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Where Next?
Interactive Services
Partnerships and Alliances

The Future Of Facilities

by David Fox

As production companies turn to low-cost in-house editing systems, where will facilities houses turn to next to stay in business?

Where Next For Facilities?

Technology always advances faster in facilities than in broadcasters, because of competition which drives them to re-equip every two to three years (on average). But, despite the heavy investment, most facilities manage to make money, because they provide services producers couldn't afford to own themselves. However, the coming generation of low-cost, high-quality equipment could make facilities less essential to production companies, according to Dave Pollard, technical director at London-based Telecine [since this piece was written he has moved on to Squash - see article Facilities Trickle Into Stream].

Pollard already has a fully functional recording studio and non-linear editor in his home which cost less than £5,000 including a DV camcorder. With this sort of threat hanging over them, how can facilities survive? "By not changing, as much as by changing," he says.

Facilities will still be necessary to provide services producers can't do or attend to themselves. However, those services may change. He believes that production companies which install small, low-cost computer systems in-house, will probably have to turn to facilities for network storage on large computers. Also, while current standard definition systems will become a great deal cheaper, most producers will need to turn to facilities for High Definition work, as they will be the only places with enough bandwidth to cope with the increased data requirements. "As soon as everything gets easy, someone moves the goal posts," says Pollard. "As producers can do DV for £5,000, high-end production will move to HD. So, all of the things we've taken for granted as cheap will become expensive again."

With the costs of moving huge amounts of data (and attendant metadata) around and the need to archive it, he believes facilities will increasingly have a longer-term involvement with producers and distributors.

That relationship could be both closer and more distant as there will be no need for services like dubbing suites to be in the same location as editing, for example, because production companies will soon be able to access such things from wherever they are, via a central server in the facility, and just pay as they need it.

Admittedly, not all facilities houses see the future like this. Peter Stothart, joint-managing director, of Bristol-based 4:2:2 (which also has facilities in Manchester and London) sees profit margins being squeezed by the necessity to invest in new infrastructure while "there is no new money in the business. There are just new channels, which is putting the squeeze on producers and facilities." However, he believes new content distribution methods, such as the Internet, will bring new money into the industry.

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4:2:2 set up an interactive division in 1998, creating courses for Hewlett-Packard. Then it moved into Web sites, and it designed and implemented the BBC's WebWise project, "which has led to an avalanche of requests to develop Internet strands to support broadcast programmes," says Stothart.

Interactive services range from simple Enhanced TV and Web support for programmes to new Internet ventures, where more original content will be needed and which offers greater scope for interactivity, going beyond just accessing information. However, it requires "new skills and a new approach to productions," he says, with areas like content and rights management and copyright are all growing in importance.

He believes that "today's interactive TV is a thin and unsatisfying experience," maintaining that much of it is merely allowing viewers to switch camera views. "If this is all it is, I think subscriber numbers will stay in single figures," he says.

Some areas, like drama, won't usually be very suitable for interactive developments, but shows dealing with more active topics, like cooking and DIY, certainly are. However, programme makers will need to create a non-linear narrative, which allows viewers to explore the "tree of possibilities" for themselves. This requires greater graphical content, good interactive graphical design and more experience in multi-channel distribution.

Fred Hasson, chair of the digital strategy group at PACT (the UK's independent producer's alliance), and director of a production company, Victoria Real [he has since moved to CanalWeb], which has its own in-house off-line and audio editing (on which it sells down time to other programme makers), believes the Internet offers producers and facilities great new possibilities for creative freedom and a new creative challenge.

However, viewers will also be getting new freedom, with disk-based Personal Video Recorders and the ability to download material on-demand via ADSL, allowing them to watch what they want, when they want. This will mean that only those programme makers and facilities "who know how to tell stories," will thrive, because "viewers won't want to watch technology. But, we need to understand what users want from one-to-one broadcasting," he says.

There will be an "explosion of bandwidth" creating ever more routes to the consumer, over the next few years, with the roll-out of ADSL, UMTS, and other broadband systems, says Stothart. "We are talking about the emergence of television on the Web, not just a Web site put on the TV, which is an unsatisfactory experience due to the poor resolution of text on TV." But, this will require learning a lot of new skills and greater co-operation between producers and facilities.

Hasson believes that there will be a lot of money available for anyone with good ideas and a great deal of new territory to be conquered. He says big brands, such as supermarkets, will be willing to invest in multimedia as a way of targeting consumers more accurately, and they should be more lucrative prospects than a commission from broadcaster. To help target these new markets, producers and facilities will find venture capital funds willing to invest, "if you think in the right way," he says.

He believes the UK is now the world's "digital lab", thanks to its wide open regulatory regime and the early adoption of DTT, Digital Satellite, DSL and competition from cable. "If we can't do it now, we've missed a chance," he says.

"If it does cause new money to come into the TV business, that presents a rosy future for producers and facilities," adds Stothart. 4:2:2 has invested in Digeo, a new start-up which specialises in the interactive TV area and recently developed a pilot broadband application for a UK broadcaster.

Digeo director, Philip Reed, points out that supermarkets have become Internet Service Providers, offer bank accounts and want to sell new types of products, such as cars. Offering broadband services would allow it reach its customers far better than it could through TV. He believes the supermarkets will want to offer their customers (interactive) programmes, such as cookery with star chefs, to help them sell more products. "The advertising business is all about getting brands in front of demographics, but new media allows them more exact targeting," he says.

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"If I was a facilities house, I'd be looking for new kinds of alliances and partnerships - dynamic relationships which don't have to last, but the could do," says Hasson.

"Partnership with production companies is absolutely essential these days," says Stothart, who often gets involved as early as the script stage. He believes facilities will move increasingly towards originating their own content, if not necessarily the ideas it is based on.

Pollard agrees. Telecine already co-owns 50 hours of material with HIT Entertainment, which it bought through a post-production deal.

With the money Hasson sees becoming available through new Internet and interactive productions, he believes facilities need to consider investing in the creation of content and creating intellectual property. "Be more entrepreneurial. Think outside the box," he advises.

But, they will also have to invest more in their staff. Even though programme budgets are decreasing, people are becoming more expensive. But, this doesn't worry Stothart, who believes that as broadcast-quality equipment gets cheaper, facilities can only succeed by being at the forefront of creativity and design, and 4:2:2 has added skills in creative and production areas, from animation to content management.

Hasson agrees, and feels that facilities will have to have more full-time staff, because freelance staff will be able to go anywhere. "But, if you have the best staff in-house, clients will come to you" he says.

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From DV And Desktop To Delivery - How technology is changing the nature of production and post production.
The End of Facilities - With DV and computer-based editing, many producers are creating their own in-house post-production areas. But what does this mean for facilities houses?
Facilities Trickle Into Stream - In the age of stream, how will low cost Internet technology affect facilities?

David Fox