How will video be distributed on the Internet?

At his Blog Maverick, Mark Cuban reveals the “Great Internet Lie”, which apparently is that the utopian dream of distributing “Television and Film” over the Internet is doomed. He goes on to “conclusively” prove that it’s not possible to reach Network-sized audiences (even cable network) simultaneously across the Internet.

And he’s right. Certainly I’ve got nothing to refute his numbers. Real time streaming is difficult and expensive. And totally unnecessary. Broadcast Television and its cable/satellite brethren deliver simultaneous viewing to many millions of people at a time, without incremental cost. The bigger the audience, the more profitable the show because there’s not incremental cost and bigger audiences equal more viewers for advertisements.

The trouble is, that’s trying to resolve a new problem with an old solution. (When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.) The problem that will need to be resolved in the future is “how do we deliver a broad multiplicity of program choices tailored to individual tastes and smaller per-show audience numbers?” 

Programming has to be available when people want to watch it, not at some “appointed” time. It’s been more than five years since I watched real-time television. PVRs and digital downloads replace broadcast schedules. Even for the big-pipe broadcasters appointment television is dying. Broadcast will eventually become the home of sports (real time delivery to big audiences is highly desirable); American Idol and reality TV. These are the only shows that will garner large-enough audiences to meet the mass-audience requirement of a broadcast station or network.

vintcerfSo, how do we deliver that multiplicity of program choices – from traditional and new media suppliers – to meet customer demands? None other than Vint Cerf, one of the “inventors” of the Internet, feels that the future of video on the Internet is downloading instead of streaming real time like a broadcaster.

Already the majority of the video on the Internet is downloaded – progressive download (a.k.a. fast start) drives YouTube, Google Video and pretty much every How to and travel video website on the Internet. It’s only the traditional media folk that think emulating their old business is the way to build a new business, so Hulu and stream. (Hint: it’s never been the case and isn’t now.)

Progressive download requires much simpler technological configurations. It’s far less sensitive to the variability of speeds on the public Internet and shared neighborhood nodes, and it meets the needs for the future, instead of the past.

Advocates of real time streaming attempt to draw a distinction between a viewing and “ownership” of a copy. Real time streaming never leaves a copy on the viewer’s hard drive; download does. But realistically a viewing = ownership (potential) has been the de facto reality since the introduction of the Betamax in 1975. Ever since then every broadcast has had the potential for people to keep a personal copy of the show. Digital only accelerates that with built-in PVRs and DVRs in cable and satellite boxes. 

One trend that defines the current state of mass-market television is increased choice and control over viewing schedule, moving the viewer away from the broadcast or cable programmer to effectively programming their own entertainment channel. This is the trend that will increase in the future and that’s why Mark Cuban is completely right and totally missing the point.

Addition: It seems like I’m not the only one questioning Mark’s assumptions. The Forrester Blog for Consumer Product Strategy Professionals posted “Mark Cuban Goes off on the Internet Video Lie” pointing out that Broadcast and Internet delivery were complementary media. They also have links to some of their other writings on the subject.

How to fix independent feature distribution

Kent Nichols If I Were In Charge Of Sundance post started me thinking about independent feature distribution and media distribution in general.

sundanceKent proposes that Sundance run all films on VOD, DVD or on the Internet immediately after the show in order to get maximum exposure at the peak of attention, figuring that few would make money from a distribution deal so the work might as well be seen. (Those deals being done at Sundance are also much lower than in previous years.)

The problem is that the distribution channels for features have been restricted by access gatekeepers. The major studios had this perfectly under control when they owned production and distribution, but that cosy relationship was less profitable after being broken up over antitrust concerns.

What remained are just smaller cartels. Unless a film producer is prepared to hire “dry walls” a theater at their own expense and handle all promotion and ticketing, getting access to “film distribution” is as hard as ever, and the deals are getting worse, not better.

The chance of an independent feature ever getting distribution and making money for the producer and director is almost nil. Enough do to keep the dream alive, but right now, for the majority of films, distribution is broken for the producers and audience. If you can’t find a movie and view it, there’s no profit potential for the producer even if there is supposedly a “distribution deal” in place.

Kent in the article talks of the difficulty of finding a suitable way of viewing a movie that had caught his attention last Sundance, and had done a distribution deal. He ultimately resorted to “other means” to view the movie.

One of the things I learnt at The Conversation conference back in October, is that alternate methods of promoting a movie – with online and DVD distribution can work very well. There is a group of documentary producers who do not even seek “traditional” distribution deals because they know how to create demand for local screenings, driving DVD sales and helping causes related to their documentary.

insideiraqOther independent features create interest in their project from the time of first conception. They build a base of “true fans” who care about the project and help spread the word.

It’s a brave new world of digital distribution, including DVD which will be viable source of income for independents for a long time. But what is needed is a way of getting all those movies out when they’re hot, and giving people who might be interested in watching them, easier and better ways to find the movies.

Revenue could come from branded sponsorship, but personally I’d prefer a method, like my own Open TV Network, where the producers could receive a reasonable payment from viewers but continue to control their own copyright and distribution across other channels. Remember this is not a blockbuster nor known quantity so I’ll be less likely to take the risk if you want to charge studio-level prices.

All Sundance needs to do is to implement Kent’s suggestion, and tack on the convenience of RSS drive feeds. Sundance could provide curated feeds with common themes or fans could build curated feeds of their own and share them.

Filmmakers make some money; Sundance gets affiliate fees and audiences get to watch more interesting fair than the 200 or so formulaic movies that make it into local cinemas.

A great customer service story

So, I’ve had a bad week, twice ordering the wrong card for a particular configuration I manage. First I forget that this is a PCI-X install (one of only two left I have to deal with) and the second I misread specs on another card. The original purchase was from PC Pitstop, as was the follow up card.

There was no problem with shipping back the first incorrectly ordered card, and even though I’d opened the sealed inner package on the second before realizing my mistake, it was also accepted back without restocking fee.

That’s good, but when I realized my second mistake I got on their live chat and within a minute or two was chatting with Mark. I explained the situation and he made a couple of suggestions as he got closer to understanding the limitations of the configuration. Ultimately he made a different recommendation then took the time to check that it would work with the existing drive enclosures. He thought it would with one type and not with the other, but ultimately it turns out that neither were suitable.

But Mark didn’t stop there, he then pointed me to a Sonnet Tech card (that they did not carry), which sadly Sonnet have stopped making! Apparently determined to solve my problem even though there was no longer much chance of a sale (this time) Mark very quickly found a refurbished unit at another dealer and gave me the URL in the iChat.

Ultimately PC Pitstop are going to be refunding these purchases as they’re returned, but Mark, who appears to be a search engine master, has certainly guaranteed I’ll be shopping there again some time in the future.

What’s the difference between a codec and a container or wrapper?

It’s a subject with widespread confusion often leading to only a partial understanding.

There are file containers, sometimes called wrappers, that wrap around a number of video and audio tracks. Each of those tracks will have an appropriate video or audio codec. A codec is a concatenation of “coder – decoder”. Basically it’s like using a secret code or cryptography: as long as the encoder and the decoder understand each other, we get video and audio back out at the other end.

Think of a shipping container. There’s this standard “wrapper” (the container) which tells us nothing. Inside could be a car, computer or a million wrist watches. Like the shipping container, file containers can carry many different types of content – the video and audio tracks. These tracks are encoded with some sort of codec. Most codecs compress the video to reduce file size and time to download (and to increase field recording times in production), but there are codecs that work with uncompressed video. Every track has to have a codec for video and for audio.

Common containers are QuickTime (which supports over 160 codecs at last count); AVI (which probably supports almost that many) and MPEG-4, which supports only a few codecs, but very versatile ones. Common codecs are “MPEG-4”, “Sorenson”, “H.264”, “Animation”, “Cinepac”, etc. (DivX is it’s own thing, as I’ll explain.)

Most QuickTime codecs are for production purposes. The older QT codecs that were used for .mov on the web have been “deprecated” by Apple. They no longer show up as export options in the default install of QuickTime. Nor should they. They’re way too inefficient by modern standards. The last new QT distribution codec was Sorenson Video 3 in July 2001. In codec terms that’s just a little after the Jurassic era.

AVI has been a workhorse. I refer to it as the Zombie format because Microsoft officially killed it in 1996 (when the last development was done). It is still in use in production on PCs and very popular for distribution on the Internet, with more modern codecs. Most AVI production codecs are specific to their hardware parent. A modern .avi file is likely to be a “DivX” file.

DivX is actually a hybrid of an AVI wrapper with an MPEG-4 Advanced Simple Profile (see later) video codec and an MP3 audio track. This is a bad hybrid of codecs and formats, such that DivX for a while had to have their own player. (MPEG-4 video should go with AAC audio.)

Most often the MPEG-4 codecs are used in the MPEG-4 container. This is a modern, standards-based container not owned by any one company. It is an official International Standards Organization standard. The basic file format was donated by Apple and is heavily based on the QuickTime container, but is NOT the same. You can’t just change the .mov to .mp4 (or reverse) and hope it’ll work. (It will in the QT player but nowhere else.)

The first codec that the Motion Picture Experts Group (a.k.a. MPEG) approved is properly called MPEG-4 Part 2 ‘Simple Profile’ or ‘Advanced Simple Profile’. This was such a great marketing name, that Apple just called it simply “MPEG-4,” thereby creating huge confusion for everyone as the distinction between codec and container was totally blurred! Thanks Apple! Not! Apple only supported Simple Profile; Sorenson and DivX used Advanced Simple Profile and there were components for QuickTime (not made by Apple) that played Advanced Simple Profile MPEG-4 as well as Simple Profile MPEG-4.

DivX uses the Advanced Simple Profile but in an AVI wrapper, as noted above.

Then just a few years ago, the MPEG association approved a new codec, to be used in the same MPEG-4 wrapper, called (in full) MPEG-4 Part 10 the Advanced Video Codec (AVC). The European ITU also supported the same codec independent of MPEG-4 (so it could be used in other wrappers) as H.264. They’re all the MPEG-4 codec that is Part 10, Advanced Video Codec or H.264.

And yes it is possible to put an AVC/H.264 video track in a QT .mov, but that’s a different container and only QT will play it. MPEG-4 is an ISO standard and there are more than 20 player implementations.

It is AVC/H.264 video with AAC audio (the MPEG audio standard) in an MPEG-4 container that is now playable in QuickTime Player, iTunes, on Apple Devices, in 20 standard players and in Flash 9 release 3 or later (9r3 was finalized in Nov 2007 and is now widely installed). Microsoft have also announced support for H.264 MPEG-4 is coming in Silverlight in 2009, and Windows 9 Media Player has support built in for those same files.

3GPP and 3GPP2 cell phone codecs are part of the MPEG-4 family fwiw.

Hope that helps and makes sense.

When is a market saturated?

A post this week by Justin Evans titled RED One Rentals Impending Crash hit my reading at just the right time. Over the weekend I recorded some interviews with Rick Young of MacVideo – a fellow Aussie now living and working in the UK – and a whole bunch of people who were around the foundation of the LA Final Cut Pro User Group. I started to form some parallels in my mind. As have many others to be sure.

Justin has one very, very good point: a RED One is not a good investment for a rental company. Sadly neither was setting up for Final Cut Pro rentals. In both cases a solution you rented as needed (because it was so expensive you couldn’t afford to own it) has been supplanted by “buy it and you’ll always have it to use.” That pattern also applies to HD video camcorders.

The DV Rebel’s Guide author Stu Maschwitze advises readers to own their own camera above owning an edit system. He proceeds to give several examples of where he’s been able to get dramatic shots that add high production value to his shows, just because he had the camera with him.

Projects that wouldn’t have been made are now being made. There are more opportunities to make money in video production than ever before. There are probably few opportunities to make enormous – dare I say “excessive” – profits.

Right now budget projects tend toward formats like HDV or AVCHD/AVCCAM because the cameras are very affordable and the quality “isn’t too bad.” Heck, it’s high definition with quality at least 10x that of my first pro video cameras, and in inflation-adjusted terms about 1/10th the cost. (Not to mention 1/10th the weight.)

But it does limit production in two ways: it limits where the product can go given the quality requirements of some outlets, and it limits what you can do with the image. Particularly with RAW footage – what the sensor saw is what’s in the image – you can push the image in Color Timing a lot, lot further than those formats that limit color information.

Quality has always cost. No-one’s ever been unhappy about that other than the cost-requirement limited what got made and distributed. So industries evolve high cost structures. Budgets get bigger because there’s more at stake and when successes happen, everyone who contributed to their success wanted their share of the (quite often extreme) profits.

Television is the child of film and radio and inherited many of the same cost structures for program production. Given the limited outlets of the day that was entirely appropriate. In the last decade there’s been an explosion of outlets. The number of cable channels have dramatically increased thanks to the Clinton-era Telecommunications Act of 1996. And there’s this thing called ‘The Internet’ that seems to be opening up increasing number of distribution opportunities.

Back in 1999, if you told me there’d be more than 1.25 million registered Final Cut Pro users within 10 years, I’d have been credulous. Although there were about 300,000 Premiere 5/6 users at that time, it was the dominant NLE – Avid having fewer than 1/3 that number of customers at the time. People seem to find a reason to pay for professional editing software beyond what ships free on every Mac.

Apple announced their customer number at the MacWorld ’09 Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet, but these following are likely to be reasonably close. Avid’s user base has continued to grow and I’ll say a generous 200,000. Premiere Pro has to have well over half a million legitimate customers. Sony Vegas is up over 300,000 customers. Avid Liquid has about 400,000 customers iirc. Other NLEs, like Edius I don’t have a feel for. (Please feel free to correct any numbers in the comments or private email.) Add them together and there about 2 million people in the world who have paid for professional editing software.

You’ll note how I’m carefully avoiding calling them all “editors”. People are obviously using Final Cut Pro in ways that would be quite foreign to an experienced entertainment industry or documentary editor. But if they’re editing, satisfying a need and making a living from it, that’s a good thing. That’s a heck of a lot more people employed (or working for themselves in some way) – making a living doing what they like doing – than ever there was before.

It’s the same in the music and print design businesses. The transition to digital technologies demolished existing cost structures and opened up thousands of new employment opportunities.

Red Digital Cinema, with the RED One now and Scarlet and Epic coming up, will probably sell in numbers that “make no sense” if you expect the industry (film, television, entertainment, education and all other types of production) to not change.

The concept of an “Independent model of Television production” came from Mathew Winer, write/producer of Mad Men: Television production more modeled on Independent Movie production approaches. People like Television, and YouTube-like content supplements but does not replace Television programming.

What we’re currently seeing is a trend for “quality production” away from the big four Networks to smaller players simply because the market (viewers and therefore advertisers) for drama or comedy production on the networks is not big enough. Even ratings winners like American Idol attract audiences that would have seen the show cancelled even 10 years ago.

The cable industry doesn’t have the same cost structures as network, and the Internet has even fewer constraints. Josh Whedon’s Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog was purportedly produced for around US$100,000 on the SAG “low budget production” contract. His cast probably didn’t get paid as much as their Network Shows did, but at a time when nothing was shooting because of the writer’s strike, any work is good work. Particularly if that work is in a Guild that has a greater than 95% unemployment rate!

Shows like Mad Men and Friday Night Lights are doing high quality work with “very constrained” budgets. (Anyone know what the per-episode budgets are, let me know in the comments or private email.) What’s to say that under-employed actors and under-employed writers and under-employed-everything-else in LA (Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Denver, wherever) couldn’t produce their own shows for Internet distribution?

There are budget ways to do effects and better green/blue screen tools than ever before. Apple has put advanced color timing in the hands of anyone who wants to try and give their project the “big production” look.

The availability of “quality that no-one can complain about, ever” tools like those coming from Red Digital Cinema completes the production side. The tools of quality production are democratized. A new, new industry arises that aspires to decent middle class incomes with employment opportunities for anyone with the desire, drive and talent to create television, film, conference video, or event videography…

May a million United Artists bloom. If only we could get the distribution side solved.

Why Final Cut Pro specific cameras?

At the MacWorld Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet on Wednesday night (Jan 7th) JVC announced two new ProHD camcorders. The 1/4″ progressive sensor 3-CCD compact (prosumer form factor) GY-HM100 and the shoulder mounted 1/3″ sensor GY-HM700.

There are a couple of things that make these two cameras interesting. They record in QuickTime native format ready for native editing in FCP. No import, no conversion – just copy and edit (or edit off the card). They also use SDHC compact memory cards instead of expensive proprietary formats. Both cameras have two card slots and with two 32 GB cards, can record up to 6 hours continuously for just a couple of hundred dollars.

You can read up on the rest of the specs but there are three points I’d want to make.

As far as I know this is the first camcorder made specifically for Final Cut Pro. While there have been some earlier attempts to make Avid-friendly camcorders, they didn’t hit it off in the marketplace. Clearly JVC see Final Cut Pro as a big enough market, with at least 1 million unique registered users (and probably twice that if unauthorized copies are counted) to justify doing a specific camcorder.

Secondly, increased use of SDHC. As well as these two new cameras the AVCHD/AVCCAM (Panasonic HMC-150) use compact flash as does the Red One camera. These are multi-vendor, non-proprietary formats that are readily available up to 32 GB. Take that P2 and SxS media! Of course, all these sources use compressed video of some format.

The third point is the most interesting one. JVC acknowledge that the camera does 720P at 19 or 35 Mbit/sec; 1080i at 25 Mbit/sec (aka HDV) and 1080P at 35 Mbit/sec using an “Enhanced MPEG2 Long GOP Encoder”. Traditionally ProHD has been working within the HDV specifications but there is no 35 Mbit/sec spec for HDV, particularly not one that’s already supported by Final Cut Pro. It appears that JVC are using Sony’s XDCAM EX format or something very like it, for these two new cameras.

This is not the first time JVC has worked with the Sony format. Back in September 2008 JVC announced support for XDCAM EX media and created a version for 720P licensed from Sony, which only supports 1080 in XDCAM EX.

Increasingly, Sony’s XDCAM EX format – at 35 Mbit/sec – is the grown up version of HDV.

What is the future of the trade show?

Seems like everyone is withdrawing from trade shows. Apple has removed itself from all trade show exhibits, with 2009 being its final MacWorld. That was the last trade show that Apple had not formally withdrawn from. Apple has better ways to meet the needs of its bigger market – Apple stores! Along the way, the Mac, while still important to Apple, is not Apple. Once upon a time you could pretty much use them interchangeably, but no longer.

Avid, and then Apple’s withdrawal from NAB 2008 seemed shocking at the time, but it makes sense. They have better ways to reach their customers: More cost-effective smaller – but focused on the Apple product – Pro Apps events and better online communication.

Today it became public that RED Digital Cinema would not be attending NAB this year. The stated reasons echo what Avid and Apple said last year: there’d be too many mock ups on the NAB booth because key components won’t arrive until a month later. NAB (like MacWorld) puts deadlines on developers calenders that don’t really suit them. RED will be holding “RED Day” somewhere, some time in the future instead. Their brand is strong enough, so they can do that.

Isn’t it crazy that in April Apple announces a version of Final Cut that doesn’t ship until September of that year? It was barely in beta testing and really not ready to be seen. Not exhibiting at NAB leaves Apple flexible as to whether they announce an upcoming version of Final Cut Studio at a special event coinciding with NAB; or they hold it back until after Snow Leopard ships because it will use features only available in Snow Leopard and not yet announced. Hypothetically. (Please, that is NOT a rumor, it’s a hypothetical case. I know nothing!)

Why were trade exhibitions valuable? There’s the opportunity for direct comparison, theoretically. But the camera folk are all over the place and you’ll probably get a better “shoot out” at a local dealer or through a user group. And you don’t have to shout at anyone to do it.

A Trade Show was a way for companies to get attention, because media focused on shows. But that kind of changed with the Internet. In 1998 my then editor at Digital Media World magazine in Australia wanted a decent article on the latest news. By the next year, he wanted a “color piece” because all the news was on the Internet and he didn’t need no expensive journalist writing that up. (It could have been written in India as one local Glendale, CA website does for its local news.)

They are also a way of stumbling over unknown little companies or technologies that you might not already know about, but with news sites like Digg, Blogs like, (and another 293 I use to keep in touch) all feeding the latest stream of information, it’s unlikely I’ll miss something.

So why am I going to NAB 2009? To socialize and to see what I would have missed otherwise.

Why do we have ad budgets?

Seth Godin has a post Do Ads Work that makes the case that the only reason why there are “ad budgets” is because the advertiser really has no idea whether or not the ads are paying off. They limit the potential down side.

If your ads work, if you can measure them and they return more profit than they cost, why not keep buying them until they stop working?
And if they don’t work, why are you running them?

There are some businesses that do follow that rule. In one of my dad’s businesses they knew that more than 60% of their business (at the time) came from their Yellow Pages ad. But in my production businesses I could never find an advertising outlet that measurably gave results better than the cost. (My own digital video business ad in the same Yellow Pages drew two enquiries in a year and broke even.)

So, we basically have a whole bunch of advertisers who don’t know if the advertising they’re placing is paying off, that’s cluttering up “new media”.

I think Doc Searls is right when he posts:

What we need is for demand to find supply, not just for supply to “drive” demand. We’re not cattle, and we don’t like being herded, even if it’s by friendly chutes like Google’s. This was true before online advertising went nuts, and it will be true after the chutes get trampled.

In that he echoes what I posted from Dave Winer last week.

Advertising is on the decline in relevance and usefulness because we are no longer dependent on advertisers to push information at us all the time, in the hope they hit the few that might want to buy their product right now.

As a result of the Internet, control = power is moving from the advertisers and their network appointment economy, to one where information about desired product, as well as entertainment content, is delivered on demand. On the schedule of the viewer and consumer.

Advertising budgets are necessary because most advertising doesn’t work. It merely devalues the content. Back to Doc Searls for a final comment:

It’s 2008. Isn’t it time we thought past advertising, toward revenue models based on serving customers, rather than guessing at them?

Advertising is not going to power new media. It may not even power old media for very long if we project forward from the way that print media is being displaced by online content.

Why I fear for the future of quality production

NBC’s recent announcement that they were dropping five hours of prime time television to strip program a new Jay Leno show at 10pm weeknights made me think about the problem with high quality (i.e. expensive) “television” programming. (I define “television” as a style of production created by professionals, with professional standards with the intent of making money, regardless of what outlet it goes through.)

I first started worrying about this a couple of years back during the run of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” – reportedly a $2 million an episode show. The problem is that these shows require large audiences to recoup the production costs, and the network operating costs and profit, from advertisers. A 6 million person audience of high-net-worth individuals was not enough to justify continued production.

It’s not surprising really, when you consider that a hit network show today, would have been dropped 20 years ago because of its small audiences. Quality drama and comedy production – shows like Studio 60, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, CSI, Lost, Heroes, et al. – is expensive and does not get the huge ratings that are required. The hit ratings are reserved for American Idol and reality TV.

So, how do we produce that high quality if the audiences aren’t there?

One obvious answer is to cut production costs. As Matthew Winer, writer/producer of Mad Men, said at a TV Academy function last year, we’re going to have to get used to a “independent film production” mindset for TV production. While I’m not entire sure what he meant by that, it is clear that Mad Men is a quality product – Emmy Award winning quality – but is clearly being produced on a cable budget. (It’s also likely that AMC are subsidizing Mad Men as a flagship for the channel.)

Is this the future for production? Tighter budgets, fewer big name stars (but overall higher quality acting) and a more guerilla approach. Certainly that’s been happening with Friday Night Lights where they shoot in locations rather than sets; shoot multi-camera and avoid over-rehearsing to keep spontaneity. As a consequence, they’re often finished the day’s production by mid-afternoon.

Maybe that’s the future of production? For some other thoughts on the implications of the NBC decision, Kent Nichols blogged about it, and why it was good for new media.