State of the Nation and Virtual Social Distancing

Dick Hobbs - new

Published 26th March 2020

State of the Nation and Virtual Social Distancing

Under normal circumstances, I usually make my plans for NAB in November time. It’s when the airlines tend to have sales. This year, for personal reasons, I did not get around to booking back then, and it was only at the end of February that I could start thinking about it.

Well, the airline sales had long gone, and I was faced with the prospect of either paying a very silly sum or going half way around the world to get to Las Vegas (I’ve just checked again, and the lowest fare involved my starting in Manchester, going in entirely the wrong direction to Frankfurt, and flying from there to Calgary, with more than four hours in each airport). So I had decided that – for the first time in I think 33 years, I would give NAB a miss.

Then this strange flu-like illness that was causing a bit of a stir in China began to move around the world. As is the case with people whose jobs depend on being seen to be active even when they are not doing anything useful, politicians started making wild statements based on very little real information.

The media encouraged them in this practice. As I write this, the first five stories on the BBC News app are about coronavirus, including one dutifully reporting that the media frenzy has led to a stock market crisis. If you believe what is currently being reported to us, then the world outside your front door is like a particularly gruesome episode of The Walking Dead.

All in all, I am really not bothered that I am not going to NAB. One of the great joys of heading out to the desert every spring is to meet and embrace old friends, to catch up on their news, and to share nuggets of industry intelligence. If no-one else is going to be there, then there is no point in my putting in 5000 miles of carbon emissions, either.

And as exhibitors drop out and politicians come up with new and possibly ever-more crackpot ideas, it is perfectly possible that between these words leaving my Mac and arriving in front of your eyes, NAB will have been cancelled (editors note: 24 hours later it was called off, not cancelled, so possibly still options for rescheduling). Literally as I type comes the news that Cabsat, the industry’s traditional sprinkle of spring sunshine in Dubai, has been pushed back to October.

Which meant that, when the editors of this splendid publication suggested I really ought to attend their one-day London event, I gladly leapt on the train and headed south. And I was very glad I did.

If you have not been to a KitPlus event (and why not?), then it consists of a true table-top exhibition. Everyone has the same space, and there is no attempted assault by stand design. A couple of products and a couple of banners and that is each exhibitor’s presence.

At the far end of the room is a seminar area. Not all the sessions hit the mark, but of those I attended in London in February, three were excellent. I learnt far more than I knew I needed to know about full-frame sensor cameras, and why they generate so many different output resolutions and strange aspect rations. And the conversation between Alex Petit and Jon Pratchett about live streaming is worthy of far more space than I can give it – a really informative and eye-opening presentation about that space between broadcast production and wobbly-cam YouTube videos.

But the seminar that I want to pick up on was given by Darren Whitehead from IABM. The vendors’ trade body has in the past suffered from a lack of direction, but today it is driven by some really good research, and he built on this to give a good summary of the state of the industry.

His central point was that there are three areas of technology that are hot at the moment. If you are in one of the three then you should enjoy your moment in the sun. The graph, from IABM’s recent mass survey, is of answers to the question “Please rank the top 3 factors that influence your decision to purchase media technology products”.

Advertising technology is clearly vital. You need to bring in every penny of revenue if you are going to survive. Getting the right commercials in front of the right viewers across multiple platforms is a complex business, and traditional broadcast ratings are not good enough for the new digital professionals who have been brought up on knowing the exact number of clicks and what each one costs. Campaign planning and inventory optimisation tools are at the top of everyone’s agenda.

The second key technology area at the moment is related to the first: it is workflow automation. Darren put up a quote from John Stankey, CEO of Warner Media, which said “At a time when we must shift our investment focus to develop more content for specific and demanding audiences on emerging platforms, we can’t sustain a model where we invest one dollar more than necessary in the administrative aspects of running our business.”

Machine learning is bound to be a part of that. If your focus is on driving out every unjustified dollar, you want the benefits now, not after an 18 month analysis period. Installing technology that, by its very design, continually improves its efficiency, will definitely be a winner.

But the big boom area at the moment is something that I regularly write about in these columns. We are in a golden age of television production, driven by rapidly rising budgets. Why? Because as we used to say decades ago, content is king. People will only watch what they want to watch, so if you need the eyeballs, you need the best programming.

This was very quickly grasped by the disruptors coming into the industry. Netflix is planning to spend a frankly staggering $17.3 billion on production in 2020. That is three and a half times the BBC’s total income (the last available figures are 2017-18 when the licence fee income was £3.83 billion, which included £655.3 million from the government to pay for the “free” licences for over-75s).

The industry is responding with very high quality production equipment, at all price points. Many of the exhibitors at the London KitPlus show were showing production equipment, from Arri’s latest high-end cameras to the remarkably priced products from companies like Blackmagic. One of the products which both contributors to the streaming seminar session praised was the Atem Mini vision mixer from Blackmagic, switching for £250.

We have high quality cameras and switching. We have extraordinary virtual studio capabilities empowered by the Unreal games engine. And we of low latency, highly resilient streaming and connectivity. If NAB happens we will probably see the introduction of (perceptually) latency-free remote control for cameras.

Put it together and we have a workable solution for something we have talked about in the past. Why do we all need to get on a plane every April, and pay inflated hotel and restaurant prices, just to see the latest technology?

In the past, the answer has always been because video conferences and webinars are dull, soul-destroying events. But now there is no reason at all why a virtual presentation should not be as glitzy and glamorous as anything you can stage at NAB. In our industry we have used NAB (and IBC) as the milestones in innovation. Anything important has to be ready to launch (or close enough for the vapourware to be convincing) in either April or September.

The converse of that is that you have 1799 other exhibitors also shouting about their new ideas, at the same time and in the same place. It’s a powerful thought that you could stage a vibrant, engaging product launch which could be seen by anyone, anywhere in the world, whether or not they could get a visa or a budget to go to Las Vegas.

What makes this important, of course, is that it works for other industries. This year’s Geneva Motor Show has been cancelled. But you could stream all those concept cars, along with all the glamour that the big manufacturers could imagine, at any time.

In fact, it works better for other industries. The problem with using augmented reality and live streaming to sell broadcast products is that half the audience will be trying to work out how you have done it, rather than watching the message. People who go to car shows will be pleased to see new content.

Even if NAB 2020 goes ahead in mid-April, it will be a shadow of its former self. The exhibitors which have already announced they are not going to attend this year will have a chance to look at the cost of being there, and maybe revise their future plans. It could be they decide to rely on virtual exhibitions in future on economic grounds.

But they will, of course, continue to attend low-key, focused local events like the KitPlus shows, to give prospects real (carefully sanitised) hands-on time.

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