The IT industry’s ‘one best way’ approach isn’t always compatible with the media industry, writes John Maxwell Hobbs. 

With the recent news about Ericsson looking for a buyer for its media divisions and the BBC completing the insourcing of its broadcast engineering support, we have seen the relationship between broadcasters and IT companies travel a full 360-degrees over the past thirteen years.

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In that time, we have seen Siemens acquire BBC Technology; Apple acquire Proximity to create Final Cut Server; Microsoft acquire WebTV to create Mediaroom; Ericsson acquire Tandberg, Red Bee Media, and Technicolor; Apple shut down Final Cut Server and largely exit the broadcast market; Siemens sell BBC Technology to ATOS; Microsoft sell Mediaroom to Ericsson; the broadcast support elements of BBC Technology returned to the body of the kirk; and Ericsson deciding to return to its core business of telecoms and networking.

These are all highly successful companies with solid track records, and none of these acquisitions were made capriciously. What then is responsible for this about-face?

The most likely culprit is a mismatch of cultures.

The initial moves of IT companies into the broadcast space coincided with the move to computer-based production. It was a natural inference to make that if IT tools were being used, IT companies were best placed to build and support them.

This is a prime example of what is known as “the law of the instrument,” usually expressed with the phrase, “to the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This cliché can be answered with the old New England aphorism, “just because your cat has kittens in the oven, it don’t make them biscuits.”

There is no question that the IT revolution has brought tremendous efficiency and productivity increases to industry in general, and both broadcasters and technology companies believed that the same results could be achieved in the media industry.

The efficiencies delivered by the IT industry, for the most part, come from the use of technology to implement Fredrick Taylor’s concept of, “Scientific Management,” which is based around the idea that that there is always, “one best way,” to do any job.

Once that way was found, it was, according to Taylor, “only through enforced standardisation of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured.”

The success of this approach is dependent on products that are identical, reproducible, and made under controlled conditions. Success is determined by very specific, quantifiable measures. It works very well for making automobiles, mobile phones, and fidget spinners, but perhaps less well for “craft” products like television programmes, whose creation must deal with things like changing fashion, unpredictable weather, and fickle audiences.

Broadcasting is an industry in which the exact same team of writers, directors, actors, and production people can create a hit in the first season of a series and a dud in the second. As William Goldman wrote in the book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” That does not bode well for finding the, “one best way,” of doing things in broadcasting.

The creative process is something that relies on happy accidents. With both news and drama, the story you tell may not be the one you set out to make – often the real story doesn’t reveal itself until halfway through the edit. To allow that to flourish, everyone involved in the process, including engineering, needs to be flexible, and willing to make changes on a moment’s notice. It requires a different understanding of, “efficiency.” There’s a reason that the expression, “it’ll be alright on the night,” has such resonance in the industry.

The friction generated when these two worlds intersected was not caused by incompatible goals, it came from divergent cultures.

Everyone was speaking the same language, they just had different definitions for the words they were using.

In one instance, an IT systems integrator proposed, with the best intentions, to implement an application that tracked the number of cuts made per minute to determine the efficiency of an editor. It’s not difficult to imagine the hurt feelings on both sides when that suggestion was introduced and quickly rejected.

The broadcasting industry may be far-reaching and wealthy, but a close look reveals that it is made up of a small number of extremely idiosyncratic players – this is not an industry that easily lends itself to standardisation of processes.

Instead of enforcing predictability and repetition, the best creative tools allow their users to take advantage of inspiration and the unexpected in an efficient manner. There are many technology companies that serve the broadcasting industry, and the most successful ones support this – creating tools that fit the worker – as opposed to attempting to fit the worker to the tool.

As well as being a music producer and composer, John Maxwell Hobbs is a course leader at the National Film and Television School, media consultant and the former Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.