Saturday, August 21, 2010

A new model for video acquisition and live production

Earlier this week I attended an event at Morningstar's headquarters in downtown Chicago. To get there, I walked past the studios of WBBM-TV, CBS' owned-and-operated station in Chicago. Like many of the new television studios built in major cities in recent years, WBBM's news studio is surrounded by windows and visible to the street from two sides, so that pedestrians can watch the shows as they're produced.

I was passing by in mid-afternoon, so there was no production going on, but I could take a look at the equipment. There were three high-end studio cameras on robotic pedestals (only one person is needed to operate all three cameras) plus a smaller camera on a fixed pedestal looking out the window for street shots. I looked up the list price for a typical high-end studio camera from Sony that's like the ones used at WBBM, and it costs $100,000 (U.S.).

By comparison, Panasonic can equip a HD webcasting studio with three automated cameras, a camera control unit and switcher for $23,000. One person can simultaneously switch the show and operate the cameras. Add in everything else you need--tripods with heads and dollies, a computer for graphics, an audio mixer, wireless microphones, LED lights, a live streaming encoder and software--and you'll be around $40-45,000. under $50,000 (I priced it out, and a complete system is priced around $47.000.) So for about half the cost of a single high-end studio camera, you can have a fully-functional live HD production facility (that, incidentally, is small and light enough to fit in the back of a minivan.)

WBBM, of course, is an over-the-air broadcaster that's also carried on cable, satellite and IPTV systems all over the greater Chicago area, so even though its news programs are struggling in the ratings, it gets a huge audience in comparison with what most people could attract through webcasting. However, the webcasting operation can run at a tiny fraction of WBBM's budget, so:
  • It doesn't need to generate a lot of revenues to be profitable, and
  • Once it reaches profitability, it will have a much higher operating margin than the broadcaster
A couple of years ago, I visited Current TV's headquarters in San Francisco and saw how they were using computers and data-based video workflows to build an automated cable network at a fraction of the cost of legacy networks. Just as Current changed the model for how to build a cable network, these new systems from Panasonic and other vendors are changing the model for video acquisition and live production.
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