Monday, June 23, 2014

Chelsea Handler: Netflix's MacGuffin?

Last week, Netflix announced that it will launch a talk show starring Chelsea Handler. The announcement triggered speculation about Netflix's reasons for launching a talk show, and what kind of a talk show it would offer. After all, Netflix is a video-on-demand service that features movies, old television shows and new series, while talk shows are one of the most time-sensitive show formats, after news and sports. Is Netflix trying to copy HBO shows such as "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "Last Week Tonight?" Would Handler's show be shown the day of production, or even live, or would Netflix delay it? Would Netflix try to create a new type of talk show that's not, as Variety says, "perishable"?

You may know of Netflix's first original series, "Lillehammer," starring Steven Van Zandt. It's never gotten much critical notice; certainly nothing like "House of Cards" or "Orange is the New Black." Netflix has renewed it for a third season, even though I suspect that most television viewers have never heard of it. When Netflix announced "Lillehammer," industry observers thought that was the story, and discounted its (and Netflix's) impact when the show turned out to be mediocre. The real story, however, wasn't "Lillehammer," but the fact that Netflix was targeting HBO with its own original series.

An important nugget in Netflix's announcement of Chelsea Handler's talk show is that the show won't go into production until some time in 2016. That seems like an awfully long time, given that talk shows are usually launched in a matter of months, not years. A daytime talk show can get "greenlighted" in the spring and be on the air in the fall. Why is it going to take Netflix more than 18 months to get Handler's show into production?

I believe the reason is that Netflix is preparing to launch a live service in addition to its existing VOD. Given that all of Netflix's infrastructure and all of the software that people use to watch Netflix was developed solely for VOD, Netflix has a lot of work to do in order to offer live programming. Once Netflix gets it working, however, it opens up entirely new opportunities for the company. One of them is Pay-Per-View (PPV). Typically, PPV is used for big-ticket sporting events, such as boxing and wrestling matches, as well as live concerts. These PPV events are one of the biggest profit generators for cable, satellite and IPTV operators. They would also be a big profit generator for Netflix, above and beyond the company's monthly "all you can eat" subscription revenue.

Another opportunity is live sports--the kinds of events shown by broadcast and cable networks: Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, soccer and tennis. Sports can be very lucrative for networks. Games on Netflix would be very appealing to viewers who could watch them without commercial interruption. Consider something like DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, which offers subscribers every out-of-town NFL game. It costs from $230 to $330 for a six-month (full-season) subscription, depending on the level of service, and it's one of DirecTV's most profitable offerings. In fact, NFL Sunday Ticket is said by many observers to be one of the biggest reasons why AT&T wants to acquire DirecTV. If Netflix develops a live streaming capability, it can offer a similar service to subscribers to any high-speed Internet service. All 99 million U.S. households become potential buyers. No cable, satellite or IPTV company has that kind of reach.

With that in mind, it becomes clear that the real story isn't that Chelsea Handler is getting a talk show on Netflix, it's that Netflix plans to offer live programming--and live programming is increasingly the lifeblood of broadcast and cable networks alike. In short, if your television business is known by initials (HBO, TNT, ESPN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox--okay, those aren't initials--etc.), Netflix is coming for you in 2016. And, Chelsea Handler is the least important part of it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We're doing it for consumers (not)

Last February, Comcast announced that it had agreed to acquire Time Warner Cable for a bit over $45 billion. The Comcast press release announcing the deal had the sub-head "Transaction Creates Multiple Pro-Consumer and Pro-Competitive Benefits, Including for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses." The press release had three discussions of the benefits that the merger would bring to consumers, and in subsequent Congressional hearings, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives have touted how their merger will benefit consumers.

Last Sunday, AT&T announced that it has agreed to acquire DirecTV for $49 billion. The joint AT&T/DIRECTV press release mentioned consumer benefits twelve times, including this quote from DIRECTV President and CEO Mike White: “This compelling and complementary combination will bring significant benefits to all consumers, shareholders and DIRECTV employees."

Earlier today, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the major broadcast networks, as well as radio and television station owners, issued its own press release questioning the consumer benefits of the AT&T/DirecTV deal, while emphasizing its own interest in looking out for consumers. NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton was quoted as saying “AT&T’s proposed merger with DirecTV demands a hard look in an increasingly consolidated broadband and pay television marketplace. It is hard to see how decreasing competitors in the pay TV marketplace – while increasing regulatory restraints on local TV stations – truly benefits consumers.”

Let's be clear: AT&T, Comcast, DIRECTV, the National Association of Broadcasters and Time Warner Cable couldn't give a damn about consumers. They're saying what they think they need to say in order to get the appropriate governmental agencies to approve or block the mergers. Let's look at what the parties really want or are afraid could happen:
  • Comcast wants Time Warner Cable's subscribers in order to increase its subscriber count to 30 million households, or about a third of all households in the U.S. that watch television. The merger will increase Comcast's revenues and profits dramatically, after years of little or no subscriber growth. It will also make it much riskier for broadcast and basic cable networks to threaten to black Comcast's channels out during retransmission negotiations, because losing Comcast's households would mean immediately losing a third of their viewers, and substantially more than that from major markets controlled by Comcast. That would directly impact ratings and force networks to make up the lost viewership to advertisers.
  • AT&T gets a national footprint by acquiring DIRECTV. It will be able to sell TV service, and to bundle mobile and TV service, anywhere in the U.S. It will be able to sell DIRECTV out of every AT&T mobile retail store. The merged company will have roughly 26 million subscribers--second only to the merged Comcast/Time Warner Cable. That will give AT&T the same leverage in retransmission negotiations that Comcast will have. AT&T also gets access to DIRECTV's unique programming, including NFL Sunday Ticket, which generates $300 of revenue per subscribing household each year.
  • The National Association of Broadcasters fears its members' loss of leverage in retransmission negotiations as much as Comcast and AT&T are looking forward to it. Instead of negotiating with ten big cable operators, two big satellite providers and two big IPTV providers (AT&T and Verizon,) broadcasters' negotiating partners are going to be Comcast, AT&T and everyone else. Broadcasters are afraid that Comcast and AT&T will squelch their ability to raise retransmission fees, and may even be able to lower them.
  • Smaller cable operators (represented by the American Cable Association) are concerned that if the broadcast and basic cable networks can't get the money they're looking for from Comcast and AT&T, they'll try to get it from the smaller cable operators, which have far less negotiating leverage.
None of this has anything to do with improving service or lowering costs for consumers. As Bloomberg Television pointed out yesterday, Comcast and AT&T could do something that would be of great benefit to consumers: For far less than the $45 to $49 billion that each merger will cost, they could dramatically increase consumers' Internet speeds to 1 Gigabit per second. That would give customers near-instantaneous access to Internet content and services. However, Comcast and AT&T are only planning to offer 1 Gigabit service in those markets where Google Fiber either already offers it or plans to offer it in the future.

The Justice Department: Your bank balance determines its prosecution strategy

Yesterday, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had settled a criminal case against Swiss bank Credit Suisse for helping U.S. taxpayers to evade taxes by transferring funds to overseas locations. Credit Suisse agreed to plead guilty to the charges and paid $2.6 billion, in the form of $1.8 billion to the U.S. government, $715 million to the New York Department of Financial Services and $100 million to the Federal Reserve. Only $670 million of the $2.6 billion went to the IRS for compensation of actual lost tax revenues. A few Credit Suisse employees will be dismissed or reassigned, but no one will spend a day in jail.

The settlement, as are most settlements of this type, was announced at a self-congratulatory press conference led by Attorney General Eric Holder. Attorney General Holder said “This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law.” He also said “a company’s profitability or market share can never and will never be used as a shield from prosecution or penalty. And this action should put that misguided notion definitively to rest.” Anyone who’s followed the Justice Department’s actions since the financial collapse of 2008 knows just how untrue--in fact, how hilarious--that statement is.

If the target of a Justice Department investigation has vast financial assets, the Justice Department offers or accepts a settlement that involves payment of money to the U.S. Government in return for dismissal of all outstanding charges. The vast majority of the time, the target doesn’t need to plead guilty or take responsibility for anything. Even if the Department does manage to get a guilty plea, as in yesterday’s deal with Credit Suisse, no one within the company will go to jail. (In the Credit Suisse case, the Government prosecuted not to recover any of the trillions of dollars lost by individuals due to financial manipulation and malfeasance leading up to the Great Recession. It prosecuted to recover a few hundred million dollars of lost Federal taxes.)

On the other hand, if the Justice Department decides to go after someone without vast financial resources, or if it has to defend its own actions, its tactics are dramatically more aggressive. In fact, after decades of fighting organized crime, the Justice Department seems to have adopted organized crime’s tactics. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to determine who the “good guys” are, and a scorecard doesn’t help.

If the Justice Department’s target is an individual without large financial assets, it uses intimidation in the form of threats of prosecution with trumped-up charges and the potential of decades of prison to get the subject to plead guilty to a reduced set of charges. It does that even (or especially) if it knows that it’s unlikely to get a conviction if the case goes to trial. A good example is Aaron Swartz, who downloaded a huge cache of academic journal articles, most of which had been written with taxpayer dollars and should have already been in the public domain. However, the Justice Department charged Swartz with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The charges came with a maximum of a $1 million fine and 23 years in prison, which the U.S. Attorney told Swartz’s attorney that she intended to ask for in court. After two years of government harassment and two days after a plea bargain offered by his lawyer was rejected by the U.S. Attorney, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Rather than discipline or dismiss the U.S. Attorney who refused the plea bargain, Attorney General Holder commended her.

If the target might be helpful in testifying against a bigger target, the Justice Department uses the same tactics, often stretching out the case for years in order to destroy the reputation of the target, eventually dropping the case before going to trial. The reputation and business of the target cannot be reestablished with an innocent verdict, so the individual or business is destroyed. Last week, Bloomberg reported on three previously unknown philanthropists who have created a $9.7 billion trust that’s bigger than the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations combined and is bigger than all of them except the Gates, Ford and Getty foundations. The three philanthropists were once part of a company called Princeton-Newport Partners, the world’s first quantitative hedge fund. Four Princeton-Newport managers were charged with racketeering and tax fraud (the three philanthropists were never charged with anything.) The Justice Department’s goal was to get the Princeton-Newport managers to testify against Michael Milkin. There’s no evidence that the Justice Department could have won a conviction against the Princeton-Newport employees if the case had gone to trial. The Justice Department eventually dropped all charges, but the reputation of Princeton-Newport was destroyed and the company collapsed.

If the Justice Department itself or the U.S. Government is the target of a civil or criminal case, it actively withholds evidence and lies to the court. A good example is the ACLU’s case last year in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to have the FISA Amendments Act ruled unconstitutional. The Supreme Court never ruled on the constitutional issues, instead ruling that the ACLU and its plaintiffs didn’t have standing to pursue the case—they weren’t affected by the Government’s actions because the Government wasn’t surveilling them. The Guardian reports that the Supreme Court came to that conclusion because the Justice Department told it “1) that the NSA would only get the content of Americans' communications without a warrant when they are targeting a foreigner abroad for surveillance, and 2) that the Justice Department would notify criminal defendants who have been spied on under the FISA Amendments Act, so there exists some way to challenge the law in court.” Both of these statements were outright lies.

In the case of #1 above, one of Edward Snowden’s revelations was that the NSA engages in what the agency calls “about” surveillance, in which it captures an enormous number (trillions) of emails and text messages between anyone in the U.S. and anyone outside the country, whether or not either party is in any way under investigation. Thus, the NSA got the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant AND without a targeted foreign party. In the second case, last July, the Justice Department admitted “that the government hadn't been notifying any defendants they were being charged based on NSA surveillance, making it actually impossible for anyone to prove they had standing to challenge the FISA Amendments Act as unconstitutional.” In most cases, the Justice Department acknowledges and alerts the court in question when it has given false statements or presented false evidence, but in this case, the Justice Department has refused to do so.

The Guardian explains what Attorney General Holder’s Justice Department has instead done, which is to deny its behavior and confuse the issue:
” The government's response, instead, has been to explain why it doesn't think these statements are lies. In a letter to Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall that only surfaced this week, the government made the incredible argument that the "about" surveillance was classified at the time of the case, so it was under no obligation to tell the Supreme Court about it. And the Justice Department completely sidestepped the question of whether it lied about notifying defendants, basically by saying that it started to do so after the case, and so this was somehow no longer an issue.”
In the FISA Amendments case, by any measure, the Justice Department should have at least been disciplined by the Court for deliberately lying, but nothing is going to happen. If the Justice Department can lie to the Supreme Court with impunity, it can lie to Congress, targets of prosecution and the American people with equal impunity. In fact, after looking at these cases and many others, it’s difficult to distinguish between the Justice Department’s actions and what it accuses its targets of.

The Justice Department has played a critical role for decades in civil rights, prosecution of organized crime and political corruption. It’s an essential part of our legal system, and I’m the last person who would argue that we don’t need it. However, we need a Justice Department that’s worthy of the people of the United States, and today, we don’t have that.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Craig Ferguson is leaving "The Late Late Show" in December

Last night, Craig Ferguson announced that he's leaving CBS's "The Late Late Show" when his contract expires at the end of 2014. According to press reports, he contacted CBS management earlier in the day to alert them that he intended to announce his departure, and the network sent out a press release a few hours before the show aired on the East Coast. Ferguson will have completed ten years of hosting the show when he leaves in December.

From the beginning, Ferguson was one of the most unique hosts in U.S. late night television. His monologues are what got early notice--the common style was (and still is) to make a series of jokes about the events of the day, while Ferguson frankly discussed his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and other personal topics. He makes a show of tearing up the "blue cards" that his producers prepare with information about his guests. The show isn't rehearsed, which sometimes leads to problems but far more often gives Ferguson's show a spontaneity missing from the rest of late night.

Ferguson is also unique for not only how he interviews, but who he interviews. He won a Peabody Award for his interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. He devoted an entire episode of the show to an hour-long one-on-one interview with Stephen Fry without a studio audience in 2010. He also interviewed philosophy professor Jonathan Dancy, and admitted later to Dancy's son (Hugh Dancy, star of NBC's "Hannibal") how intimidated he felt during the interview. Ferguson has interviewed a "Who's Who" of British, Scottish and Irish actors, many of whom are his long-time friends. These interviews are never as rehearsed or forced as the interviews these actors have on other late night shows; instead, they're conversations between two friends catching up with each other.

Ferguson, who's a published novelist ("Between the Bridge and the River") and autobiographer ("American On Purpose"), has interviewed a wide range of authors, including (in 2013 alone) Lawrence Block, Jackie Collins, Michael Connelly, Helen Fielding, Doris Kerns Goodwin, John Green, Philip Kerr, Dennis Lehane, Ben Mezrich, Jo Nesbo, Anna Quindlen, Anne Rice and Jon Ronson. You'd be hard-pressed to find any authors of note on any of the other broadcast networks' late night talk shows.

In his cold open Monday night, Ferguson said that the decision to leave "The Late Late Show" was his, and he had actually planned to leave in 2012 but was persuaded to stay for two more years by CBS's commitment to give him a new, larger studio. Despite the stories that began to swirl around after David Letterman announced his retirement, I take Ferguson at his word. If CBS had discussions with other potential hosts, it was (at least initially) to provide a backup in the event that Ferguson decided not to renew his contract at the end of this year.

I've always compared Craig Ferguson to one of the greatest late night show hosts, Jack Paar. I was very young when Paar hosted "The Tonight Show" (from 1957 to 1962), but what I remember from that time and gained a better appreciation for when I was older was that Paar was both intelligent and risky. You never knew for sure what would happen on Paar's show: In 1960, he left the show for three weeks to protest NBC's censoring of a joke, and he left the show for good two years later. Paar wanted guests with whom he could have interesting conversations, not just guests who had something to plug.

Like Paar, I've expected Ferguson to at some point thank his audience, turn on his heels and walk out of the studio, never to return. As of Monday night, we now know that time will come before the end of the year. When Ferguson leaves, it'll be the end of an era. I'm going to enjoy the remaining eight months with Craig Ferguson, because it's very unlikely that the host who replaces him will be as interesting.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Don't overbuy your next cinema camera

Last week, I published a post that recommended four steps to take before you buy or rent a 4K cinema camera. There's an important point that I left out: The rate of change in the camera (and for that matter, production and post-production hardware) business is greater than at any time in memory. Consider that it wasn't too long ago that a properly maintained 35mm camera could be expected to last 20 years, and a film editing table (Kem/Steenbeck) could last 30 or 40 years. Today, we're well along with the transition from 2K to 4K (at least on the acquisition side,) and Japan's NHK is already building prototype hardware for the 8K generation.

The rate of change is at least equal to that of the heyday of personal computers, when faster processors and better displays were released every year. Today, it's likely that a camera will become technically obsolete well before it's no longer repairable. Here's a few reasons why:
  • The sensitivity and dynamic range of imagers continues to improve, and rolling shutters are being replaced with global shutters.
  • Codecs are also improving, with support of higher bit-depths and bigger color spaces.
  • Storage speeds and capacities are increasing, while the cost of flash-based storage is falling.
With things changing so fast, you don't want to get locked into a capital investment in a camera that you can't pay back before it's obsolete. My recommendation is to plan on a three-year usable life for most of today's cameras. That doesn't mean that they'll break in three years, but rather, the state of the art will progress so much that you'll want a new camera in three years, especially if your competitors already have one. So, you need to know how often you're likely to use the camera over those three years.

Let's say that the camera you've decided on costs $20,000, including some accessories that you won't be able to use on future cameras. If you'll use the camera ten times a year over the three years, that means that you'll be spreading the $20,000 cost (plus routine maintenance) over 30 shoots, and the camera will cost you $667 per shoot. (Lenses are extra.) If you're only going to use the camera once a year over three years, it will cost $6,667 per production. A cheaper camera doesn't have to be used as much to justify its purchase, so long as it does everything you expect to need over those three years.

One other important consideration is lens mounts. Even if you're planning to rent most of your lenses, you'll probably want to own some lenses that you use often. You don't want to have to sell your lenses on eBay when you buy a new camera, so you should get a camera with a lens mount that's likely to satisfy your needs in the future. EF and PL mounts are the most widely used today, and are likely to be the most widely used down the road. There are fewer MFT- and E-mount lenses available, but there are adapters and Metabones Speed Boosters for both EF- and PL-mount lenses to fit MFT and E mounts.

If you buy (or rent) cameras with a three-year useful life in mind, don't overbuy based on the number of shoots you expect to do over those three years, and choose a lens mount based on your long-term needs, you're far more likely to be happy with your purchase across its entire usable life and beyond.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Blackmagic adds studio cameras to its live production suite, makes its switchers 4K

Blackmagic Design has long been known as a post-production hardware vendor, starting with its DeckLink cards in 2002. In 2010, the company moved into live video production when it acquired switcher manufacturer Echolab's assets out of bankruptcy. Together with its Videohub routers and video & audio monitoring hardware, Blackmagic built a fairly complete line of live production products. Then, in 2012, Blackmagic introduced its first camera, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC). Many people wondered if the Cinema Camera could be used for live production since it has an HD-SDI output, but Blackmagic cautioned against using it that way. The BMCC's color output is so flat that it can't really be used without color correction, and Blackmagic's subsequent camera models launched prior to this year aren't much better suited for live use.

However, at NAB earlier this week, Blackmagic introduced a line of cameras designed specifically for live production, the Studio Camera HD and Studio Camera 4K (which outputs video in Ultra HD and HD.) The Studio Cameras are designed around 10" LCDs that do double duty as viewfinders and menu displays. The company claims that the viewfinders are the largest offered by any manufacturer. Unlike the Cinema Camera and Production Camera, the Studio Camera's display isn't touch-sensitive; a row of buttons below the display is used for user inputs. The company claims that by eliminating the touch-sensitive layer, the Studio Camera's display is brighter.

On the back of the display, there's a wedge that contains all of the camera's connectors, the lens mount (active Micro Four Thirds), imager and most of the camera's electronics. The result is a very strange looking camera, but one with significantly better features than previous Blackmagic models. For example, the company's previous cameras have become known for their poor battery life, but Blackmagic says that the battery in the Studio Camera will last for four hours, and a standard four-pin power connector allows users to connect external batteries for more runtime, or AC power for continuous operation. The single minijack or dual 1/4" jacks used for audio input in the previous cameras have been replaced with dual XLR connectors with phantom power.

The Studio Cameras also have several new features:
  • A LANC interface for connecting a remote iris, focus and zoom control (if your lens is compatible)
  • Dual jacks for connecting an aviation headset for intercom use; Blackmagic claims that aviation headsets are much less expensive than video production headsets with comparable features
  • A bidirectional optical fiber connector that's compatible with the ATEM Studio Converter and provides the same functionality as the $595 ATEM Camera Converter. This enables the Studio Camera to send and receive HD or 4K video, stereo audio, talkback/intercom and tally lights over cable runs as long as 28 miles
  • A software-based Remote Camera Control that works with any ATEM Production Studio. All of the settings on the camera can be monitored and controlled with this software. In addition, a full copy of DaVinci Resolve's primary color corrector is included for live color balancing
You may be thinking, "These Studio Cameras are better than Blackmagic's first-generation models in almost every way, and they're the same price, so why would anyone buy the earlier models?" One big reason is that the Studio Cameras have no storage. No SSD, no CFast, no SDXC, nothing. You can, of course, add an external recorder such as Blackmagic's HyperDeck Shuttle, and you've got other options using the Studio Cameras' SDI connections. However, an external recorder adds to the size, weight and cost of the cameras.

The Studio Camera HD is shipping now and is priced at $1,995 (U.S.), while the Studio Camera 4K is expected to ship in June and is priced at $2,995. Given Blackmagic's track record with cameras, don't bet your life on that June ship date, and expect some problems with the cameras that are shipped for the first several months.

Blackmagic has also made a number of changes to its ATEM line of switchers (all of which are shipping):
  • The original HD-only models of the ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E have been discontinued; the sole HD-only switcher that remains in the product line is the $995 ATEM Television Studio, which is primarily intended as a "personal" switcher for webcasts and small productions
  • The new ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio and 2 M/E Production Studio support 4K and HD on all inputs and outputs (except the monitor outputs, which are HD only)
  • Last year's ATEM Production Studio 4K, which has similar functionality to the ATEM Television Studio except it supports 4K, remains in the product line at $1,695
  • The ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $2,495, and the ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio 4K is priced at $3,995, $1,000 less than last year's model
With the Studio Cameras and its 4K switcher line, Blackmagic now has just about everything needed to build a live production facility.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

For 4K cameras, price is A thing, but not THE thing

I'm back from NAB, where the overriding theme this year was 4K everything--cameras, monitors, editors, special effects, routers, switchers, etc. Perhaps the biggest battle was in cameras, where AJA Video entered the market for the first time and Blackmagic Design and Sony announced new 4K cameras. (JVC also announced its first 4K digital cinematography cameras, but gave no prices or availability dates.) 4K cameras have been a "thing" ever since the RED One, but $10,000 was the least that you could spend to buy one (Canon's 1D C) until Blackmagic shipped its 4K Production Camera late last year, priced at $2,995.

The floodgates have now opened:
  • Panasonic's GH4: $1,699, or $3,299 bundled with its SDI/XLR interface dock
  • Sony's A7S: $2,499.99, will ship in July
  • Blackmagic's 4K Production Camera: $2,995
  • Blackmagic's URSA EF: $5,995
  • AJA's Cion: $8,995
None of these cameras cost more than a fraction of the price of an ARRI Alexa ($80,000+) or Amira ($40,000-$52,000 depending on enabled features,) RED EPIC-M Dragon ($50,000+), or Sony F55 ($29,000+) or F65 ($65,000+). You'd think that ARRI, RED and Sony would be shaking in their boots, but they're not. There are two reasons why the companies that make high-end cameras aren't necessarily threatened by the new inexpensive models:
  1. There are many elements that determine whether or not a specific camera is appropriate for an application, and
  2. You get what you pay for.
Here are some (but far from all) of the elements of camera design that influence how the camera performs and what it's good (or not good) for:
  • Imager size
  • Imager resolution
  • Color space (e.g., YUV or xvYCC)
  • Color sampling (e.g., 4:2:0, 4:2:2 or 4:4:4)
  • Bit depth (8-bit vs. 10-bit)
  • Video output resolution (DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), UHD (3840 x 2160), 1080, 720)
  • Video compression formats (e.g., AVCHD, H.264, ProRes, DNxHD, XAVC, XAVC S, AVC-Intra, AVC-Ultra)
  • RAW storage and/or output
  • Frame rates supported at specified resolution (e.g., 24, 25, 29.97, 30, 59.94, 60 or 120)
  • Dynamic range in stops
  • Native ISO speed
  • Sensitivity (maximum usable ISO speed, NOT the camera's rated top ISO speed)
  • Lens mount(s)
  • Lens control (manual, automatic or limited automatic)
  • Image stabilization (digital or optical, in the camera body or in the lens, or no stabilization)
  • Viewfinder, display screen, both or none
  • User interface design (e.g., touchscreen(s), menus, dedicated buttons and knobs)
  • Storage capacity
  • Storage media
  • Internal or external storage
  • Video interface(s) (HDMI or HD-SDI, with different HDMI versions and, for HD-SDI, maximum speeds)
  • Audio connector(s)
  • Balanced or unbalanced audio in
  • Phantom power availability
  • Run time on battery
  • Removable or permanent battery
  • External power voltage and connector
  • Camera shape
  • Camera weight
  • Ruggedness
  • Manufacturer and design maturity (how much experience does the manufacturer have in designing cameras, and how long has the manufacturer been making this particular camera)
There's an enormous number of elements to consider, and some elements work much better for certain applications than others. In some cases, buyers have a wealth of cameras to choose from, while in other cases, there may only be a handful that can do what they need.

Rather than salivating when you hear about a new low-priced camera with attractive features, ask yourself these questions:
  1. What am I going to use it for?
  2. What trade-offs am I willing to accept (for example, are you willing to live with less sensitivity in order to get a higher-quality compression format?)
  3. How often will I use the camera (do you know that you'll be using it over and over on new projects, or do you have one project in mind and you don't know when you'll have the next one?)
  4. How much can I afford to pay?
Answering the first two questions will allow you to compile a list of cameras that meet your needs. Answering the final two questions will tell you whether you should buy or rent the camera that you can afford. In some cases, you may decide to buy a less-expensive camera and use your remaining budget to buy lenses or mounting equipment. In other cases, you could rent a camera and use the savings elsewhere on your production, or rent a camera that you can't afford to buy that's superior to other choices for your application. In short, you should answer the four questions first, rather than starting with the price of the camera and instead hoping that it will meet your needs.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Brendan Eich's resignation from Mozilla is a victory for no one

Earlier today, Mozilla announced that recently-appointed CEO Brendan Eich has resigned, both from Mozilla's for-profit arm and from the board of the non-profit foundation that controls the company. The reason for his resignation was the blowback from a $1,000 contribution that Eich made to a group supporting California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 (his contribution became public knowledge in 2012.)

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I worked with Brendan, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker and Mozilla Foundation Director Bob Lisbonne at Netscape in 1995-97. In addition, I strongly support gay marriage. With that in mind, I'm very sad that Brendan was forced out of an organization that he was such an integral part of for so long, not because of any claims of mismanagement, financial irresponsibility or technical incompetence, but because of a personal belief.

If the shoe was on the other foot--if an executive who had contributed to a campaign supporting gay marriage or gay rights (like NOH8) was targeted for dismissal by opponents of gay marriage--would the members of the gay community calling for Brendan's head have supported the executive or the rights of the gay marriage opponents? I'm pretty sure that it would have been the former, and I'm very sure that their actions would be hypocritical.

Brendan had agreed that his opinions about gay marriage would play no part in how he ran Mozilla, and his opponents could point to no evidence that his opinions were even known within Mozilla prior to 2012. In addition, although I'm sure that he was paid a good salary at Mozilla, he could have become far wealthier by going to work for totally for-profit, pre-IPO company. Instead, he chose to work on open source projects that would increase the common good for everyone.

All of us have opinions and beliefs that other people disagree with. For example, I support a woman's right to have an abortion, an opinion that's wildly unpopular in parts of the U.S. However, unless I was working for a company with a strong publicly stated position on the topic, like Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby, I would expect that my belief should have no impact on either my employment or how I do my job. By forcing Brendan out, supporters of gay marriage have paradoxically given more power to opponents of gay rights, women's rights and a host of other issues, who want to force people who don't share their beliefs out of companies.

I'm also clearly disappointed by Mitchell Baker's blog post today announcing Brendan's resignation. Here's a quote:
We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Free speech, of course, cuts both ways. As a lawyer, Mitchell knows that Brendan had a perfect right to make that contribution. If Mozilla had dismissed Brendan on the grounds of his contribution, the company would have been guilty of religious discrimination under Federal law. So, Brendan had to "voluntarily" resign, for the good of the organization, to correct the "mistake" of appointing him CEO. However, the appointment wasn't a mistake--the people who made the appointment knew all about his contribution. Baker and the Mozilla Foundation board should have stood behind him. Now, however, we know how Mozilla will respond to external pressure in the future--with cowardice.