At IBC2006, manufacturers strained to find new business

At the IBC2006 conference last week, professional production and broadcast equipment suppliers appeared as anxious and uncertain in attempting to attract and retain buyers as their European broadcast customers were in finding and retaining viewers.

During the show in Amsterdam, suppliers were offering a broad array of products, some clearly necessary to stations' daily operations and others hoping to find a practical application. The latest technology to fit into the latter category, mobile video production, transmission and display, was on everyone's mind, but few were actually buying.

With European broadcasters only now considering HDTV in earnest, — after a highly successful trial by fire of the technology and consumer appetite for it during the FIFA World Cup — and as consumers there begin to buy TV sets in volume, the potential for professional equipment sales would appear to be promising. At most exhibit stands, equipment vendors said they were more pleased with current business than the same time last year. But, they admit, things could have been better.

This was born out of a new survey released by the trade organization that represents manufactures and service suppliers to the European broadcast industry. The U.K-based International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers (IABM)'s latest “Industry Index” found that sales growth was up approximately 16 percent year-on-year for the average company.

However, IABM's research also found that European businesses were improving profitability while those in North America were down slightly. The group's Quarterly Industry Trends survey revealed that Q2 2006 had not lived up to its members' expectations. It said that the uptake of HD technology in Europe had been slower than expected. The requirement to meet strict compliance rules for European environmental regulations (RoHS requirements) has hurt many because it has caused companies to redesign their products to be free of lead and other hazardous materials.

Record attendance

This year's show attracted 42,500 attendees, according to the IBC, which was up from last year and reportedly a “record crowd.” At a time when a number of large, multichannel playout facilities are being designed and constructed around the world, it would appear that if you are selling small-format HD cameras (Canon, JVC, Sony), video servers (Grass Valley, Harris, Omneon), multi-image display software (Barco, Evertz, Miranda, Zandar) and routing switchers (Grass Valley, Harris, Pesa, Utah Scientific), sales are up considerably. If, however, your company makes wireless HD transmission systems (3G Wireless, Grass Valley, Ikegami, JVC, Link Research, Nucomm, TANDBERG Television), HD newsgathering equipment, HD production switchers or SD cameras, life could be better.

After discussing Sony's 25 years of making and marketing HD products — more than any other company in the industry — Naomi Climer, vice president of the company Broadcast and Professional Business in Europe, said business was “good for us and everyone in the business.” It was also announced that Sony had sold 1000 HDCAM products and more than 90,000 HDV products (worldwide).

The major marketing strategies unveiled at the show revealed strikingly different approaches. Some (Grass Valley, Harris, Miranda, Sony) offered one-stop-shop slogans that supported full product ranges designed to avoid losing a large sale by not offering a complete solution.

“We're putting less emphasis on individual products and focusing more on a systems approach,” said Tim Thorsteinson, president of the Harris Broadcast Communications Division. At the show, Harris announced a new technology partnership with Isilon, to bundle Isilon's clustered near-line storage systems with Harris' news and distribution products, as well as its H-Class platform for handling content across the production and distribution chain. “By offering a complete solution, we can show customers how they can save money over the long-term. Swapping out disparate systems costs money and time, which broadcasters can't afford,” Thorsteinson said.

Many others (including Omneon, Snell & Wilcox and Omnibus Systems) were offering systems that invited popular third-party applications to work together in a seamless fashion.

“We understand that broadcasters want to choose specific applications, based on their experience and skill sets,” said Geoff Stedman, vice president of worldwide marketing at Omneon. “We don't want to make choices for our customers, although ultimately it's the storage system that must support everything, so we're careful to recommend certain pieces when asked. We have a saying, 'When something is broke, customers want to know who to choke.'”

Perennial exhibitors Avid and Panasonic decided not to host an exhibit stand, while Snell & Wilcox, which chose not to exhibit last year, was back, albeit in a smaller booth.

Competition was fierce

Snell's Zaller said his company didn’t regret its decision to stay away last year, but acknowledged that not having a booth made it hard to host customer meetings. This year, they showed a new standard converter for HD material and iCR, a multiformat encoding platform designed for repurposing content.

“Competition is fierce, so you have to use your marketing dollars as effectively as you can,” he said. “It's possible we lose some sales because we can't bundle an end-to-end system. [By not exhibiting last year] we were able to do a lot of regional events and get closer to the customer.”

Zaller added that it had not been decided whether to exhibit next year. “The goal is to make sure customers get hands-on experience with the products,” he said.

New cameras demonstrated at the show included JVC's GY-HD251 HDV camcorder, Grass Valley's LDK 8000 multiformat HD camera, a PAL version of Panasonic's HDX-900 and Sony's new V1e HDV camcorder.

Quantel announced its first software-only product, Marco, an editing program with the Quantel interface that works on any laptop or desktop PC. Tektronix introduced Cerify to the European market, its automated verification system for file-based video content.

“The broadcast industry has to understand that customers want choice,” said Ian Fletcher, CTO and co-founder of Omnibus Systems, speaking about his company's new computer-based iTX system, which features modules for master control, branding, encoding and machine control. “We offer an integrated platform approach, but give the option to third-party applications. We're convinced that's the only way to succeed with customers going forward.”

Embracing IT-based systems and supplying content to multiple distribution platforms with as little extra effort as possible is a goal of virtually every new customer. Manufacturers are now offering the tools to get it done, and at a price point only slightly higher than similarly featured SD systems. In Europe, like in the United States, it appears that suppliers will try anything to attract new business, as they remain eager for overseas customers to make their investments soon.