At the recent NAB2009 convention, broadcast equipment vendors showed a willingness to help stations through their tough economic state by offering lower-cost, albeit less featured, products.
With attendance lower than the 2008 convention — the NAB reported 83,842, or 20 percent less than last year, registered attendees — the terms “cost-effective” and “affordable” were used like never before.
Manufacturers exhibiting at the show seemed willing to make deals (reducing their profit margins) that would have been unheard of two years ago. “This is a market where any business is good business,” said Tim Thorsteinson, president of Harris Broadcast Communications. He said it's been a tough sales year across all world markets.
Many network and local station personnel (mostly Midwest and West Coast-based) were in attendance, but their technology shopping lists were considerably shorter than in previous years, and they appeared laser focused on specific categories to satisfy immediate needs. As one chief engineer at a midmarket CBS affiliate confirmed, there was little discretionary spending going on.
“This year customers are very focused on what they need to buy and how much money they have to spend,” said Keith Blaisdell, VP of product development for The Vitec Group, adding that his company had many “productive” discussions with stations upgrading their studio-to-transmitter links to digital operation. The company's RF Central division also showed a digital IFB system (ProQ) that helps station news crews communicate easier and save on cell phone costs.
Low-cost takes on new value
Looking around the exhibit floor, virtually all of the key product categories for broadcasters this year included lower-cost versions designed to stimulate sales. For example, Grass Valley, Hitachi, JVC, Panasonic and Sony all showed new HD cameras that cost far less than their existing product lines, but work on triax cabling systems that limit the distance that a signal can travel, which include internal CMOS imagers instead of CCDs, and feature less image capability. In general, less cost often means a technical compromise
Along with several news models, Ikegami offered refurbished CCD cameras left over from an inventory of loaners that the company said carried a full warranty (and were nearly sold out).
Camera companies are in a quandary over the types of cameras customers are willing to buy in the current environment. It used to be that “high-end” broadcasting meant 2/3in sensors to get the highest quality HD pictures. Today many stations are buying 1/3in sensor cameras to capture content for their newscast. Technically, it's still HD (720p or 1080i) acquisition.
“The news business is all over the place,” said Bob Ott, VP of optical/network products and marketing for Sony. Sony's PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorder, with 2/3in imagers, is now a workhorse among stations, while many are also using the 1/3in XDCAM EX-3 camcorder. “The economy has thrown everything into turmoil. That makes it hard for camera companies to invest and advance the technology,” he said.
Product investment still important
It was clear companies that serve the broadcast industry are still investing in their product lines. Jeff Rosica, senior VP of Grass Valley, said his company has invested more than $100 million over the past two years (including more than just cameras), while Panasonic and Sony stated similar financial commitments. However, with sales down everywhere, that investment in R&D has certainly slowed in the past year.
In announcing a new software as a service (SaaS) subscription model for his company's graphics tools, Michael I. Wellesley-Wesley, president and CEO of Chyron, said investment was key to growth. “As a company, we are upbeat about the future and believe that [financial] recovery is in sight,” he said. “Now's the time to seize market share.”
Broadcast lens makers Canon (with its KJ17ex7.7B) and Fujinon (displaying its new ZA series) each showed new models of 2/3in HD ENG lenses that were less costly due to new manufacturing techniques that use inferior glass components (compared to their more expensive counterparts) but still provide adequate HD acquisition specifications for applications like acquiring the news.
“These lenses are still very good optically and will last as long as our other lenses,” said David Waddell, marketing manager for Fujinon, adding that the ZA series lenses are 30 percent cheaper than the company's higher-end HA series. “So really it's a good deal for small-market stations looking to expand their ENG crews in the field.”
To attract professionals sold on the idea of recording to its propriety solid-state media, Panasonic introduced a new version of its P2 cards, called the E-Series, that use new multilevel cell recording techniques instead of the P2's original single-cell technology. Multilevel cell technology is cheaper to manufacture and offers faster file transfer speeds (up to 1.2Gb/s), but does not last as long as single-cell cards.
It was said that a new E-Series card would provide less overwrites — or about a third less life — than the standard (and more expensive) A-Series P2 card. Therefore, if a P2 card lasts someone 10 years of repeated shooting, the new E-Series cards will be useful for about five, according to Panasonic.
Limited spending for right now
Manufacturers of other types of broadcast equipment were also seeking the budget-conscious broadcasters. Small-format routers (Utah Scientific), switchers (Panasonic) and audio monitoring gear (Linear Acoustic and Wohler Technologies) were among them.
At Harris, Brian Cabeceiras, VP of strategic marketing and technology, said customers have money to spend and are interested in the wide variety of new technology his company showed at NAB, but they now want a clear return on investment before making a commitment.
“What they're looking for are advanced media workflows that solve immediate problems they are facing,” he said. “There's not a lot of forward-looking strategizing going on at the moment.”
Finding new business has been equally challenging. Like virtually every company on the show floor this year, Harris is pursuing and wining customers outside of traditional broadcasting, such as those in enterprise who appear to be investing in new types of digital signage networks. Harris is building such an IP-based (remotely updateable) file system for McDonald's restaurants across the country. Likewise, Grass Valley is installing its MediaEdge system at WalMart stores nationwide.
Michel Proulx, CTO at Miranda Technologies, summed up the overall strategy among most equipment vendors at the convention best when he said, “For broadcasters, it's all about reducing customers operating expenses. If we can help them do that, we'll continue to be successful as a company. Unfortunately, the name of the game among broadcasters right now is seeking ways to do more with less people.”
On the show floor, Miranda demonstrated eight different ways to do just that.