Thursday, May 11, 2006

Simpler is Better

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention ended a few weeks ago, and as usual, there were lots of announcements of new cameras, video recorders, editing systems, etc. The big buzz was about two new cameras: The RED One Digital Camera, a cinema-grade camcorder with 4K resolution priced at $17,500 without lens, and the Silicon Imaging SI-1920HDVR, a 1080P digital cinema camera priced under $20,000 that’s basically a computer with a lens and imager on one end and a hard disk on the other. The RED’s vaporware for now—there were no working samples at the show, while the Silicon Imaging camera was demonstrated in its full working glory. When (or if) they get to market, they’ll be exciting, wonderful tools for video production…but they’ll largely be irrelevant.

Media production is shifting to consumers faster than was dreamed possible even a few years ago. The action is in consumer-level hardware and software, especially the new consumer HD camcorders. Earlier today, Sony and Panasonic announced a new consumer HD camcorder format that uses conventional recordable DVD technology called AVCHD. It’ll use tiny 8cm read/write DVDs and record in 1080i or 720p, at 24 or 30 frames per second. Yes, it’s also vaporware right now, but AVCHD camcorders will be on the market no later than next spring, at 1/15th to 1/20th the price of the new camcorders shown at NAB.

But why limit yourself to HD camcorders? People are shooting movies with their cellphones. A lot of digital audio players can double as digital audio recorders for field recording. If you’ve got a PC, you’ve got everything you need to edit a movie or create a podcast. My point is that there are now absolutely no limits for individuals to make their own media. And that is inexorably making the expensive, “professional” tools of media production obsolete. For every RED One, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of consumer camcorders sold, and the same number of content producers will be created.

The fact is that broadcast and film are mainly replacement markets. TV and cable producers are replacing their standard definition equipment with HD and analog equipment with digital. They’re buying the least expensive equipment that will do the job; $5,000 prosumer camcorders are replacing $25,000 professional models. Film producers are replacing their film cameras with digital ones. The number of television and film production companies and facilities isn’t growing; if anything, it’s shrinking. The consumer producer market, on the other hand, is exploding. For $100 million, you can get one Hollywood movie, or 100,000 people each empowered with $1,000 of media tools. Each of them can put their videos on YouTube, their podcasts on iTunes and their pictures on Flickr.

The media model has irreversibly changed. “Conventional” media is increasingly becoming irrelevant; the first, and best, example is the newspaper business. Knight Ridder, one of the biggest and most powerful newspaper publishers in the U.S., just disappeared, its individual papers being scattered among several buyers. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, the television stations seem to be promoting their websites and mobile video as much (if not more) than they’re promoting their newscasts. Movie studios are desperately trying to stimulate growth in a stagnant market. Drive-time radio is being replaced with drive-time iPods. Magazines are folding left and right, as their readers increasingly get more, and more current, information on the Internet.

Have we reached the tipping point, the inflection point, critical mass? We may have already passed them; you only see them in hindsight. But I’ll tell you one thing: If you want to know where the future of media production is, don’t go to NAB…go to Best Buy.
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