Monday, April 29, 2013

A new approach to ENG field transmission

There are two approaches that most local television stations use to get audio and video from their news gathering trucks to their studios:
  1. For decades, ENG trucks have been equipped with microwave transmitters and antennas mounted on masts that range from 14 to 42 feet high when fully extended. These systems provide very reliable transmission, but they require that the ENG truck be parked, the mast be extended and the antenna be aimed at one of the station's receivers. Extension and retraction of the mast takes time.
  2. In the last few years, companies such as LiveU, Dejero, TVU, Streambox and Teradek have offered Wi-Fi- and 3G/4G/LTE-based broadband transmitters, all of which are small enough to be carried in a backpack, and some of which are small enough to be mounted on top of or behind a camcorder. These systems are light, portable and can go live very quickly. They also operate from moving vehicles. On the other hand, these broadband transmitters are at the mercy of available mobile phone bandwidth. In a situation such as the recent bombing in Boston, mobile phone networks may become gridlocked, resulting in blocky video as the system is forced to use less bandwidth, or the connection may be completely dropped.
TVNewsCheck reports that Gray Television has developed its own approach to ENG transmission that combines many of the benefits of the microwave and broadband approaches. Its new system, called GrayMax, uses a single steerable antenna in a dome on top of a SUV, which connects to base stations with 18-inch antennas located around the city. Gray says that four base stations should be sufficient to cover a medium-sized city. The operator in the truck can use GPS to steer the antenna to align with one of the base stations with a single button push, but the antenna can also be manually steered. Gray will use the 2 GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) to send audio and video to the studio, and to receive audio instructions from the studio. The antenna can dynamically track the base stations while the vehicle is moving, so it can continue to feed content back to the studio.

A fully-equipped system, including the transmitter, base stations and vehicle, could cost as little as $80,000. Gray believes that it can eventually reduce the size of GrayMax so that it will fit into a backpack. In short, the system should offer the reliability of microwave systems with broadband's much faster set-up and ability to operate while in motion. In addition, by using the BAS band, it's not impacted by mobile phone congestion.

GrayMax won't replace broadband systems, because they're much less expensive and more flexible, albeit at the cost of lower reliability. However, for stations that want to replace existing microwave systems, GrayMax is likely to be less expensive to acquire, easier to use and more flexible than simply upgrading what they already have.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Post-NAB business idea, 2013 edition

Every year, I return from NAB with a buzz from seeing new products and meeting new people. I get energized with lots of ideas--and then start penciling them out, which usually results in a bad case of reality setting in. Here's my 2013 idea:

A lot of people are repelled by the atrocious state of television news in many markets: A focus on crime and accidents, along with shoving cameras and microphones in the faces of victims' family members. My premise is borne out by the ever-older audiences for broadcast news: People who grew up watching it keep watching, but younger viewers get their news from the Internet. There has to be a market (albeit a small one) for people who want more serious local news, and they're likely to be both better educated and higher income than the population in general--prime targets for upscale advertisers.

The costs of building out a streaming-based (not over-the-air) news-focused television station are a fraction of what it would have cost to build a broadcast station just a few years ago. In fact, you can build eight or ten streaming stations for the cost of a single broadcast station. You don't need transmitters, antennas, studio-to-transmitter links, or any of the overhead required to fulfill FCC requirements. LED lighting and low-powered equipment make it feasible to use former retail space for production and post-production, and there's plenty of retail space available for lease in most major markets.

Start with a streaming station in a single major market to test the concept and identify what works and what doesn't. Then, over time, build out additional stations in other large markets, and create a network the way it was done in the early radio days--one station at a time. At a minimum, each station would produce two daily newscasts; as the network grows, those newscasts and additional stories would be fed to the network to create two national newscasts. In addition, some of the local stations would produce their own programming, such as talk and children's shows. The best of that programming would also run on the network. All programming, both local and network, would be available both live and on demand.

That covers equipment and real estate, but one area where you can't save much money is labor. A streaming station doesn't require as many people as a comparable broadcast station, but if the goal is to provide a superior news alternative to existing stations, you've got to hire experienced journalists. Yes, lots of stations and networks are laying off personnel, as are newspapers, but good people need to be paid appropriately. I'm a strong believer that if you're running a for-profit business, you should pay a living wage to the people who work for you, even if there's some way to get around it with interns and freelancers. People can't eat "exposure."

To staff a seven-day-a-week news operation producing two daily newscasts, by my count it would require 42 people at various salary levels. That's more than $2 million per year in salaries and benefits, even in a fairly small market. Advertising revenues aren't assured until the station can demonstrate that it has a loyal and worthwhile audience.

I believe that this idea has tremendous promise for someone who's willing to invest with the expectation that 1) Break-even may be five years out, and 2) To fully capitalize on the opportunity, the network will have to be built out. I can't fund it, and it's unlikely that I can find someone who will, so it goes into the drawer, likely to be pulled out again after NAB 2014.

Update, 4/26/2012: Google would be the perfect company to launch streaming stations, for several reasons:
  1. It fits very well with YouTube, and adds a live, local news component that YouTube doesn't have.
  2. The local stations can double as production and post-production space for YouTube's "creators," expanding beyond their existing facilities in Los Angeles, New York and London.
  3. Google TV would get the streaming stations onto big-screen TVs.
  4. Other than Netflix, Google is probably the biggest buyer of Internet bandwidth in the world, and it operates its own international fiber network that rivals the major telcos. Its bandwidth costs, a big part of any streaming network, would be the lowest in the industry.
  5. As Google expands Google Fiber, locating streaming stations in Fiber cities would allow Google to compete with cable operators that have their own local channels.
  6. Google already has 12,000 advertising salespeople worldwide, so it's well-equipped to sell advertising for a network of streaming stations.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Amazon's "Pilot Season," and the limits of reviews

Last week, Amazon released a group of television show pilots for audience viewing and feedback. Eight of the pilots are comedies that would (more or less) fit into a 30-minute sitcom slot, while the remaining six are children's shows between 10 and 20 minutes long. Most of the comedy pilots feature involvement by a few well-known entertainment names, including John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bebe Neuwirth, Jeffrey Tambor and Garry Trudeau. However, most of the roles, both in front of and behind the camera, are performed by a mix of experienced but lesser-known talents and complete newcomers.

Amazon's goal is to get "real viewers" to rate the pilots, with the highest-rated pilots getting "greenlighted" for production of an unspecified number of episodes. It's a great idea--instead of a handful of programming executives at a network making the decisions, Amazon has potentially tens of thousands of customers deciding what goes into production. At least, that's the theory.

The reality is that as of this writing, each of the pilots has from a few hundred to a few thousand reviews. In every case, the reviews are skewed heavily toward five stars--which makes it look suspiciously like friends and fans of the creators of the pilots are trying to skew the ratings. With so few reviews, it's difficult to separate the bogus reviews from the real ones, so the decision about which pilots to put into production will ultimately be made by the Amazon Studios programming team--the same people who would make the  decisions at a network.

We know how many people have reviewed the pilots and how many ratings they've given them, but only Amazon knows how many people have viewed each pilot. The actual viewer count is by far the most important measurement, because that can't be gamed--Amazon knows how much of each pilot is viewed each time, so it can subtract out views of, say, less than five minutes (or even use them as a negative indicator--if someone drops out after watching just a few minutes of a video, that's a fairly clear sign that they don't like it.)

My sense is that it may take several "pilot seasons" before Amazon gets enough viewers to be able to make well-informed programming decisions. It'll be interesting to see how Amazon's decisions on this first batch of shows match up with the reviews--if there's any correlation at all.
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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Teradek goes upmarket

I've been waiting for a little free time to write about the new Teradek video encoders and decoders that I saw at NAB. Teradek has been known for very cost-effective camera-top video encoders and wireless broadband transmitters. They've scooped up a fair share of the field video acquisition market that was pioneered by companies like LiveU, TVU and Streambox--and those companies have responded with their own lower-priced encoder/decoder systems. Just before NAB, Teradek started shipping its $699 VidiU live streaming encoder to reviewers; the company may have already begun customer shipments as I write this post. The VidiU brings much of the functionality of Teradek's Cube and Bond to a "prosumer" encoder priced less than $1,000.

When I visited Teradek's booth, I expected that the VidiU would be the company's primary new product, but I was wrong. The VidiU was on display, of course, but Teradek announced several new products, all of which are aimed at broadcasters and cable networks. Note: Teradek hasn't announced pricing or availability dates for any of these products. Here's a brief summary:
  • The Bond Pro is an integrated encoder/cellular bonding system that's designed to attach to the Gold Mount and V-Mount battery plates used by professional ENG camcorders. It also includes an SD card proxy recorder, and has redesigned mounts for up to six 3G/4G/LTE wireless broadband modems that provide better protection from rough handling.
  • The Bond II is a Bond Pro that's designed for camera-top mounting. Unlike the Bond Pro, it has its own internal rechargeable battery.
  • The Edge is a Bond II in a 1U rackmount chassis, designed for permanent mounting in ENG trucks and mobile studios. Unlike the Bond Pro and Bond II, which use customer-supplied broadband modems, the Edge has six built-in 3G/4G/LTE modems as well as a WiFi hotspot. Up to 14 external antennas can be connected to the Edge for better cellular connectivity and WiFi range.
  • The Slice is a pair of 1U rackmounted H.264 encoders and decoders. The encoder has one HD-SDI input and two outputs, as well as a WiFi hotspot in the encoder and a USB connection, while the decoder has a HD-SDI output and both Ethernet and USB connections.
Teradek also announced three new and updated software products:
  • Sputnik 2.0 is the updated version of Teradek's Linux-based software for taking bitstreams from the multiple wireless broadband connections from the Bond, Bond II, Bond Pro and Edge, and bonding them back into a single H.264 video stream. It also enables tunneling of non-bonded point-to-point video streams from one network to another, supposedly eliminating the need to open firewall ports. Sputnik 2.0 has improved adaptive bit rate management that responds faster to changes in available bandwidth and bit rates from the encoder, as well as a new feature that reduces audio and video loss when a broadband modem drops its connection or is physically removed.
  • Core is a new application that enables control of all of a organization's Teradek encoders, cellular bonding systems and decoders from a single location. One encoder's output can be routed to multiple decoders, and all settings of all of the devices can be managed from the Core console, allowing teams in the field to focus on getting stories instead of configuring encoders.
  • Lokr is a new digital media and metadata management program that stores and logs all digital audio/visual media and metadata generated locally or remotely. It works directly with file-based cameras and existing VTR systems, and can mirror recorded files to a local RAID array or to a cloud-based storage system like Dropbox.
Even though these products are likely to be significantly more expensive than Teradek's previous products, it doesn't appear that Teradek is going after the high-end encoder market that companies such as Ateme, Elemental, Ericsson, Harmonic and many others compete in. Instead, Teradek continues to focus on mobile encoding products. Its Slice is a "toe in the water" for fixed-location encoding, but it rounds out Teradek's product line rather than strikes major new ground for the company.

In fact, all of the new products are aimed at offering a much more comprehensive product line: More professional encoders, rack-mounted devices, and software that enables centralized management of an entire network of Teradek devices, all make the product line much more appealing to major market broadcasters. Everyone from individuals streaming live webcasts from their living rooms to big-market broadcasters are now covered by Teradek products.
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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

NAB 2013: The Wrap-up

I only had a day to spend at NAB last week, so I couldn't get to every booth, and undoubtedly missed some "gems" hidden around the show floor. However, I did get to see much of the South and Central Halls. Here's a summary of the products that impressed me (I've already written about Blackmagic Design's two new Cinema Cameras,) along with what wasn't there, and some thoughts about the future of the business:

The New
  • Canon's XA20 and XA25: Canon's new small, light and low-cost ENG camcorders are the company's first models with 1080/60p capability. Both models have 20x zoom lenses, dual-band WiFi and dual SDHC/SDXC-compatible memory card slots. The XA25 adds dual XLR audio inputs and an HD-SDI output. The list price of the XA20 is $2,499 (US,) while the XA25 is priced at $2,999; street prices are $2,199 for the XA20 and $2,699 for the XA25. Both camcorders are expected to ship in late June.
  • JVC's GY-HM650U ENG camcorder (street price $5,695) was launched at last year's NAB, and it's recently scored a number of high-profile, big-quantity sales to customers including the BBC. The 2.0 model introduced at this year's NAB (a firmware upgrade for camcorders already in use) adds a number of new features. The HM650U has three 1/3-inch CMOS sensors and a 23x zoom lens. It can simultaneously record to dual SDHC/SDXC-compatible memory cards, output video through its HD-SDI or HDMI connectors, and stream a webcast-appropriate version of the video over its built-in WiFi interface or a 4G LTE adapter.
  • Perhaps the biggest hit of the show was Freefly System's Movi M10 camera stabilizer. Unlike stabilizers built around the Steadicam model, which uses a system of springs and joints (and requires a vest on larger models to handle the combined weight of the stabilizer and camera,) the Movi is an active hand-held design using direct-drive motors and accelerometers to keep the camera stable. The Movi weighs 3.5 pounds and is built using carbon fiber in order to keep its weight down. It can be operated in two modes: In "Monarch" mode, the cinematographer uses his or her movements to control the Movi, while in dual operator mode, one person holds and moves the Movi while another person wirelessly controls the camera's position using a tablet and RC control.

    Before NAB, a number of observers said that the Movi would be too heavy for long use. The maximum weight of camera, lens and accessories that the Movi can handle is 10 pounds, making the total maximum system weight 13.5 pounds or less. I saw men and women of various sizes handling the rig without problems. The Movi M10 model is priced at $15,000 and is expected to ship in Q3; the company plans to add a M5 model priced at $7,500 that can handle a maximum camera weight of 5 pounds. $15,000 is out of the range of most independent filmmakers, but the Movi will undoubtedly be available for rent.
  • The low-cost UAV business got a big boost from the DJI Phantom, a fully-assembled quadricopter that includes a RC control, GPS navigation and camera mount for a GoPro camera, for under $700. The Phantom's maximum flight time is 10 to 15 minutes, and it has a maximum flight control range of 300 meters. DJI showed a prototype of a new Phantom model with a built-in video camera that can be remotely tilted. Neither the price nor the availability of the new model were announced at the show.

    The Phantom is about as foolproof as a radio-controlled quadricopter can get:
    • It has a built-in autopilot that enables navigation to a specific latitude and longitude.
    • The manual controls can be set to allow steering to be correct relative to the operator's position, no matter what position the Phantom is in.
    • It can return to the operator automatically.
    • If it flies beyond the range of the RC controller, the Phantom goes into hover mode, and if a good GPS signal is available, it will automatically return home.
  • Matrox's new $995 Monarch HD live video encoder accepts video input from HDMI and outputs H.264 video at up to 20 Mbps in both RTMP and RTSP protocols, which means that it supports virtually any streaming server or service. It can simultaneously save the video in MP4 format at up to 30 Mbps on a removable SD card, USB hard disk or flash memory, or on network-attached storage. It has a simple web-based user interface, and can control up to three additional slave encoders for feeding to multiple streaming servers, services or CDNs. 
The Missing
  • One thing that surprised me was the lack of new products from some of the leading broadcast equipment companies, especially Panasonic. For many years, Panasonic could be counted on to introduce new and exciting cameras, but this year, there was nothing really new. For example:
    • The AG-AF100A, which pioneered the big-sensor low-cost cinema camera market, has only been lightly upgraded since it was announced in December 2010. Panasonic hasn't introduced any new cameras into this market (excluding the GH3, the follow-on to the company's "accidentally successful" GH2 digital camera that's gotten a wide following from budget-sensitive cinematographers.)
    • Last year's "camera under glass," a professional 4K camcorder with an Android interface, disappeared this year and was replaced with a generic, consumer-looking 4K camcorder mockup that was first shown at CES in January.
  • Sony, JVC and Canon didn't announce many new products. JVC's biggest news was a firmware upgrade, and Canon didn't announce anything new on the Cinema Camera front. It's possible that the companies are "catching their breath" after the last 18 months' explosion of new product introductions, but it's still disappointing to come to NAB and not see much new from the market leaders.
The Trends
  • Video hardware and software pricing is looking more and more like computer pricing, where prices go down and capabilities go up each year. Here's a few examples:
    • Adobe's Creative Cloud offers users everything in Creative Suite 6 for about $50 per month per user, and they can use the software on two PCs. That, combined with improvements in Adobe's software, is enabling Adobe to pick up lots of market share in video editing and post-production. In response, Avid has priced its new Media Composer 7 at $999, with the additional Symphony features priced at $1,499. $999 used to be the price of a competitive upgrade from Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro to Media Composer, and only for limited periods; now, it's the list price of the software.
    • Blackmagic Design has driven down prices in every market that it's entered, and competitors have had no choice but to respond. Prices for professional color correction systems have tumbled since Blackmagic acquired Da Vinci Systems, as have prices for video production switchers (except the very top-of-the-line models) since it acquired Echolab. The market for high-end video processing systems has always been small because of their high cost, but Blackmagic's acquisition of Teranex and subsequent rock-bottom pricing will dramatically increase the size of the market. The cinema camera market is already highly competitive, but Blackmagic is increasing options and decreasing prices for buyers.
    • Canon, JVC, Panasonic and Sony are using their top-of-the-line consumer camcorders as the basis of their entry-level prosumer/professional camcorder lines, which increases production volumes, decreases costs and allows manufacturers to lower prices. In most cases, if you don't need XLR inputs or HD-SDI outputs, you can save a fair amount of money by buying the consumer models. However, even the prosumer/professional models are less expensive and more capable than comparable models from even a couple of years ago.
    • DSLRs have dramatically decreased the cost of cinema cameras, and an entire ecosystem of lenses, rigs and accessories that are fairly priced in relation to DSLRs has emerged.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

4K for video production and post-production: Buy or wait?

You can summarize this year's theme at NAB very easily: 4K. There are vendors selling 4K cameras, monitors, storage devices, production switchers, routers, video capture cards, video editors and post-production software all over the show floor. Salespeople will tell you that 4K is "the next big thing," and you'd better start buying equipment and software to support it. The problem is that the last "next big thing," 3D, wasn't, so does it really make sense for television stations, video production companies and post-production houses to buy 4K equipment?

There are clearly applications for which 4K makes sense, of which motion picture production and post production are the most obvious. In movies, more resolution is almost always better, especially where special effects are used--you can lose resolution in the process and still have enough for for acceptable quality when projected onto a big screen. However, when it comes to television, 4K may be too much of a good thing. 4K video requires four times as much storage and much faster connections than 2K, both of which increase costs. 4K monitors are still scarce and are much more expensive than 2K monitors.

The question for video producers is, will 4K television sets and media players take off with consumers, and if so, when? Based on 3D's track record, producers may want to wait a while to spend their money. 3D was originally launched by motion picture distributors and adopted by consumer electronics companies in order to increase their revenues. However, they didn't consider whether consumers were really interested in 3D, how much they were willing to pay for it or how much grief they were willing to go through in order to get it.

Like Blu-Ray before it, there was no single standard for 3D, which led to consumer confusion and frustration. Some 3DTVs required heavy, expensive, battery-powered "active" 3D glasses, while others required lighter, less-expensive "passive" glasses that many users felt didn't deliver good enough picture quality. Glasses for one manufacturer's 3DTVs usually didn't work with other manufacturer's sets, and most 3DTVs only came with one or two pairs of glasses, so families with children had to shell out more money to buy additional pairs. Movie distributors struck exclusive deals with consumer electronics companies for some of their films; for example, 20th Century Fox gave Panasonic an exclusive for "Avatar." Consumers who purchased Panasonic 3DTVs a free copy of the movie, but buyers of other brands couldn't get it at all.

A few television producers jumped into 3D early; for example, Discovery, Sony and IMAX launched a 3D cable channel called 3net, and ESPN launched a 3D channel. While ESPN got fairly wide carriage, 3net has spotty availability. That's about it when it comes to regular 3D service, and even for that limited selection, consumers are usually required to pay extra for 3D by their video service providers.

So, is 4K likely to be different? It won't cause the headaches and nausea that some viewers get with 3D, so in that sense, there's likely to be less resistance to 4K. On the other hand, consumers will need new 4K televisions. They'll have to buy a new video player, because Blu-Ray is limited to 2K. They'll have to replace their home theater systems and A/V receivers, because a single HDMI connection can only handle one-fourth of the bandwidth required for 4K. Cable, satellite and IPTV video providers will have to provide new set-top boxes and dedicate multiple channels for a single 4K signal, as well as upgrade their signal distribution systems, potentially at an enormous capital cost. Finally, ATSC 2.0, the upcoming new standard for digital television broadcasting in the U.S., won't support 4K. For 4K to be supported by broadcasters, it will have to wait for ATSC 3.0, which is still in an early state of development and won't be implemented for over-the-air use for years.

There will eventually be a big consumer market for 4K; it's the obvious next step in resolution. However, it may be five to ten years before we get there. If you can get the 4K-capable equipment you need at the same price as 2K, you should buy it, but unless you're working on movies, it's better to let consumer adoption tell you when it's right to buy into 4K, rather than vendors.
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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

If Fox and Univision go to cable, what happens to their stations?

Yesterday, both Fox's Chase Carey and Univision's Haim Saban said that they would move their networks from over-the-air broadcast to subscription cable distribution if Aereo is allowed to use their content without paying for retransmission rights. Both of these statements are empty threats, because the economic damage from going cable-only would be much greater than the loss of retransmission fees. Here's why:
  • Fox owns 27 television stations, 17 of which are Fox affiliates. The 10 non-Fox stations are MyNetworkTV affiliates. If Fox goes cable-only, what happens to the 17 stations? Will Fox make them MyNetworkTV affiliates? Not likely, since it already owns MyNetworkTV affiliates in a number of the same markets. Will it sell them off? Perhaps, but not at the price it would like, since they'd be independents. (See Young Broadcasting's fiasco with San Francisco's KRON.)
  • Univision owns 23 television stations, all of which carry the Univision network. They've got the same problems and issues as Fox--what will it program the stations with if they don't carry Univision, and who will it sell them to?
  • In both cases, can the networks afford to lose viewers who can't afford or don't want to pay for a cable, satellite or IPTV video subscription?
  • Finally, if either Fox or Univision goes cable-only, their affiliates will immediately go to the FCC and Congress to block the move. Just as with the networks themselves, the economic value of their stations would be dramatically reduced by losing their network affiliations.
There are several other reasons why a shift to cable is unlikely, especially for Fox. In any event, Carey's and Saban's threats are nothing more than that. If they can't stop Aereo in the courts, broadcasters will use their enormous clout to get legislation from Congress banning or greatly limiting Aereo. Lobbying, campaign contributions and Fox News' bully pulpit, not taking the broadcast networks to cable, will be the tools used to minimize or eliminate the threat from Aereo.

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Blackmagic Design rocks the cinema camera world--again

I just returned from the 2013 NAB Show in Las Vegas. My first stop (as it apparently was for a lot of other attendees) was the Blackmagic Design booth. NAB attendees have gotten used to playing the game "What the heck is Blackmagic announcing this year?". Two years ago, they announced radically lower prices for the ATEM production switchers that the company acquired from Echolab and a $995 model for schools, churches and even individuals. Last year, they announced the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. This year, while there were several new and updated products, two new cameras drove crowds to the Blackmagic booth. Let's take the somewhat less-radical model first:

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

The Blackmagic Production Camera is a 4K camera with a Super 35mm sensor, 12 stops of dynamic range and active EF mount for $3,995. It's in the same physical package as last year's Cinema Camera, except that it has a bigger sensor that's a much better fit for EF mount and cinema lenses, and a global shutter to deal with rolling shutter issues. It's also got exactly the same combination of connections as the Cinema Camera, except that the SDI connections are 6G-SDI to support 4K output. The Production Camera stores and outputs video in Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) and CinemaDNG RAW. The company claims that CinemaDNG RAW gives an output comparable to RAW while producing much smaller files.

Blackmagic claims that the Production Camera is the smallest 4K camera on the market. However, it's got many of the downsides of the original Cinema Camera: An internal battery that can barely run the camera for an hour, RCA-style audio inputs instead of XLRs, a reflective viewfinder/touchscreen that's almost impossible to use in sunlight and pretty much requires the use of an external monitor, and a trapezoidal body that looks like it can be handled like a DSLR but really can't.

However, just as with the original Cinema Camera, plenty of buyers will accept the tradeoffs. For $1,000 more, you get a Super 35mm sensor with 4K resolution that can take full advantage of EF and cinema-style lenses. The Production Camera doesn't feel like quite as much of a bargain as the Cinema Camera did last year, but it's still a very good deal. However, the second new camera is what really drew attention:

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

If you did a double-take when you read the word "pocket," so did I when I saw it on the sign in Blackmagic's booth. But this really is a cinema camera, with a Super 16mm-sized sensor with 13 stops of dynamic range, exactly the same user interface as the larger Cinema Camera, and an active Micro Four-Thirds lens mount, all in a body that's the size of a typical digital mirrorless still camera. Yes, it can fit into a shirt pocket (although not once most lenses are attached.) Like the other models, it outputs in both Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) and Adobe CinemaDNG RAW. And did I mention the price? $995 (U.S.).

A $995 pocket-sized cinema camera suggests that there had to be some compromises--and there are. The Pocket Cinema Camera has 2K resolution vs. the 2.5K resolution of the bigger Cinema Camera. It's missing the 3G SDI and Thunderbolt connections of the bigger Cinema Camera; the only video output is HDMI. Instead of a touchscreen, the menus are navigated with directional buttons, and the display's usefulness as a viewfinder remains to be seen (although its matte display is much less reflective than that of the original Cinema Camera.) The microphone and headphone jacks are both stereo mini-jacks.

On the other hand, it has several features that the Cinema Camera doesn't have:

* The Pocket Cinema Camera has an active Micro Four-Thirds lens mount, which means that it can use all of Panasonic's and Olympus's lenses, third-party lenses and adapters that require power from the camera. By comparison, the bigger Cinema Camera's MFT lens mount is passive, which means that it only works with manual lenses.

* Unlike the built-in rechargeable battery in the Cinema Camera that's really only usable as an emergency backup, the Pocket Cinema Camera's battery is both rechargeable and removable, and Blackmagic says that it uses a standard, widely-available digital camera battery.

* The Pocket Cinema Camera comes with a wired remote control.

As with the Production Camera, the Pocket Cinema Camera's functional tradeoffs are going to be offset by the value of its incredibly small price and size, plus the flexibility of its active MFT mount. Blackmagic suggests that the Pocket Cinema Camera will be the perfect "sacrificial" camera for use in war zones, riots, or countries where the camera might be confiscated by officials. If it's lost or destroyed, it can be inexpensively replaced. The small size also has another big benefit: No one who sees it will believe that it's a professional camera, so it should be easier to get wild footage in situations where permits are ordinarily required.

Which brings us to the original Cinema Camera. It's identical to the models that Blackmagic introduced at NAB and IBC last year. The Micro Four-Thirds mount is still passive, and the EF mount version still has the problems inherent with using a big lens with a small sensor. With these new cameras, I'm not sure that there's much of a market for the Cinema Camera: For $1,000 more, you can get the much-more-capable Production Camera; for $2,000 less, you can get the slightly-less-capable Pocket Cinema Camera. I suspect that Blackmagic is keeping the Cinema Camera in the line in order to fulfill its order backlog, but I expect a lot of customers will cancel their orders and replace them with either the Pocket Cinema Camera or Production Camera.

So, when do these new cameras ship? Blackmagic says that both the Production and Pocket model will ship in July. Blackmagic CEO Grant Perry says that his company has resolved the problems that led to the long delays in shipping the original Cinema Camera, but I'd take those dates with a grain of salt--and even if they start shipping on time, the order backlog is likely to be enormous.

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Turn any Thunderbolt-equipped Mac into a Mac Pro

High-end media producers have become concerned about the future of Apple's Mac Pro, for two reasons:
  1. The Mac Pro hasn't received a major update in years, and
  2. Apple withdrew the Mac Pro from Europe on March 1st because it doesn't meet European safety regulations.
It's entirely possible that Apple plans to update or replace the Mac Pro later this year--but it's also possible that this is it for the Mac Pro. That makes ways to expand Apple's other models even more important. For the past couple of years, Apple has touted its 10Gbps Thunderbolt interface as the expansion interface for media producers, but Thunderbolt docks have been very slow in coming to the market.

Engadget reports that Sonnet, which already offers a line of Thunderbolt expansion chassis, adapters and disk arrays, has introduced the Echo 15 dock, with the widest array of interfaces I've seen. It includes:
  • Four USB 3.0 ports
  • Two eSATA ports
  • One Thunderbolt port (in addition to the Thunderbolt connection to the host computer)
  • One Gigabit Ethernet port
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • A DVD or Blu-Ray drive
  • Room to mount a 2.5" or 3.5" SATA drive internally
The Echo 15's prices will range $399.95 for the DVD-equipped model with no hard drive to $549.95 for the model with a Blu-Ray drive and 2TB hard drive. Sonnet is taking pre-orders at its website and expects to begin shipments this summer. The Echo 15 is priced very competitively compared to docks from Belkin and Matrox that have fewer ports and no optical or hard drives.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A psychic predicts the future of The Tonight Show

Earlier today, NBC announced that Jimmy Fallon will officially take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno next April. Shortly after the announcement, I received an email from Ms. Rosa Conjunctivitis, who claims to be a psychic. She sent me a timeline for the future of NBC's late night schedule, and gave me permission to share it with you.

April 2014:
  • Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show.
  • Seth Meyers takes over Late Night.
  • Jay Leno goes back to doing stand-up full-time.
October 2014:
  • In an emergency move to shore up poor ratings before the November sweeps, NBC brings back Jay Leno to replace Jimmy Fallon.
  • Jimmy Fallon gets a $20 million bonus to leave the show. His bonus is paid for by a $1 charge added to the bill of every Comcast subscriber.
January 2015:
  • Jimmy Fallon begins hosting a new six-hour-long late night show for Fox titled "Jimmy FallON All Night."
January 2019:
  • Although Jay Leno's Tonight Show remains the #1 late night talk show, the average age of its viewers has increased to 69, so NBC replaces Jay Leno with Seth Meyers. Comcast adds another $2 to all of its subscribers' bills to pay for NBC's settlement with Jay Leno.
  • NBC names Funnybot 3000, an android, to be the new host of Late Night.
  • Jay Leno goes back to doing stand-up full-time.
August 2019:
  • Faced with a mass revolt by its remaining 46 affiliates, all of which are owned by one 69-year-old man, Jay Leno returns to host The Tonight Show. Comcast adds another $4 to the bills of all of its subscribers in order to pay Meyers and Leno.
  • Leno purchases the former Mall of America and turns it into a garage for his car collection.
January 2020:
  • Seth Meyers becomes the host of a nightly combination talk show and clearance sale on QVC titled Wholesale After Dark with Seth Meyers.
June 2024:
  • NBC announces plans to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show with Funnybot 3000. However, NBC's four remaining affiliates threaten to switch to QVC, so NBC keeps Leno as the host.
March 2046:
  • Jay Leno passes away at age 95 while doing weekend stand-up at the "Komedy Kabana" in Elkhart, Indiana.
April 2046:
  • The Tonight Show's new format consists of an hour-long broadcast of Jay Leno's embalmed body from a glass-walled sarcophagus built where the ice skating rink used to stand in Rockefeller Center. A drummer plays a rimshot every three minutes.

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Monday, April 01, 2013

It looks like Teradek's VidiU live video encoder is a winner

In January, I wrote about Teradek's new $699 (U.S.) VidiU, a palm-sized portable video encoder that supports 1080P or 720P video at 5 Mbps maximum, and has built-in WiFi connectivity and a USB port for plugging in a 3G/4G broadband modem. The VidiU connects "out-of-the-box" with Ustream and Livestream, and can also connect to any streaming service that supports RTSP. Although Teradek and Ustream announced the VidiU in early January, the device is just now shipping to reviewers, and the company will start fulfilling customer orders later this month.

Streaming Media Magazine's Jan Ozer has posted a "first look" review of the VidiU. I strongly suggest that you read his review for all the details, but here are some of the highlights:
  • The VidiU has a free iOS controller app that makes configuring the encoder and monitoring its output very simple. (Presumably, an Android app is in the works.)
  • The VidiU can test the broadband connection and propose an optimal encoding rate to support the available bandwidth, and it also provides adaptive bandwidth management to optimize the encoding rate as available bandwidth changes.
  • Two simultaneous streams are outputted by the VidiU: One goes to the streaming services provider, and the other goes over WiFi to an iOS device for monitoring.
  • At the top quality rate for 720p video (2.2 Mbps,) Ozer reports that the video looked very good. You can see all of the videos that he recorded on Livestream by clicking here. Even at 446 Kbps, the video quality is impressive.
  • Ozer reported some faint audio distortion on all of his recordings, which he described as making them sound as though they had been recorded underwater. He used two different camcorders to try to isolate the problem, and determined that the distortion was in the audio from both camcorders--meaning that the VidiU was the most likely source. Ozer wrote that the distortion could only be heard with headphones, but it was sufficient to prevent him from rating the VidiU a "must-buy." It's likely that whatever is causing the problem can be fixed with a firmware upgrade, but so far, Teradek hasn't confirmed that the problem exists.
Assuming that the sound problem gets fixed soon, the VidiU will become the low-cost live video encoder to beat. I'll look at the VidiU myself next week at NAB.
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Aereo scores big court win and looks for distribution partners

Earlier today, the New York Times reported that Aereo, the Internet TV service that uses banks of tiny micro-antennas to give subscribers access to broadcast TV stations over the Internet, has scored an important Federal court victory. Shortly after the Aereo service launched in New York City, a group of broadcast stations and networks filed suit against the company, charging that it was retransmitting their content without permission. Aereo defended itself by referring to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that a similar system implemented by cable service Cablevision for providing DVR service to its customers didn't require permission from broadcasters, broadcast networks or cable networks.

U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan denied a request for an emergency injunction made by broadcasters to stop Aereo's service, saying that it was unlikely that they would prevail when the full case is heard by the court. The broadcasters then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled 2-to-1 today that Aereo's video streams don't constitute a "public performance," because for the duration of a usage session, one antenna is dedicated to a single subscriber, and therefore, the broadcasters are unlikely to win their case.

The broadcasters are likely to request an "en banc" hearing from the Court of Appeals, where the entire Court of Appeals would hear the case. (Update, April 17, 2013: The broadcasters filed an appeal with Court of Appeals for an en banc review on April 15th.) No matter which side prevails, however, the case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At this point, the Court of Appeals' decision is only binding in the states that comprise the Second Circuit (Connecticut, New York and Vermont.) Judges in the Ninth Circuit have heard similar cases and have been considerably more sympathetic to the broadcasters' arguments; conflicting rulings in two districts would be another reason for the Supreme Court to take the case.

In other Aereo news, the Wall Street Journal reports that the company is in talks with several pay-TV companies and Internet service providers; the article names Dish Network and AT&T as two companies that Aereo has had discussions with. The discussions center on Aereo providing a low-cost, Internet-based video service that its partners would offer to customers who don't want or can't afford hundreds of channels. Most "basic cable" bundles include many cable networks; the Aereo package would presumably offer broadcast channels only, with a smattering of cable channels that are more interested in distribution than in carriage fees.

In addition, the Wall Street Journal writes that pay-TV companies could offload all of their broadcast channels to Aereo and supply subscribers with set-top boxes that get those channels from Aereo. That would eliminate the need for Aereo's partners to pay for retransmission rights from broadcasters. If the courts ultimately rule that Aereo also doesn't have to pay for them, that could cut off a great deal of income for broadcasters and broadcast networks.

The stakes are so high that if broadcasters lose in court, they're certain to lobby the U.S. Congress to change the law so that the same rules that cover cable, satellite and IPTV video services also cover Aereo and similar services. However, such a change would most likely also require the broadcasters (and possibly cable networks as well) to deal with Aereo and others on the same basis as cable, satellite and IPTV companies. Right now, content providers are free to ignore requests by Aereo and others to distribute their content, or they can set prices that would make services like Aereo uneconomical. Whether content suppliers are willing to pay that price in order to rein in Aereo remains to be seen.
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