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What is a broadcaster?

I recently went to visit a new broadcast operation shortly before its on-air launch. This wasn’t a broadcaster, but a telco, and the program playout is by a service provider that is just being acquired by a supplier of telco equipment and services (Ericsson). So where is the broadcast expertise coming from, or is it still even necessary?

The operator, BT Sport, is a new UK sports network. It is using some well-known production companies for programming and a facilities company to run the operation. The sales operation is outsourced to another broadcaster, all proving that you don’t really need to be a broadcaster to broadcast.

Companies such as Netflix and YouTube have already shown that on-demand content can be delivered by a company with the knowledge to run global content delivery networks, and that is more of an IT issue rather than broadcast. BT Sport, in contrast, is airing live sports.

So what is a broadcaster? From the public’s point of view, it is a brand for some channels. The brand is indicative of the genre and format of programs that it carries. Who runs it, who commissions, who sells air-time and who delivers the channels is of no interest to the public; they don’t care. It’s the brand that’s the thing.

New entrants to the business of channels and brands come with a fresh approach. They haven’t kept transmitters on-air through hurricanes, seen spots lost through VTR head clogs, dealt with craft unions and acquired all the decades of knowledge from monochrome to color to HD broadcasting.

For the new entrants, it’s all about the brand, buying rights, syndicating, sales — the business of broadcasting. The rest is an IT issue, possibly to be outsourced.

Is it the end of broadcasting as we know it? Of course not. The public still watches the big broadcasters for most of their television entertainment; Internet viewing is still a small proportion of viewing in all the surveys. Over 50 or more years, broadcasters have accumulated a huge knowledge of how to run brands and how to acquire popular programming. The unknown is how they will adapt to multiplatform delivery and how much of the audience new entrants such as BT Sport as well as Netflix and YouTube will take from the legacy brands.

The fragmentation of viewing to new platforms, and new entrants to the business, means that viewing is split between ever more media companies. Yet the advertising cake is not growing apace, so the slice gets thinner per broadcaster. Subscriptions represent another revenue source, but there is a limit as to how much the public will pay for triple play/channel bundles or pay-per-view. The result: Air more content for less revenue. The answer is to find more efficient and less costly ways to broadcast. Program makers also feel the pressure and must be more cost-effective in a tightening market.

Where does that leave broadcast engineers? The forward-looking engineers will be morphing into IT engineers with a specialty in broadcast operations. They will become someone who understands audio and video. Broadcast engineers will become the bridge between the creative types and the network and storage specialists, the traditional IT engineers.

The business is not evolving wholly to run on a computer system. There is all the paraphernalia of live production: lenses and cameras, lighting rigs, camera support, wireless links and microphones. Much of this equipment may use embedded computers, but they are essentially video and audio equipment, not data processors. I am reminded that digital microphones exist, but you have to search hard to find them in use. An analog signal comes out of the microphone. In the stagebox? Ah, that is a different story.

David Austerberry, editor