Bypassing the traditional broadcast marketplace, major video manufacturers are targeting high- and low-end content creators in an effort to jumpstart business at NAB2002.
High-definition video technology, touted unsuccessfully for more than a decade as the future of American terrestrial broadcasting, is now hot again, this time as a production format for high-end content production. Through a happy marriage with the 24-frame progressive scan rate, HD is starting to challenge 35mm film and has become one of the video industry’s brightest spots.
Another is the explosion of DV production on the low end, where feature films costing under $150,000 are now being broadcast on cable television and released commercially in motion picture theaters. From economical DV camcorders to laptop editing systems, a new market is emerging. Panasonic has nicknamed it "MicroCinema."
Lamenting "there’s not a lot of business out there" in traditional broadcast sales, Stuart English, Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems’ vice president of marketing, said his company is changing along with the marketplace.
"Ten years ago NAB was about how do we make programs for broadcasters," English said. "It’s no longer restricted to that. Last year, about 40 percent of the people at NAB were broadcasters. That means 60 percent were not broadcasters. We have to broaden our approach. We have to attack every opportunity. We now go for every point that programs get created. That’s where Panasonic has to be to grow our business."
Ed Grebow, president of Sony’s broadcast division, echoed the view that traditional broadcast sales "are very clearly down," but that his company is seeing growth in alternative video markets.
"Sony has made impressive advances in acquisition with both DVCam and HDCam products," Grebow said. "In fact, the success of HDCam 24p marks a complete reversal in the way I’ve always thought about the migration to high-definition television. From the outset, I had assumed that the process would be driven by distribution. That is the proliferation of HD receivers, which would spur stations to buy HDTV production equipment.
"In actuality," he continued, "what has happened is the production community is leading the transition, as more and more content creators have raised the quality, the efficiency and the versatility of digital production."
Grebow said 16 current primetime television programs are now being shot on Sony’s HDCam 24p. He credited Sony’s partnership with Panavision for helping make the 24p digital cinematography movement a "stunning success."
According to a pre-NAB survey, the increasing popularity of digital HD 24p is now affecting post-production facilities. Two-thirds of the nation’s post houses will offer 24p capability by 2003, predicted a new report from SCRI International, a research firm specializing in professional video trends.
The survey found that almost one-third (32.1 percent) of post facilities are currently providing 24p HD format capability. This, said SCRI, is expected to increase to about half of all facilities (49.1 percent) by the end of 2002, and to almost two-thirds by the end of 2003 (64.2 percent).
In response to the adoption of DV technology by budget filmmakers and documentary producers, Panasonic will introduce at NAB the first inexpensive 24p DV camcorder. "DV is a keep-it-simple kind of product," said Panasonic’s English. "It’s raising the technical quality of everybody and it’s selling in droves. DVD is the same thing. As a playback technology, it’s wonderful. And it’s selling like gangbusters."
On the DV post production side, Avid is introducing a Macintosh OS X version of its Avid Xpress DV 3 video editing system. Displaying it on a widescreen Apple Titanium Powerbook with a FireWire port, Avid’s Joe Torelli said the $1,699 software application exposes the company’s editing technology to an entirely new group of videomakers now using DV camcorders for acquisition.
As to the pre-show state of traditional over-the-air broadcasting, NAB president Eddie Fritts is betting a new marketing campaign for DT will "educate consumers about the wonders of digital television and demonstrate the broadcast industry’s commitment to it."
Fritts said until recently the industry has "been tinkering with the signal," but insisted that good marketing will ignite public interest in terrestrial DTV service. "Once they see it, they will like it," he said. "And then they’ll put pressure on cable systems to carry digital (broadcast) television."
The NAB chief played down the debate over consumer DTV reception issues. "Digital sets will get better," he said. "We have people who are working on getting the standard improved so that it will be better in the future than it perhaps is today. We are very comfortable that we are on the right track and are getting there."
Media companies, broadcast networks and station groups, however, are not so satisfied with the progress of terrestrial digital television, said Richard Doherty, director of research for The Envisioneering Group, a Seaford, N.Y.-based technology testing and market research firm.
"There’s still a cloud over DTV. Our research shows that a dependable direction is needed for the digital TV rollout," said Doherty. "The media companies and networks want to have some confidence in what to expect over the next 12 months. They want to know whether DTV will offer dependable audience reach so they can run their businesses."
So far, that hasn’t happened. Doherty compared the recent relaxation of FCC rules on the DTV transition to a school "hall pass" that allows stations to make easy excuses for not fully implementing digital service. "Is there really going to be a rollout? Will transmitters be running at 100 percent power, or 10 percent? Certainty is needed," he said.
GETTING A PIECE OF THE ACTION
Another issue facing stations is whether they are going to embrace the opportunities offered by enhanced digital services. "TiVo, Replay and Moxi are saying we’ve given broadcasters an audience feedback alternative to Nielsen. Now what are they going to do with it?" asked Doherty. "Broadcast stations have to decide whether they want a part of these services. They need to ask ‘Do I get a piece of the action when people buy that jacket off of Jennifer Anniston?’"
Whether broadcasters begin to deal seriously with these issues at NAB is an open question, said Doherty. "More broadcasters are recognizing their future is now in their own hands. They are recognizing ‘I’ve got to really be smart’ about new technologies. Will we get some resolution at this show? The chances are probably less than 50-50," he predicted.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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