Q&A: National TeleConsultants’ Ethan Bush

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National TeleConsultants has long played a major role in helping major media companies adapt to new technologies and revamp their facilities and has worked with such companies as ABC, ESPN, CNN and DirecTV on high-def projects. NTC senior project director Ethan Bush recently spoke to HD Update about some of the trends in the HD market place. An edited transcript follows:

Q: As companies prepare for their transition to HD, what kind of services are you offering to help them make those upgrades?

A: NTC is in its 27th year of serving media and entertainment companies. The larger media companies are our primary clients -- organizations like Disney and its subsidiary ABC and ESPN, Fox and CNN -- and we offer them a broad range of services and consulting. We work with them on the business side of their organization to develop strategic plans related to media technologies and we obviously work with them in designing new facilities and structures to accommodate the new technologies.

What makes NTC really unique is the range of skills and services that we offer compared to most of our competitors. The majority of our employees are industry professionals so we have a really good understanding of our clients and their businesses.

Although we do sell equipment, our services are our primary product. We tailor a solution to the clients specific needs without having a hidden agenda of trying to push a particularly manufacturer’s product.

Q: How big of a demand are you seeing right now for HD upgrades? Is it beginning to crest or is it still growing?

A: I think the demand for HD is much greater than anyone anticipated. Much of our work right now is involved with converting networks, as well as some of the direct to home satellite providers to HD, and expanding the infrastructure of many of our major clients to accommodate HD.

But a lot of clients are looking at this as more than just a HD upgrade. They are making fairly significant capital expenditures just for the HD upgrade but they also see this as an opportunity to try to improve their internal efficiencies and realize cost savings in terms of work flows.

So while we may come into a project that the client has identified a transition to HD, we may also find this is also an excellent opportunity to go to a more file-based work flow and really leverage this new infrastructure to improve efficiencies and improve their ability to service their markets.

The cost differential between SD and HD equipment has narrowed significantly and whenever possible we try to convince folks that it is best to put in a plant that is either HD initially or easily convertible to HD. Generally speaking, the cost differential has narrowed so much now that the majority of our clients just go for HD right off the bat.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges companies face in making that transition to HD?

A: I think the biggest challenges still revolve around what we call asset management and keeping track of all this content. Particularly in the production facilities, it’s essentially that they can find and repurpose the content economically.

There are a still issues related to media compatibility between platforms. As I mentioned, we don’t push a solution or particular equipment on a client. We identify their business goals and develop the best solution for them. Often that requires some creative engineering to get the various platforms working effectively. So, one big challenge is that there is some fair gap between in terms of interoperability between systems.

Besides all the different formats, the technology continues to change and manufacturers continue to introduce new technologies. We find that the life of an asset is much shorter than it used to be.

Q: When you look at broadcast networks, how fast are they making the transition to HD?

A: Some years ago, we were involved in the transition to HD for [ABC’s] Good Morning America, which was the first regularly scheduled news program to go HD. Today, [the nightly news] at NBC, ABC and CBS are all in HD. But they are very large organizations and there are still elements of their infrastructure that have to catch up.

Q: Particularly in their field operations?

A: Yes, particularly in the field. They don’t have control over all of the field assets they have.

A lot of it is being driven from the local level. In the larger and mid-sized markets, there is a lot of competitive pressure for the stations to go HD and [that will continue] as the local stations are now seeing the major news organizations deliver HD content.

Q: As networks make the transition to HD, they are also expanding the content they’re providing to mobile, the Internet, etc. What challenges does that create?

A: This goes back to evaluating the production arm’s work flow. How do you gather content so it can quickly be repurposed and distributed to a variety of media platforms?

One of the huge issues is graphics. A graphic that is suitable for a 16-by-9-inch display in a home has to be repurposed for a cell phone. Much of what we try to accomplish with our client is to make certain those elements are added as far down the stream as possible, with the graphic elements created later in the process and married to the content as late as possible. That way they can cut a story and it can be reused across multiple platforms.

Q: As we look forward, what are some of the key things you see the stations focusing on?

A: As the stations move into the digital transition next year, each station will have the possibility of offering multiple channels.

We did some interesting work for KQED [San Francisco] so that rather than having a single feed, they were able to develop four targeted channels to better serve their community.

KQED also has a fairly extensive production and they have making sure when that when produce content, they produce it with multiple distribution channels in mind. So when they go into the field to record something for a television show, they are also making sure they are getting the content necessary for the web or for their educational partners or to the radio station they also operate.

So we are really starting to see organizations leverage their media and their content across multiple platforms much more effectively.

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