort of competition on the software side—mostly between Avid and Apple and Adobe Systems—is not quite a coincidence: the hardware guys count on the existence of inexpensive software to spur demand.

Arguably, there’s been too much competing NLE, compositing and graphics software for a number of years. Longtime industry stalwart VertigoXmedia, for one, has never been very visible, just continues to turn out good graphics software. At NAB, Miranda Technologies announced that it bought the fellow Montreal company for $11 million Canadian. The boards maker—recently gone public—has grown up and swallowed the software that runs on its boards.

The Vertigo guys, by the way, sold their whole company but bought back their little digital signage piece. And they will build again in that hot new growth area as X2O Media, headed by former VertigoXmedia president and CEO David Wilkins.

There were at least three fascinating developments in automation software. Two were very similar. Long-time leader OmniBus Systems unveiled iTX (see Cover Story), an entirely new rewrite that replaces all of the functions of a broadcast master control and playout chain in a single software application operating on standard IT hardware. Care to hear that again?

German newcomer Cinegy (formerly known as the NLE competitor AIST) has been developing a similar package for years, some of which is bundled by Siemens in its Colledia package. As Cinegy has built out its overarching system to use its NLE expertise, too, it also now has a complete master control/playout chain app, and this one includes craft editing, news automation, ingest, video server and virtually every other desktop app a station needs. They announced its sale to Turkey’s dominant broadcaster, Dogan Media Group; CNN Turkey is originated from it, among other channels.

Several other long-in-tooth automation packages will probably be rewritten soon, too. Meantime, the auto packages that have been achieving most success in recent years have been the littler ones (perhaps because they have a smaller code base to write and upgrade as all the technology they must control changes rapidly): Crispin, the Australian Florical and Sundance Digital. Just before the show, Avid bought Sundance. What does this mean for the industry? See the sidebar, please.

Last month we looked at the strikingly successful business model for digital cinema advertising. That was a perfect mood-maker for the SMPTE digital cinema conference co-located with NAB. There have been a number of such conferences in recent years, but this was the first where I had to search for a few minutes to find a seat. The transition is clearly happening. According to the National Assoc. of Theater Owners president John Fithian, there will be 1,200 to 1,500 digital screens in the U.S. by the end of the year, up from 400 in April. “Next year there will be a huge takeoff,” he says, “And in 10 years film will be gone.”

Digital cinema means theaters can show concerts and host corporate events on off-days. And why not premieres of TV shows? Those shows will probably look better than they do online, generate plenty of buzz and not take away as much from broadcast viewing, either.

Dig-cin means small filmmakers can get into wide release with a bit less difficulty (because no one will need to take a chance on making a thousand film prints), and it means all the technology growing up in the digital intermediate space can keep growing up and out to make video-originated material look film-like (which means it will surely infect the TV production world, too). And it supports all those new startup high-res electronic cameras mentioned above.

OK, going from digital cinema to tiny mobile screens is a bit like moving from the sublime to the absurd. But mobile video is looking less absurd to me after NAB. Aloha Networks announced that it is using its substantial bandwidth for DVB-H. The existing U.S. DVB-H bunch held a press conference at which Crown Castle’s Modeo said their valuation is up so much that they are now looking for debt rather than equity financing. And TI said it would only support DVB-H, not rival MediaFLO. Qualcomm, parent of MediaFLO, is in no mood to compromise either. So we have a war on our hands. Which, in turn, means competition for your content and for subscribers. All good news.

But why does the business look a bit less absurd to me now? Because I held the MediaFLO working prototype in hand, and darn if that small screen, held as close as one would tend to, looked pretty good! And darn if Snell & Wilcox didn’t have a cool-looking software piece at the show that blurs backgrounds in high-processing-requirement video, such as crowd scenes in sports, so you can focus on the essential action on the tiny screen. And darn if Chyron didn’t announce an interesting patent on auto-resizing and interactive text for broadcast graphics converted to mobile video. And darn if everybody younger than half my age doesn’t seem to do everything mobilely. If iPods replace lots of record collections, may not mobile video devices replace lots of today’s broadcast TV? Maybe mobile combined with downloads? Combined with digital cinema?

Maybe nobody knows. But it’s going to be interesting.

Neal Weinstock is editor-in-chief of Weinstock Media Analysis and can be reached through