Broadcast media was once the natural preserve of specialised, expensive, proprietary IT — but no more, says Reg Russ, general manager of Television New Zealand's new media group.
In an organisation whose future success may depend on making best and broadest use of its digital assets, there is no room any more for highly specialised proprietary systems and little digital islands, says Russ, whose group conducts the R&D for many of TVNZ's IT initiatives — of which there are more than 30 under way right now.
Not all of the installed IT is expensive — the profitable Teletext service is powered, incredibly, by a pair of vintage Apple IIes — but the current thinking at TVNZ, says Russ, "is all open systems. The vendors seem to have that message loud and and clear. In the old days, it was ‘come with us and you'll always be happy'. Now, they don't get anywhere with that. They talk about compatibility and we listen to them."
A new $250,000 Windows-based sub-titling system (which, along with Teletext, comes under the new media ambit) is a case in point. It will now be far easier to pass information into subtitling from one of the broadcaster's other systems. The system will also draw extra revenue from both subtitling of commercials and a contract to provide foreign-language sub-titling for the Hercules and Xena TV shows.
Russ says TVNZ's new director of IT, Neil Andrew, has helped further focus the company's IT strategies.
"One thing Neil's done for the company in the three or four months he's been here is to put a really good process in place for ensuring compliance with year 2000 issues, compatibility with other systems in the company. And another thing, which surprisingly hasn't always been in place, is to have a definite champion for a project — and someone definitely accountable.
"With the projects we have in place at the moment in the new media division, I always have someone accountable, with deliverables which are measurable and followed up."
TVNZ is, like any other major broadcaster, subject to pretty much constant pitching from vendors. But when the technology moves so fast there might be, one suspects, a temptation to just wait and see.
"It feels as if we're very focused at the moment," says Russ. "The current process is one of focusing on our core business and our future, and trying to get a good fix on not only the trends but the timing of those trends.
"I won't say we have a formal just-in-time process, but you can be too soon. That's one of the messages I keep giving my staff — it's not just sufficient to prove that something will work, it's showing that the timing is right.
"Some new trends are really just a matter of being prepared. It would be silly to invest money at the early-adopter stage of the price curve. One of my objectives is to be satisfied that we're going to move in at a time when the technology is proven. We don't tend to buy serial number 0001 of anything."
On the other hand, TVNZ could be seen as a little too far ahead of the curve with its experiments in IP video streaming. The local Internet industry isn't quite there when it comes to delivering video.
"I think we're looking a little beyond the industry," says Russ. "We're pretty confident that for large-scale use of [digital video], the present systems are never going to cope and we'll just have to dodge the bottlenecks. We're looking at Web-type interfaces and other ways of distributing the data.
"Internationally, our satellite services are moving into both an itinerant and a permanent supply of data circuits, which will be free of the protocol problems of the Web. At the moment, any one user of the Web is at the mercy of whatever else is going on. And the only way to duck around that is to provide separate pipes, with either a way of loading local caches or multi-casting, which is the one-to-many model we're used to working with."
Russ has been closely associated with TVNZ's LocalLink community news pro-ject for Telecom — which last year took out the inaugural Computerworld Excellence Award for Technology Innovator of the Year and was described by judge Gary Fissenden of ASB Bank as adding "huge value to TVNZ's business". But Telecom's bail-out on its FirstMedia cable venture must have been a blow to the project.
"Well, people say FirstMedia's been canned, but we're still running the pro-ject," says Russ. "In Wellington, of course, the Telecom ADSL trial is carrying our programmes, and that works fine. So who cares how the telcos get it to you?"
Russ sees many of the things LocalLink does — as well as other outlets like the video wall at Auckland International Airport, Teletext, subtitling, and both TVNZ and its partners' Web sites — as becoming an important part of TVNZ's business activities in the next few years.
LocalLink, for example, will recut its programming to order for many of the same groups who contribute to it — schools, the police, government departments — and even cable broadcaster Saturn.
This may be part of the answer to the questions so often posed about the future of the monolithic broadcaster in the distributed, digital age.
"The digital networks can take 1400 channels, but nobody's putting enough thought into just what would be carried on those channels," Russ agrees. "We certainly see the present system moving to more of an on-demand one. So you won't have to take all of, say, the specialised business or sports channel, and you'll be able to drag and drop just to get the things you want.
"The Perception Player servers we're using are certainly capable of doing that. You can take, for instance, a linear news programme, and you code each story and send each one to a different Perception Player which churns out just the genre that you're interested in.
"I think we'll see high-rotate specialised channels. One Network News could be easily run as local news, international news, business and political news and sports news. We could stream those on to four players and provide four specialised channels. The research shows that to keep right up with the latest news stories, each of those channels would be repeating about every six to 10 minutes — and a bit longer for sports.
"If you've got literally hundreds of channels available to your TV or PC, and you just want the rugby, say, then it takes six minutes of your time to see whatever's current. You can apply the same concept to re-packaging, say, satellite channels.
"So my view is that when those 1000 channels are available, TVNZ will still have its strong core brand — but it might also have a heavy involvement in another 250 channels. It won't be marginalised."