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Karma Can't be Cheated

I had an awakening the other day after reading an article written by a former New York Times photographer, Vincent Laforet. The title of the article is "The Cloud Is Falling". It was published on June 30 this year by the web site I recommend that you read the full article. An Internet search for "the cloud is falling" will take you straight to it.

The essence of Laforet's message is that the world has changed. For example, the flooding into the market of low-priced yet technically capable digital SLR cameras has changed the business landscape for the truly professional photographer. Ten years ago the price of a digital SLR camera was equivalent to the price of a small car. Only pros with a good business cash flow could justify the cost.

Now in 2008, any photography enthusiast can buy a decent digital SLR camera, get some business cards printed, set up a web site, and call himself a 'professional photographer'. Perhaps a true Pro shouldn't be too worried, because it shouldn't take too long to see that the amateur's photographs are not up to publication standards. But publishers are slowly but surely lowering their standards.

Why would publishers lower their standards? They're lowering their standards because they think they can no longer afford to maintain the previous high standards. The economic playing field for the media industries has shifted. Business models for media companies must change for the sake of survival.

Laforet's article is very relevant to the television broadcast industry. The following phrases, extracted from Laforet's full text, sound very familiar to us TV people: cutting dozens or even hundreds of jobs … general public interest in the mainstream media dissipating . advertisers slashing their spending.

Laforet is describing the newspaper and magazine publishing industries, but there's a very important common thread running through both the print publishing game and the television broadcast industry. Much of worldwide television broadcasting depends on advertising revenue for its existence. And if the advertisers are slashing their advertising budgets, and/or redirecting their ad spend to so-called 'new media', then the TV and print industries are losing their revenue base.

We are entering a global recession, and all large companies will cut back where ever they can in order to maintain the quarterly profit figures – that being the 'vital sign' of health that Wall Street is always looking for. One of the first areas to cut back is the advertising, which has an immediate impact on the media industries.

Television has surely been impacted by the changing economic landscape. When the advertiser's ad spend is down, the TV station's revenue is down too. But just as surely as we feel the winds of economic change, we in the television technology sector are influenced on a daily basis by the relentless march of technology change too.

Cheaper video production equipment sounds wonderful to the end user, but it foretells the end of traditional TV production product lines and systems – and with the loss of business for traditional products and systems, there go the jobs and livelihoods of the people behind them.

I stopped and listened to a presentation by a well-known freelance cinematographer at NAB last year. He was singing the praises of XDCAM HD. He emphasized how much bang one gets for the buck from a US$25,000 XDCAM HD camcorder. Things like time-lapse recording and slow shutter recording presented many new creative avenues for the videographer. But he jokingly commented that he was still receiving regular therapy to help him with the depression he felt about spending US$200,000 on his HDCAM Cine-Alta kit only two years earlier.

And now last year's XDCAM HD purchasers are probably slightly upset that the new XDCAM EX camcorder is so good and so cheap, at about US$10,000 only. The obvious technology trend is for cheaper and better equipment every year or two. Obsolescence has never come so quickly as it does now. But more important than the obsolescence of equipment, is the feeling of obsolescence that haunts many people in the television industry.

Having our role in the broadcast community become redundant is the biggest blow. As the young turks of the IT world rush headlong to replace everything in the entire infrastructure that we've built in the past twenty years, the people who built and maintained the old infrastructure feel a sense of loss.

What has this got to do with karma? Well, in the early 1980s, I was part of a team introducing computer technology to automate the production of newspapers. Our computer systems made an entire union obsolete within a few years – the Printing and Kindred Industries Union (PKIU) in Australia, of which my own father was a member.

Our newspaper production computer systems all but eliminated proofreaders. The standard of English grammar, spelling, and factual accuracy took a nose-dive from then on. In other words, standards declined. But the newspaper management was happy because the decline of profits had been arrested, for a while.

And now, almost thirty years later, I've seen new technologies make many people in my generation obsolete. And it's a much younger set of technologists carrying that new wave of technology into our living rooms and editing suites. So I mustn't complain. I contributed to making people obsolete in the newspaper industry when I was much younger. So now it's my turn to at least feel the threat of obsolescence.

The key to career survival lies in the ability to re-invent oneself – to "stay ahead of the curve", as Laforet puts it. To keep ourselves relevant and useful in our industry is an ongoing challenge, but we must face and overcome it, lest we get thrown out with all the old Betacam VTRs and Trinitron monitors that we lovingly installed and cared for.