We’ve been here before…

Last Friday I came across this bit of news:

Avid today announced that renowned television production company, Bunim/Murray Productions, has selected Avid Media Composer® 6 and Avid Symphony® 6 editing software for all of its programs beginning in early 2012. Bunim/Murray joins a growing number of professional users who have returned to using Avid solutions from Final Cut Pro to meet their production workflow requirements. Additionally, as part of this implementation, Bunim/Murray also plans to deploy an Avid ISIS® 5000 shared storage system to effectively store and share media across its organization.

On the surface it seems like a no-brainer. Apple has forsaken the broadcast editor to release an application that is more in line with the company’s minimalist approach. In doing so, they have effectively removed the application from consideration by many editors who need things like: deck control, import and export of interchange formats (omf), manual media management and self-determined timeline configuration (i.e. manual assignment of tracks). Editors who don’t need those things have a very fine tool at their disposal. Editors who do need them, are looking elsewhere. FCP-X may deliver those things in time. Certainly there are third-party solutions that make it serviceable enough now, but that’s not acceptable to a large operation like Bunim-Murray or to most professional editors, who don’t want to have to “roll their own” features.

Hence a huge production company like Bunim-Murray is going to drop FCP in favor of Avid Media Composer. It’s going to start happening more and more. FCP-X just can’t fit into existing workflows for delivery of broadcast material. More companies are going to switch. Many will go to Avid. Some will go to Premiere Pro. There are some production companies out there, however, that won’t be able or willing to make the switch. And this is the history-repeating-itself part, this switch is going to kill those companies off.

Keep in mind that this is all speculation and prediction on my part, but I think after spending 5 years in Post Production Management and nearly 25 years in the business, I can see how it is going to play out.

It has happened before: the switch from Linear to non-linear, the upgrade from Avid Nubus to Meridian systems, and the FCP vs. Avid debate earlier this decade (this would be the event that resulted in so many companies constructing an environment based on FCP and XSAN). {Cue Shirley Bassey singing here} These changes have eaten companies or forced them to dissolve, and the people behind them to move on to other ways of staying in the business (or leave the business entirely). Companies that couldn’t afford to upgrade their systems or wouldn’t upgrade, often found themselves falling out of the running for contracts to produce the shows the networks need to stay on air. The news above about Bunim-Murray’s switch is very telling about how the dominoes are about to fall. FCP-X will be only a small part of professional post-production workflows at large facilities. Sure, it will still be used by many smaller firms or one-person operations, but for the large operations, FCP is getting knocked off the hill.

This has some deeper significance than it appears at first glance. There are financial and technical issues that will help to enhance the business-killing aspect of this switch. These aspects will greatly affect how things proceed into the future. I suspect that there’s a good chance, that the kind of revolution that the rise of FCP (pre-FCP-X) brought about won’t happen again for a long time, if at all.

To set the scene, you have to understand the flimsy foundation that most modern production companies are built upon: basing 100% of your business revenues on income from broadcast cable programming is an unsustainable premise. The executives of these networks know this to be true. They watch companies try and try to make it work, knowing full-well that it isn’t sustainable. One of them even told one of my bosses that very thing: “we know our shows aren’t profitable for a company like yours, but we string you along long enough to make us look good and when your company tanks, there are 3 or 4 more new ones waiting to fill the gap…and at half the cost per half-hour show.” The companies that have survived have often branched out to include over-the-air broadcast or other areas of diversification, but many haven’t and they are no longer around. More will follow in light of this switch.

Several of the successful companies have based their infrastructure on Final Cut Pro and they did it at a time when Final Cut Pro made it artificially affordable.

In the few years prior to FCP’s dominance, a non-linear editing system cost, in the neighborhood of $30,000-$50,000. That was an Avid system, capable of uncompressed with enough storage to edit a medium-length program. That price didn’t include a broadcast video deck, which ran you at least $5,000 for a used BetaCam-SP or $60,000 for a new Digital BetaCam. New HDCAM decks (released in the late 90’s & early 00’s) could run over $100,000.
Then, along came Final Cut Studio. Only $1,000 for the application. I put together my first FCP system, capable of uncompressed and with more storage than the Avid system mentioned above AND a J3 Digital BetaCam Player for $25,000. It was a revolution. Take out the Digital BetaCam deck and you could get the system under $15,000. Purchase fewer drives and you could get a system under $10,000. All of which could do the same thing as a $50,000+ Avid system. Sadly, that undercutting hurt Avid, which struggled for a few years. Happily, it meant that the cost of entry to broadcast editing was cut by as much as four-fifths. It made it super-affordable for production companies to rapidly expand and bring costly pay-by-the-hour editing in-house where it could be paid for at (effectively) flat rates and the costs could easily be amortized over several series.

So, the story thus far, is that broadcast cable networks need production companies to churn out ever cheaper work and cost-of-entry into post-production dropped by 80%. It was a perfect storm of opportunity for cable to get what it wanted: cheap shows that delivered record profits & production companies to fool themselves into thinking that buying a system on the cheap meant that they had solved the problem of meeting the technical requirements for broadcast delivery. It was (and still is) a sticky situation because a) technology isn’t static & b) as the old saying goes, “the bitterness of poor-quality lingers long after the sweetness of low-cost has faded.”

FCP is great editor right out of the box, don’t get me wrong. It has a great interface, a good suite of tools, and easy media management (compared to the alternatives at the time, yes it was much easier to manage). But there were certainly things that didn’t work properly from the start. Things that could be related to a corrupt media file, or the size of your FCP project file, or even the speed of your media drives. Many of these items often were attributable to user error and Apple was loathe to offer support for something so quirky and variable as an FCP system with a bunch of third-party add ons. However, it did about 80% of what it needed to do really well. The other 20% is where it completely failed. (I find, this formula applies to most apps in the editing/motion design field.)

Now along comes this speed-bump: one NLE application has given up on the features that The People Who Edit For A Living need in an attempt to force a complex task like editing into the Apple-centered view of things. It’s perfectly evident when you apply this Johnny Ive quote to the approach Apple has taken with FCP-X:

“Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” -from “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Sure he’s talking about the design of physical products, But if it’s a company-wide philosophy to make things more minimal and simpler, then that is really what they’ve tried to do with editing. I don’t see how it can work though. Everything is either going to look exactly the same or very, very basic. Simplifying editing is like painting any kind of scene only with one set of stencils – technically it *is* still painting. Now imagine giving the same set of stencils to Titian, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Banksy.

So the people who require complete control over their editing environment now are faced with a decision – where to go next? The companies that hire them are faced with the same decision.  Where it goes will depend on the financial fortitude of those folks to upgrade and switch. It isn’t a simple prospect and it will certainly be the beginning of the end for some companies.

Previous iterations of FCP were so attractive because of their low-cost and that they did about 80%-90% of what needed to be done in your given realm of editing (for broadcast, web, or internal use, etc.). But that low-cost has created a situation where there now isn’t a fully-formed infrastructure in place to allow for a change of direction.
Any company thinking of switching away from FCP, must consider these (potentially) hidden issues that could make a mess of things:

1. XSAN & Avid Media Composer are not compatible….well, not in a simple way. Avid MC wants to use the entire drive for its media files. XSAN gives each user the entire drive. That’s the problem. Each Media Composer accessing the XSAN volume is going to try and manage it as though it were only attached to that specific MC system. There would be a constant battle of media files database creation by all those systems. The only way I see that it could work would be to run your XSAN more like a Unity system – creating volumes that only one Media Composer system can access at a time.

2. Third-Party capture cards not fully supported. This is changing, but it will still create problems for some. Until there are working drivers for all cards on the market to be compatible with Avid & Premiere, some companies that invested in the unsupported cards will be forced to replace those cards with ones that work.

3. Learning curve for FCP-only editors. There’s a cadre of editors out there that have grown up editing on FCP only. They are going to have trouble switching to Avid. Maybe this will be short-lived, but at least the older editors who used to be stymied by knowing Avid instead of FCP will get more work. Of course, Avid MC and Premiere Pro can be configured to have the keyboard work the same as FCP, but that’s going to limit your abilities with the new program – the FCP Way isn’t the only way.

4. Compatibility of older FCP systems and media. Again this is becoming less of a problem, but still requires people on-board who understand the desired end goals and the limitations of the systems. Files will need to be converted. Projects will become inaccessible for future revisions (at least to work with the original media).

5. Insufficient technical knowledge from the top-down. For some companies, this won’t be a problem. They’ve acknowledged that keeping up with the tech is best left to someone they can hire. They’ll be fine. The companies that are in the most danger in this area are the companies who consider their existing FCP/XSAN environment to be “good enough” and they forego upgrading or switching. Owning equipment is a roller coaster ride. Once you step on, you cannot get off without a major upheaval. Companies and people who (at any point) think that they’ve got just what they need today, will be crowded out by the companies who stay current with tech trends and stay on top of where things are going. (You might be one of those stay-on-top-of-it-people if you’ve made it this far into this post. ;-))

Who is going to come out on top?

After things settle a little bit, I’m not sure who is or isn’t going to come out of this successfully. Obviously, companies like Bunim-Murray have the capital and knowledge to upgrade their way through sea-changes like this. Other companies can’t or won’t be able to make a shift. My advice would be to get smart about this now. Learn about it now or hire someone who can educate you about where you should be heading.

If you are thinking of starting or growing a production company, I think you have two options: 1)Go Big. Really big. You’ll need a huge SAN, multiple systems. You’ll need a large centralized facility with adequate power and cooling to handle a medium-sized server room and multiple suites. You’ll need to bring in-house, all the gear you need to deliver content to your clients (that includes the fiddly broadcast bits like waveform/vector scopes, legalizers, and decks). Oh, and hire the right people (and enough of them) to keep it all running. Or 2), you’ll need to stay small. Keep your technical footprint minimal and farm out your work to many of your favorite editors, who are setting up single suites in their basements or small offices or revisit a relationship with a post-production facility. Let someone else worry about staying up in the technical side and work out a rate structure that is favorable for you both. Make sure everyone understands how to work remotely – it can be done. Of course, you’ll need to hire a few technically knowledgeable people to co-ordinate all the media management and standardize content delivery. If you go small, you will be decentralized and less dependent on a single vendor’s only NLE application. You need to be flexible and savvy about technology and stay on top of trends in cameras, computers, and digital content delivery.

Wherever it all goes, I think it’s going to look different than it does today. FCP had a good ride. Apple has decided to go a different direction. And, as Bunim-Murray’s decision shows, that’s fine, as long as you can afford to make the switch.

3 Replies to “We’ve been here before…”

  1. Ben –

    Thoughful and insightful. On this…

    “we know our shows aren’t profitable for a company like yours, but we string you along long enough to make us look good and when your company tanks, there are 3 or 4 more new ones waiting to fill the gap…and at half the cost per half-hour show.”

    Smart companies (and there are some) realize this up front, and play the commission game until they can generate a hit that they own at least a part of themselves. Ultimately they do this by taking less money and gambling on the back end, but it’s the only way out of the cycle. This is what companies like Bunim-Murray have done, as well as shops like Original Productions and (closer to home) BASE Productions.

    Other than that, the treadmill is exactly as you describe – and it adds the perverse issue that once you get a show you need to immediately concentrate hardest on getting the next one, not making the one you have as good as it can be – or you have to be able to afford someone who does that.

  2. Perhaps Final Cut has done its job – beaten Avid down in price range and forced it to adopt some flexibilities only enjoyed by FCP on Macs. Now, you can use AJA cards and work in ProRes with Media Composer 6 on a Mac. It doesn’t cost nearly as much as it used to either.

    However, we’re partially faced with the same dilemma with a third of our operation based on Final Cut and the rest on Avid. Fortunately, we’ve got solutions for some of the largest technical hurdles.

    We’re replacing Unity with a 300TB commodity StorNext storage system (soon to be 600TB) and using middleware to allow Avids to work seamlessly on one volume. The same volume carries our MAM and the Final Cut media. The same volume is connected to our compression farm. All of our Macs running Lion hook right up to it without a special license. Lion thinks it’s an Xsan. Look, Ma… no copying to or from anywhere.

    The bigger issue is cross platform projects. Automatic Duck does most of the work but not all of it. We, too, will be faced with choosing how to handle it. Fortunately, the barriers between the systems are dissolving.

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