Sale now on!
As higher quality, inexpensive off-the-shelf, or even consumer-grade products become ever more prevalent in the industry, Digital Studio asks some key players if the falling cost of technology is all good news.
The whole industry cannot have failed to see the effects of the falling price of technology over recent years, with budding bedroom film makers now able to create their masterpieces on a PC or Mac with software costing just a few hundred dollars. Graham Sharp, director of AV3 and Media Asset Capital, notes: “I’ve spent 25 years wrangling with the fact that on the one side there are shareholders wanting profit and revenues, while on the other the price of your products halves every few years. When I started in the industry, a Sony edit suite with a Grass mixer or VP151 was a million dollars. Now Adobe Premier costs under a thousand dollars, and arguably does more than the million dollar edit suite.”
This isn’t necessarily universally welcomed, however. Ray Trosh, technical director at The Mill, UK, finds himself in a strange quandary: “If I’m dry hiring an edit suite for x-hundred dollars an hour, I can’t put Premier on there because everyone knows it only cost $1,000! It’s lowered the barriers to entry, because everyone can do it in their bedrooms.”
Another possible downside to plummeting prices is that the whole support system has been restructured. Sharp says: “In the 80s with Sony or Grass Valley, if something went wrong you’d pick up the phone and within an hour someone would be there with a bag of spares, and that would cost you nothing. Now, you phone up Apple and they go ‘what?’”
The 80s model was one where customers would pay a huge amount for a product, then they would get support free. Under the IT model, the product may be significantly cheaper, but support costs can be as much as 18 per cent extra per annum. So, is it possible to take advantage of lower cost commodity IT products without compromising quality and reliability? Sharp is unconvinced: “We used to sell Discreet Logic Flame suites that commanded a ridiculous amount of money per hour, but that world doesn’t exist anymore. On the flip side though, without paying that amount, customers no longer get the same bespoke, focused design that the broadcast business has always required. From the manufacturers’ viewpoint that would obviously mean lower margins.”
Gordon Castle, MD of the Meadowdale Group, isn’t convinced that world has totally gone: “One of the things I do as I talk to clients around the world is talk about the divergence of the buying model. It’s changing – at the very high end it’s still a full touch consultancy approach, but now that trickles all the way down to customers buying Premier Pro online with a credit card. From a supplier’s, and a buyer’s, perspective this means the value that the ‘old school’ companies can bring is their domain expertise.
We have to elevate our game and supply their knowledge.”
“We have a long history in implementing new technology and changed workflows. This is both at the high end of the scale in large production facilities and large scale asset management, but also smaller scale low cost applications. For example on low-cost, high-quality sports productions. We use equipment worth less than $35,000 to produce live sport for less than $1,000 per match. Both markets are still out there.”
Ray Cross, Quantel CEO, agrees: “You can buy cheap commodity products, but then you don’t get the support. Quantel operates at what would be classed as high end of the market in news, sport, home shopping. In this field things have to be fast, scalable and right every time.”
One might expect little support for the old methods from Bill Roberts, product manager at Adobe, but not so. “The most exciting thing for me is this huge shift towards domain expertise,” he says. “Regardless of where the screen is, you have to be able to get your idea out, and at Adobe we’re all about communicating the idea through the technology.”
Robert Armlung, head of digital strategy at German broadcaster ZDF Germany, says the cheaper products are a matter of necessity in the rapidly evolving media environment: “My background is as a news journalist, so I’m a user of technology. Times have changed with websites and more channels than ever to fill, and to do that we need new tools. New content and new distribution channels mean we now need new workflows and new technologies. Twenty years ago, to film one sound bite you’d have had a camera man, a sound guy and a journalist out on the streets. With the sheer volume of news out there now that would be simply unsustainable – it’s all done by one guy. We need cheaper tools because of that volume of output.”
Roberts too is a fan of the increased output: “We’re no longer communicating with customers in a one-way dialogue. Now we have a two-way dialogue with customers about the content they want. Falling prices means we can do things at a different level. There’s broad range of different consumer types, but technology has allowed for more community. In the past there would never have been a cricket channel, but we can now connect to a worldwide community. There’s more content going out to more people.”
Castle agrees on the community front: “The increased ability to create content allows for small communities, both locally of people who care about their high-school football team, for example, and globally – fans of cricket or fishing. The new landscape allows highly specialised channels to serve such communities.”
Cross too admits that there are benefits as well as disadvantages to the cheaper products: “The biggest benefits are in the area of communications – web based applications and so on. However, the big risk here is that there are a lot of products coming on the market that are very difficult to connect together. We’re in danger of building a Tower of Babel with everyone chatting in different languages. This is one of the things we’re trying to address. We want to build a Babelfish to sort the cacophony out.”
It’s not just in the world of editing where prices have fallen. Roberts notes that CNN has cut the price of the cameras it uses in the field, but simultaneously tripled the number of cameras out there. Sharp meanwhile, adds that an advantage for post-production houses is that editors and FX specialists can have all their equipment at home. Of course, so can everybody else, but Sharp notes that: “When I go to the hardware store I always buy the very best hammer I can afford, but that doesn’t make me a carpenter.”
With the sheer speed of change, it can be hard to predict exactly where technology will head next. Amlung says: “There’s always the problem of who to talk to to find out where we’re going. You can talk to the guys who are using the current technology, but they can only ask for what they know exists. They can’t tell you what’s coming in five years. We’ve set up a new strategy department to look at the longer term. We need to prepare for and manage change. All broadcasters need to do this because I expect the speed of change to accelerate rapidly.”
Roberts agrees that the speed of change is likely to be rapid: “What’s really enabled a lot of change is the speed with which silicon technology is advancing. Just 12 or 13 years ago, you’d have needed a supercomputer to move HD film uncompressed. Now you can get one to do it that will fit in your pocket.
“The advances are dramatic, and likely to continue to be. Customers may not even know what they want yet – did they ask for 3D or HD? But then, if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted they’d have said ‘a faster horse’. It’s all about ideas.”