The broadcast sector has been intimately connected with engineering since the first flickering images were transmitted in the 1920s. For much of the early years the engineers called the shots; what was and wasn’t possible. Over the last decade there has been signs of a separation, even a divorce between the business and the technology. Just as automakers outsource much of their parts supply to focus on design and marketing (along with final assembly), broadcasters are outsourcing technical operations to focus on channel branding, scheduling, program making and commissioning. They are creating a product to support ad sales and subscriptions where the technology is the enabler, not the master.
As a boy I read about early days at the BBC, where audio channel EQ was called a ‘response selection amplifier’. It was applied by an engineer in special circumstances, with the implication being that the microphone placement was less than ideal. A mere operator just rode the levels, so much for fix it in post! This was just one example of engineers calling the shots. Over the years the engineers have allowed the operators to do more and more, with the engineers relegated to line-up and maintenance. As equipment became digital, free from the need for constant alignment to correct for the drifts of analog equipment, the creatives have pretty much ousted engineers from everyday operations.
Once engineers are decoupled from program making, the business managers are more easily able to look at outsourcing the technical operations. Outsourcing is not new to the M&E sector. Film production has always relied on freelancers and rented facilities. A typical production company may not own anything. It’s not just cameras and lighting that are rented. Furnished offices can be rented, along with PCs. Email is left to a service provider, and accounting to a specialist. The production company is free to focus on producing. For production companies a big advantage of using services is the elastic nature of their demands. Between projects all that is needed is a small office, but during the shoot the full paraphernalia of production is called for. Broadcasters too have elastic demands, especially for sports and big events like elections.
The link between engineering and broadcasting has snapped. The business folks have no sentimental attachment to the engineering. If there is a business case to buy and run technology, then do it, otherwise outsource to a growing band of service providers.
We now see all aspects of broadcast operations outsourced, from acquisition to delivery. Broadcasters no longer run truck fleets. Outside broadcast specialists can meets the needs of live events from minority sports up to the World Cup. For decades post-production facilities have served broadcasters with editing, sound design and finishing. Playout has also seen more than a decade of outsourcing, along with the ownership and operation of transmitters and towers.
Does this mean that specialist broadcast engineering knowledge is being lost? No, it just resides elsewhere, with systems integrators and mobile truck operators, with playout centers and OTT aggregators.
The evolution of delivery from over-the-air to over-the-top has created new businesses where there is no history, no precedence, no need for the companies to even grasp the older broadcast technology—best leave it to the experts.
Many of the service providers don’t have a television background, but does that matter if you are looking for someone to run your storage in the cloud? OK, video files are large, but so are the survey assets in the energy sector. As for the security requirements, well they’re not unique to media and entertainment.
What is special about the sector is that curious mixture of business and art that makes such a rewarding sector in which to work.