With ever-increasing competition among broadcasters for viewers and revenue, John Maxwell Hobbs asserts there is no ‘magic bullet’. 

Now that everyone is back from the massive, high-energy, exhausting, exhilarating, head-spinning, week in Las Vegas that is NAB and are looking at their capital budgets and trying to figure out how to afford the cutting-edge systems they’ve seen, it’s time to consider just exactly what we’re looking for.

John Maxwell Hobbs

John Maxwell Hobbs

Radio, television, and online, both commercial and public service, have the same goals – to have great impact on the largest possible number of people at the lowest cost with the least amount of effort. That applies to comedy, drama, music, entertainment, news, sport, advertising, and all combinations of the above.

The internet has wrought dramatic changes in in the industry – not just in delivery methods, but in the competition for attention. Broadcasters are not only competing with each other for viewers, but with video games, social media, and in the case of YouTube, they are sometimes in competition for audiences with members of the audience themselves.

“Things only become simple when you make the complexity someone else’s problem”

As one point, there were two sure things that guaranteed a minimum level of success – being granted a de facto monopoly by being one of the few companies to be awarded a broadcast licence, and having access to the massive amount of capital necessary to build and operate a television or radio service. Broadcasting services were not easy to start up, but once operating, it was not easy to fail. How often have you heard about a broadcaster going out of business?

That has all changed in the last decade. Anyone with a smartphone and a broadband connection can broadcast UHD signals to the world – no licence required, and less than £1,000 of capital investment needed. As of this writing, a 24-second-long, poorly framed video with terrible audio showing someone pointing out two corn fields in Iowa has had 3 million views on YouTube.  That’s nearly half the audience of the Voice UK.

Source: YouTube / DuckSoss

Welcome to Iowa

This disruption has left established broadcasters looking for a “magic bullet,” that will restore the order and simplicity that existed in the good old days. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a magic bullet as, “a quick and simple solution to a difficult problem.”

Some of the magic bullets that have been floated in the past 10 years include:

  • PVR
  • HD
  • UGC
  • SEO
  • VOD
  • VoIP
  • VR
  • AR
  • AI
  • ML
  • Websites
  • Viewer chat boards
  • Mobile apps
  • YouTube channels for broadcasters
  • Twitter feeds for broadcaster

These are all important developments, but none of them are a quick and simple solution to a difficult problem. That’s because the magic bullet is a myth – something used to sell software, hardware, solutions, consulting services, and justify continuing in regular employment.

Not only do complex problems not have quick and simple solutions, most simple problems don’t have them either. And if we look at the two “sure things” mentioned above, neither qualifying for a broadcasting licence, nor securing access to capital are very quick or simple.

The hard truth is that broadcasting is slow and complex.

That quickly dashed off Iowa cornfield video could not have been accomplished without 20 years of expensive R&D on the part of telecoms equipment manufacturers, IP networking companies, and hundreds of software developers.

The craze for outsourcing over the past couple of decades has allowed management to draw new org charts and process flow diagrams and boast about how the business has been simplified.

The truth is, the complexity has simply been shifted to someone else’s org chart. As a rule of thumb, if something looks simple, you’re not looking deep enough - in other words, things only become simple when you make the complexity someone else’s problem.

Which brings us back around to all the wonderful things on offer from vendors at shows like NAB.

Although everyone wants you to think of their product as a magic bullet, what they are really offering you is outsourced complexity. This outsourcing can be asynchronous, in the form of R&D and software development, or synchronous, in the case of cloud services.

In many ways, these vendors can now be viewed more as production partners rather than simple suppliers. In the past, a broadcaster would buy a piece of kit and then only interact with the vendor when it was time to replace it.

Thanks to the shift from hardware-based to software-based systems, the relationship between vendors and broadcasters has become an ongoing dialogue, allowing for rapid delivery of feature requests and unprecedented levels of customisation that allow installations to fit like a bespoke suit.

It’s time for broadcasters to stop looking for magic bullets and vendors to stop packaging their products that way.

For the industry to truly thrive, new sorts of business relationships need to be established that break down the barrier between customer and supplier, and acknowledge everyone’s place as part of the same value constellation.

As well as being a music producer and composer, John Maxwell Hobbs is CEO of music technology startup Delic, media consultant and the former Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.