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Can Apple Break Into Broadcast?

Macs caused quite a buzz at NAB By Guy Wright

Apple's NAB booth At this years NAB show in Las Vegas, Apple kicked off a major push into high-end HD non-linear editing, FX, ENG, SAN, workflow, support for Panasonics new AJ-HD1200A production VTR, and partnerships with Thomson/Grass Valley. The Apple press event on Sunday, the day before the show opened, was packed with hundreds of people. On the show floor, in the South Hall, Apples booth simply dominated. Elsewhere, many companies were displaying high-end software and peripherals running on Macs. The underlying message was ?Apple = broadcast.

Its no secret that Macs have been used for just about every type of high-end digital content creation task known to media. They flat-out own the desktop publishing space. They are a dominant force in the audio world. Theyve been at the high-, middle-, and consumer-end of DVD-authoring (preceded by a stronghold in the CD-authoring realms). Programs like After Effects have given Macs a back-door entrance into hundreds of post-production houses. The question is, however, can they leverage that toehold in the post world to start picking up momentum in the broadcast world, too?

If youve been going to NAB for a few years you probably remember that not long ago, when computers started scratching on that door called ?video, the big boys Panasonic, Sony, Grass Valley, Quantel, and the others barely noticed. (Of course, all the computer folks were off in the Sands Expo Center while everyone else was in the LVCC, so it wasnt likely that anyone would accidentally stumble over there.) Now, if you look back at those early computer video products honestly, you have to admit that they were pretty feeble compared to the current real-time, multi-stream HD NLE/color-correcting/FX systems of today. Heck, if you could get anything close to a usable signal out of one of those early systems youd be lucky. You could even say that the term ?broadcast quality was coined specifically to indicate computer-generated video signals that were nearly usable in a true broadcast situation remember folks, before computers came along everything you saw at NAB was already ?broadcast quality. So its not surprising that computers werent taken very seriously.

But two things happened. First, computers, peripherals, and software got better and better. Second, along came digital TV. At first, broadcasters were in denial about DTV, HDTV, and all the rest but eventually they began to realize that the FCC wasnt joking about switching everyone over to digital by 2006 and they started to panic. Of course, satellite and cable systems had already been moving to digital for years, since it made good economic sense go digital and you can transmit hundreds of channels and increase your revenues. But for broadcasters, going digital meant spending millions and millions of dollars on new equipment equipment that had no history and no track record. Not only that, with 14 different DTV formats, a broadcaster could end up picking the wrong one.

Thats when broadcasters started taking a second, more serious, look at those computer thingies. Computers could now do some pretty amazing video tricks. They could output true, honest-to-goodness broadcast-quality signals, they could handle just about any DTV format you could throw at them all in one box, and best of all, they were cheaper than a network execs new shoes. Trouble was (and still is to a certain extent), computers dont work like most broadcast gear. In that world, you pay $50K for a box that does one thing, have it installed, turn it on and it works. You dont wait for it to boot up. You dont worry about viruses or operating systems or patches or?crashes. You also dont have to hire a programmer to get everything to work and you dont have to put your entire prime-time block in the questionable hands of some teenage computer geek.

For the most part, thats about where we stand today. Broadcasters know they are going to have to start integrating more computers into the production stream, but they are still leery about the prospect. At this years NAB the big-boy exhibitors were shoulder to shoulder with the computer folks and right there, in the thick of it all, was Apple.

Apples new high-end video offerings are impressive, but I wouldnt expect to start seeing a flood of announcements from TV stations around the world saying they are junking all their old gear and trading them in for new G5s and PowerBooks. I do expect to see a few announcements saying such-and-such a broadcaster has started using Apples Motion to generate logos or for near- and off-line graphics and editing. But it will be a while before someone trusts a Mac or any PC to handle live news graphics. Like it or not, Macs (or the applications) do crash every once in a while and in the broadcast world thats simply unacceptable.

Until Apple can step forward and say ?we can guarantee this will never crash few broadcasters will be willing to take that chance with anything live or realtime, including things like spot insertion, crawls, station IDs, or even flying those pesky logos and promos over taped playback content. The one exception might be when they have to send a reporter way out into the field and all they can carry is a PowerBook.

Another area where Macs might fit in the broadcast space is encoding and transcoding. Even though these tasks are relatively trivial for a Mac these days, there are a number of old, established companies out there offering stand-alone, rack-mounted encoders and transcoders for broadcast (at amazingly exorbitant prices, considering what they do). But again, broadcasters would rather have a rack-mounted box that they can plug in, turn on and have it do one thing instantly and reliably. In fact, they dont want their equipment performing multiple tasks. No one uses a character generator to do word processing (even though they probably could). In the world of broadcasting, devices do one thing and one thing only (of course, they do that one task very well).

And that brings up another point Apple could easily address that might help things along rack mounting. Broadcasters love rack-mountable gear. They dont have a lot of desk space in a control room, and they arent too crazy about keyboards or mice either. If Apple offered systems in a nice, simple, plain black, rack mount configuration, thats something that a broadcaster could love. If you could replace the keyboard and mouse with a bank of buttons, or even better, let the engineer control the Mac using an existing production switcher, then youd really have something. Now the new Xserve RAID system that Apple just announced is a 1RU (rack unit) device, so at least Apple is beginning to address this.

So the way I see it, there are three obstacles preventing Apple from taking the broadcast industry by storm: Reliability, focus, and packaging.

Packaging in a rack-mount enclosure is a no-brainer and allowing an external switcher or other device to control the Mac also could be easily accomplished.

Focusing on one task at a time could also be easily accomplished (just dont tell them there is a powerful computer in there). There are lots of companies building turn-key systems (that just happen to have a computer inside) doing dedicated tasks discreets flint system is essentially an SGI computer in a box running only discreets software.

The reliability issue (combined with that old ?instant-on expectation) is a much more difficult problem to overcome but it would be well worth overcoming and not just for broadcasters. In the computer world weve come to expect and almost accept the fact that our systems will crash every now and then or an application will lock up. Broadcasters arent that forgiving, especially when millions of advertising dollars are on the line.

Can Apple overcome these obstacles? The first two yes; the last one may take a bit of time. Then again, Apple can do some amazing things when it sets its mind to a task.

Guy Wright has been kicking around video and computers since the dawn of time. He wrote his first computer program on a teletype with a paper tape reader and shot his first video on a black and white Portapack. Hes even edited video with gasp! a razor blade. Now he just writes about these technologies and stays away from razor blades.

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Guy Wright has been kicking around computers and video for more years than he cares to admit and written too many articles to count. He has been a director, editor, producer, video operator, and announcer for a score of radio and TV stations. His credits include hundreds of insipid local-origination programs and commercials, dozens of cheesy radio spots, and even a book or two. Mainly he writes and edits articles for Digital Media Online.
Related Keywords:Apple, broadcast, , NAB, HD, non-linear, editing, FX, ENG, SAN, workflow


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