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Technology, vendors and shows:Broadcast is a specialized industry

I’m just back from the BVE trade show in London. This national show covers our sector from production to playout. It draws a good subset of the vendors you would find at IBC or NAB. The show is a good example of why, contrary to rumors, our sector is different from telco and IT. Although there is consolidation in the playout and distribution side, the production area remains the preserve of large numbers of specialist vendors — many of whom were exhibiting.

Equipment suppliers for video processing (post) and program distribution will probably consolidate into few players running software off commodity IT platforms. We see this already with the NLE, where you can count the available suppliers on one hand.

Production remains a niche area, a craft process with special demands, and processes that cannot be replaced with software.

Consider lighting. The mass-market providers to the consumer sector are just not interested in supplying specialist lighting fixtures to videographers. Television lighting requires a level of consistency and quality that is largely unnecessary outside the demands of a DP. As broadcasters look to save energy, LED lighting will become the norm, but a black-body radiator it is not. Many current products exhibit a spectral characteristic that can prove difficult for the colorist to correct, adding to time at the grading stage. A small group of vendors are cognizant of these special needs, and they were to be found on the show floor. For others, it’s just about lumens — quantity over quality.

Camera support is another specialist area — the preserve of the small engineering shop. These vendors build the sliders, dollies, tracks and jibs that are essential for the fluid tracking shots so loved by directors. “Television is motion imaging, so the camera must be in constant motion,” runs the logic.

Production lenses are another area where the mass market does not sell the tools needed by professionals. Physics comes into play. Fast, highly corrected lenses are large, heavy and expensive. Lenses for production have other features, whether it is facilities for the focus puller, or the control needed by a cameraman using a box lens for sports applications.

To operate all this kit, broadcasters — and the whole media and entertainment sector —need a wide set of skills, possibly wider than any other sector I can think of. Add to that the production crew and the back-office staff. From script writer to salesman, editor to engineer, makeup to master control, making and airing television is a complex, multi-skilled business that needs the support of the many specialist suppliers that fill the show aisles at BVE and, next month, at NAB.

It’s hard to predict where it will end up. As many products become affordable, video production finds new markets from corporate communications to education. This creates larger markets for the engineering products that gravitate to the central hall at NAB, and that leads to consolidation, so maybe we will see far fewer vendors at the show in five or 10 years. There will always be the small startups; they’re where the ideas come from.

The very complexity of program making and distribution is never going to get radically simpler, but artificial intelligence will take over some tasks. Could a software application edit a program? Could it control the framing and composition of a camera shot? Possibly. When computational cinematography becomes financially viable, the production chain is going to look different from today. Technologies like light field and multi-view cameras shift many creative decisions to post, and that opens the way to artificial intelligence as a complement to the creative crew.

We are at the start of a journey, but you won’t see much of it at NAB — yet.

David Austerberry, editor