Why can’t IT and broadcast companies see eye to eye?
It was a bright, breezy and cold morning in the Vale of Belvoir today, and I took the opportunity to walk my dog across the fields before starting work. This distraction from the business of the day provided me with rare, and valuable, space to think about one of the issues facing our industry.
Why is it that broadcasters and large IT companies have so much difficulty in understanding each other? After all, much of the infrastructure that broadcasters rely on is IT-based, and there is barely a desktop without a computer, barely a TV executive without an iPhone or Blackberry, and barely a channel that is not available on the web. So why the gulf between the two industries?
Certainly broadcasters have a few specific requirements, such as large amounts of performant storage, high speed networks, and a degree of determinism that allows for no margin for error (every frame, on time, all the time). But surely these requirements are not unique? Defence, banking, medical imaging, nuclear energy, transport; these all have mission critical requirements that are met by IT, so why is it that broadcast seems so hard?
As I continued my walk through the fields of Leicestershire I spied the outline of Lincoln Cathedral, perched on top of a ridge some 30 miles away. Here is a structure that has stood the tests of time. Civil war, the plague, earthquake (yes, Lincoln was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1185), and yet remains one of the most impressive ecclesiastical buildings in Europe, virtually unchanged in the last 500 years. The great Cathedral at Lincoln has been impervious to societal and technological changes (although they do now have electric light, a PA system and the obligatory gift shop). And I wonder if some broadcasters have felt rather like this in the past.
My industry colleague Bruce Devlin of Amberfin, at a conference I chaired a couple of years ago, described broadcasters as having ‘special needs’. This was not meant to be flattering. He went on to explain that many broadcasters consider themselves unique, and want equipment vendors to bend themselves out of shape to develop products and services that match the way each specific broadcaster works. Heaven forbid that they change the way they work in order to take advantage of technology advances, and improvements in workflow.
For those of us who travel the world, working with broadcasters in all four corners of the globe, we are usually struck by the similarities between what broadcasters do, and how they do it, rather than the differences or their supposed uniqueness. But still, heads of engineering and technology insist on having things their way. And this is at the nub of the problem.
IT companies want to use standardised platforms and software to address customer needs. Sure, they will allow you to configure their software, or even have partners develop specific functionality, but if you ask Apple to adapt FCP-X, or Adobe to change Premiere Pro, or Microsoft to modify Exchange Server, you will be met by a very high brick wall.
Similarly, if you ask Dell to develop a new server, or IBM to adopt a new storage platform, the response will be similar. That is not to say that these vendors close their ears to the market, but as an industry we are just too small to have a loud voice. As a salesman from a leading manufacturer of robotic tape storage systems told me a few years ago: “I could earn more selling small libraries to every travel agent on the high street than large libraries to broadcasters”.
The hubris of the UK’s Independent Television, a business with profits of $500m, telling the mighty Apple, with cash reserves of $81bn that it cannot use the iTV brand for its next generation of smart TV sets shows how self-important our industry has become.
So perhaps we need to stop being so precious as an industry. Perhaps broadcasters should acknowledge that they have more in common with each other, PSBs, free to air and subscription platforms alike, than differences that separate them. By working together as an industry, and accepting common solutions, we may better be able to work with the IT suppliers and become more relevant to them. And some of those large infrastructure projects, like DMI / Fabric, might actually start to work!