Prior to NAB, conversations I had with broadcasters and vendors opened with: “Are you going?” and “What are you expecting the attendance to be?” The optimistic vendors talk of quality instead of quantity (referring to the visitors); the less optimistic have pulled out. Although NAB is a focal point in the engineering calendar — not just for the U.S. broadcasters but also for international visitors from all sectors of the visual media — the business of creating and publishing video content continues, show or no show.
Since the turn of the century, the television business has been evolving to meet the challenges of the Web, as well as embracing new technologies like HD and mobile TV. This revolution in the digital media business provided new opportunities for some, but is a threat to the less agile.
Special events can disrupt gradual evolution of technology for media production. This year's economic situation is definitely a special event, and I'm sure it will lead to casualties. Those that survive will be in a better place to turn profit in the future. As the smart management takes time to look at every aspect of its operations, technology can provide solutions that will only hasten the move away from videotape. As broadcasters cast around for savings, the advantages of file-based workflows become even more attractive.
Spending on talent and production crews is difficult to reduce, but the engineering side has potential. Once media is handled as files, many former manual operations can be performed by software running on commodity platforms. As a consequence, labor-intensive operations are removed from the workflow, and it becomes easier to automate processes like repurposing, quality control and transcoding. These changes in the workflow make it possible to remove cost from a media business.
File-based operations are not the complete magic bullet for replacing broadcast engineering equipment or for reducing costs. Equipment used for acquisition is specialist video equipment and not subject to Moore's law. A lens is a complex piece of optical design with limits imposed by the laws of physics. But it is now becoming common to walk away from a shoot with a handful of solid-state drives (and a hard drive or data tape backup). Even cinematographers can now capture direct to CompactFlash cards. So when a project arrives at post production, it is already in file form.
At the tail end of the chain, the signal leaves the station as an MPEG data stream, and it is out of the realm of IT equipment again. Microwave links, towers and transmitters are also outside the scope of Moore's law. But everything in the middle is up for grabs, from ingest to master control.
The problem with broadcasting, as far as IT platforms are concerned, is the real-time programming. Every time commodity servers advance to offer the speed that can process video, we change the target. Right now it's 3Gb/s, which is still challenging for off-the-shelf hardware. Right around the corner there is planar stereoscopic TV, which will eventually be 2X 3Gb/s. So bespoke broadcast hardware will have a place in the production chain for many years.
With 2009 being such a difficult time for capital spending, proving an ROI has become even more important. Will broadcasters find they can do without big iron and focus on software solutions? Baseband video is still needed for live sport, special events and live entertainment, and with it the need for the specialist equipment we are all familiar with.
The print business went through a similar revolution in the 1980s. Cut and paste meant just that, a scalpel cutting lengths of galley type. The pages went under big process cameras to create plates. The introduction of desktop publishing meant that the old mechanical methods could be cast aside. I can see that this year is going to accelerate similar quantum shifts in the television business.
IT is moving into the media space; witness the “connected home.” Over-the-air television has been relegated to be just one of the pipes delivering content to the home.
Who will it affect? Not the creative folks, but the job of tape operator is set to follow the compositor into being a distant memory.
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