Here's to the Visionaries!

When I began working in broadcasting in the mid-1960s, most of the equipment in the local radio and television stations was from the Radio Corporation of America. The cameras, microphones, audio consoles--even the "on-air" lights--had that distinctive RCA logo.

A decade later, when I started my own video business, I learned why RCA's name was so fundamental to American broadcasting. They were the benevolent big brother--providing financing, counseling, and every broadcast product you'd ever need.

Buying from RCA was a low pressure affair. The salesman became your friend and your problems were his. If you got behind in your payments, no problem. RCA was sympathetic and never heavy-handed. It was, in an old fashioned way, like having a kind uncle as a business partner.


That all changed in the late 1970s. RCA's role as the dominant broadcast equipment manufacturer was severely challenged by some upstart Japanese companies.

One of them, Ikegami, produced some very cool portable video cameras that made RCA's back-breaking TK-76 look downright dowdy. Another pioneer, Sony, led by a visionary named Akio Morita, quickly created a flurry of innovative new video recording products that left RCA reeling.

By the late 70s, heavy of heart, I was forced to leave the RCA "family" and move most of my business to Sony. My clients no longer wanted to use RCA gear. Apparently, I wasn't the only one to leave--RCA, in decline as a great company, soon exited the broadcast business altogether.

The period of the late 70s and early 80s were exciting for video. Sony's news conferences were highly anticipated events. There was buzz over what great innovation might come next.

And the excitement wasn't limited only to video equipment. I'll never forget July 1, 1979, the day Mr. Morita's new portable audio player--called the Soundabout--was released. I bought one the day they hit town and marveled at its ingenuity. Later, the name would be changed to "Walkman."


Last month, I found myself at New York City's Javits Center awaiting the beginning of another news conference. The energy in the room was running high. There was enthusiastic speculation about what was to come. I was reminded that I had not felt this level of excitement about a technology news conference since Sony's heyday a quarter century ago.

As I waited, I began to make some connections. The two companies that created such a rare level of excitement were led by visionaries. Akio Morita took Sony to the heights. He reinvented television by redefining its tools and technology. Along the way, he even invented a music player that changed the world.

As I waited, it was clear that the mantle of innovation had passed to a new company--Apple Computer. It was Steve Jobs, another hard-headed single-minded visionary, who took it to the heights. And, yes, Jobs is reinventing television by refining its tools and technology. And, you guessed it, he even invented a music player that changed the world: the iPod.

I've been around long enough to learn that great innovation tends to come from determined individuals--not committees or corporations whose mission is to maintain shareholder value by defending the status quo.

After the death of Akio Morita, Sony began its long decline. During the period that Jobs was away from Apple, the company almost went out of business. I don't believe these were coincidences.

Once again, just as it was in the 1970s, television is in the midst of a swirl of rapid change. As new technologies and distribution systems explode onto the scene, old ones are struggling to survive and maintain relevance.

While Apple held bi-coastal events in October over two weeks that would showcase dramatically enhanced video tools, the company was also making history in television distribution with its newly announced video-capable iPod.

In contrast, on Capitol Hill, legislators--after two decades--were still haggling with broadcast industry lobbyists trying to shutdown analog television and open the spectrum to a new generation of users.

By now, readers of TV Technology no doubt are aware of what Apple announced. ABC-TV agreed to distribute several of its programs within 24 hours of initial broadcast online via Apple iTunes for $1.99 each. Some see this is as a promising new distribution medium for broadcasting television.

Others, including myself, see it as much more. What began earlier this year on Apple iTunes as audio podcasting now has developed into an online infrastructure for video podcasting. Apple's initiative could--just could--be the beginning of a truly independent new television distribution system.

In a posting on the Web site, Apple's announcement left an immediate impact on independent producer Dave Ahl of Modiba Productions.

"I just wanted to let you know how revolutionary Apple's announcement regarding paid downloadable video segments is for independent filmmakers," Ahl wrote. "Modiba Productions (an African music and film company raising money and awareness for African social and political causes thru the arts) has been waiting for precisely this business model.

"For the first time ever, small companies without retail distribution or a broadcast/cable deal not only have a way to reach audiences worldwide but also have the means of funding projects: simply sell video segments for $1.99 through iTunes," he continued. "At present, it's just ABC and Pixar but--like the iTunes music store--this will soon open up to small independent film companies whose work will be featured alongside major media corporations."

Apple also delivered a breakthrough on production tools. The new Power Mac G5 Quad--at just under $3,300--is so quick that, with Final Cut Pro 5, it can encode standard definition video up to 60 percent faster than with the previous high-end Macintosh.

Less than 20 years ago, the editing capability of the new Power Mac would have required a suite of equipment costing well over a million dollars. Distribution for the video made in that room was available only through a very few well-heeled media companies.

Video technology keeps getting better, thanks to the visionaries who don't accept the status quo.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.