Special Report: In the air tonight
Special Report: In the air tonight
Phil Ward assesses the long-term effects of the pandemic on the global broadcast supply chain
Thanks to Covid-19, the broadcast technology supply chain has no anchor. Detailed research by Futuresource Consulting reveals a very confused picture indeed, with global broadcast consumption making strange patterns in lockdown. Product development over the next few years will not be for the faint-hearted.
For example, one major anomaly underpins everything. Although viewing figures and Subscription Video on Demand (SVoD) usage are up, advertising revenue is down. The usual assumption that bums-on-seats equals cash cannot be made, and the predicted global recession is likely to put the brakes on recovery in most territories – even though media and entertainment have historically proven to be slump-proof. One reason is the change in delivery platforms and how they are used.
There are now far more alternatives to conventional broadcasting than ever before, and many of them are cheaper, if not free, and open to various revenue short-circuits such as password sharing. Meanwhile, the interruption to production, such as in drama, will have to be compensated by a drive to create content that could well put a strain on resources, while the rescheduling of the sports calendar is bound to challenge logistics. So, once again, a potential boom may not necessarily result in a smooth recovery.
At the same time, will the current surge in SVoD be maintained by subscriber retention or dip as consumers leave the house? Surveys show that streaming services have followed a similar arc, with a significant trend towards older demographics. However, this has not been at the cost of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB), which remains trusted and familiar in uncertain times – witness The BBC’s nostalgic usage of Glastonbury and Wimbledon archive material over the summer – leading many to predict that the most likely outcome is a further acceleration of IP delivery for all networks.
This raises the question of how well the internet backbone will cope. Netflix effected a reduction in traffic bitrate of 25% to ease pressure on streaming, with a concomitant downgrading of resolution, while YouTube’s similar measure of defaulting to SD has been necessary to withstand a 60% rise in content watched. Other providers have followed suit as concurrent streaming has rocketed – and a sharp rise in esports engagement has had a lot to do with that.
According to gaming analytics specialist Newzoo and its Global Esports Market Report for 2020, esports revenues will grow to US$1.1 billion in 2020, a year-on-year growth of 15.7%, with three-quarters of this generated by media rights and sponsorship. Both NAB and IBC have latterly devoted areas of exhibition and showcase to esports technology, enabling Grass Valley to use NAB for a demonstration of its “decades of live production” in the new arena of professional gaming. Newzoo executive Cleo Sardelis adds that game streaming “will be a key component of future media strategies”. In the supply chain, this will mostly suit traditional OB players in camera channels, switchers, replay machines and graphics.
Pod one out
Is podcasting the punk rock of audio broadcast? Nothing suits the renegade aspects of remote production better than an inexpensive and hugely accessible medium that sits comfortably on IP and disrupts the establishment values of radio. A glut of online self-help tutorials – podcasts about podcasting, many of them – is encouraging outlets for new, established and in some cases very little talent, all exploiting the perceived improvements in audio infrastructure.
Professional podcasting studios have been able to set up remote operation quite easily. LA-based Stitcher, for example, normally has a consistent spread of Shure SM7B microphones and Allen & Heath Qu Series mixers throughout its campus. However, regular producers have been supplied with Samson Q2U cardioids, Sennheiser Handmic Digital mics and Focusrite audio interfaces at home, appended to the Zoom H5 and H6 portable recorders already issued; their guests have taken delivery of USB microphones, headphones and acoustically friendly reflection filters for the mics in order to maximise sonic quality across disparate households.
In another sense, the pandemic actually legitimises established workflows. With an international team of sound designers, content creation house and Spotify-owned Parcast has used remote production since its inception some four years before the first cough of Covid, and, over a year ago, introduced the multitrack, multi-party and browser-based digital recorder launched by online studio link expert Cleanfeed for file exchange. Parcast has also reinforced its sheltered hosts with Røde’s Rødecaster Pro mixers and NTG1 microphones – raising the question of whether enterprises like this have already defined a future without central studios.
Such a paradigm shift will not happen unless cloud-based storage and file transfer solutions stand up to the test. As Dropbox’s head of media Andy Wilson says, “bandwidth is the number one challenge, which is directly linked to the need to move large media files”. Cue timely start-ups such as London-headquartered Base Media Cloud, which promises “low-cost cloud storage with integrated media software tools, online and on-demand”. The company’s solutions are said to adapt workflows perfectly for today’s conditions, as well as tightening data security, reducing costs and allowing dispersed teams to work from anywhere at any time.
Also in the UK, Quicklink has been adapting its sturdier professional video conferencing platform for broadcast media use, even on game shows: today’s offer provides “software and hardware IP solutions for the transmission of live and edited video”, with unique codecs for the optimisation of variable bandwidth from one area to another, developed since 2003 and coming of age right now. Similarly, Washington DC’s Cinegy is a pioneer of IP-based production that might almost have been waiting for the current ill wind that is blowing in its favour. Finally, the type of cloud-connected cameras favoured by security systems could be adapted for media production, provided the limitations of internet video delivery are overcome by manufacturers being willing to invest in stable new workflow bridges between established Serial Digital Interface (SDI) links and IP protocols.
All very well. But how large a scale of production can be achieved by remote connection? One answer is provided by BT Sport in the UK, whose entire gallery has been constructed virtually for altruistic reasons. “We could have got talent into the studio,” says Jamie Hindhaugh, COO for BT Sport. “I could have gone into the studio. But I felt that anything we did as a broadcaster had to reflect the challenges our audiences are facing. We don’t want to be promoting the idea that travel is in anyway helpful at this time.”
As a result, BT Sport developed a dispersed studio gallery on a scale claimed to outsize any other attempted, with everyone from PA, producer, vision mixer and director to EVS operator and graphics operators connected via broadband and 5G between lockdown homes. “This workflow means you can have a more inclusive workforce, employing people who could normally not get to our HQ,” adds Hindhaugh. “We’re creating a new format that goes alongside our continued development of 8K, Dolby Atmos for mobile and Object Based Broadcasting. We’ll now be able to go back with these learnings and drive more audience engagement.”
At UK-based audio console leader Calrec, marketing manager Kevin Emmott is keen to draw the distinction between remote working and remote production. “We’ve been involved with remote production for years with the RP1 unit,” he says, “but, now, many broadcasters are looking at remote working too. The difference is that RP is where there is DSP at the venue, dealing with no-latency IFBs, and the mixing desk is remote; whereas remote working is where the console operator is neither at the venue nor at the production studio – whether it’s a physical or a virtual console. We’ve had a French customer mixing a talk show at home with a physical Type R panel, over IP; a Brio in somebody’s garage for BT Sport; a live choir production for the BBC … Truth is, most of these technologies were already in place; it’s just that they weren’t a priority for most broadcasters. Now they are. It will become an important box to be ticked – getting remote working fully online and totally reliable.”
Emmott is not alone in emphasising the need for QC as, in its basic form, the internet is still considered unsuitable for live AV broadcast by most operators. “Within Calrec,” he says, “we have dedicated IP specialists who make sure we’re fully compliant with every commission, and I think the whole industry is pulling in the same direction. In fact, we have been for a while.”
Postproduction is developing along the same lines, with the advantage of offline workflow. For three decades, Blackbird has been pioneering browser-based digital video editing and it’s no surprise to find that now the focus is well and truly on doing this via the cloud. It uses a proprietary codec that claims the fastest access to content, a rich set of postproduction tools, together with publishing compatibility with “everywhere” – including social media. Many post facilities, like Halo in London, have responded by adding virtual versions of its complete services using PCoIP and CWDM (multiplexing over fibre) technologies.
DAW manufacturers have found it necessary to speed up release schedules, firing off remote-workflow upgrades as they happen instead of waiting for the typical annual binge-rollout. Avid’s Pro Tools has quickly added more channels to Dolby Audio Bridge and Dolby Renderer, for example, as well as fast-tracking dialogue editing and voiceover facilities for Pro Tools Cloud Collaboration, Sibelius Cloud Sharing and Avid Link.
Meanwhile, Blackmagic Design, home of the Fairlight DAW set, has among several rapid enhancements two that suggest lockdown: Dialogue Processor, for the removal of ambient noises; and a CMI-style Foley Sampler, filled with push-key, in-the-box FX.
Thanks to some improvements in IP, certain complex professional sales channels are being successfully modified, suggesting new models of B2B contact. German digital console mainstay Lawo has successfully deployed remote Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT): its engineers can complete key commissions without having to travel to clients and their studios. “For remote FATs, demos, training and installation support,” explains Lawo’s Wolfgang Huber, “colleagues have established WAN infrastructures and communication setups to keep within scheduled project phases and deadlines while travelling is not possible and engineers on the customers’ side are also under lockdown.”
Furthermore, this is good example, Huber believes, of new best practices that will survive the pandemic and not simply be discarded as emergency measures. “I am convinced that the Covid-19 crisis may have caused suffering for some companies but the industry as a whole will come out of it with new awareness of its raison d’être, the power of innovation and responsibility for its customers, and, thus, the educational and cultural dimensions of the world we live in,” he says. “These times are a motivation to rethink and to courageously seize opportunities for our business.”
Maybe in doing so, the broadcast industry will equip itself to drop anchor in a new world.