NEP: The development of virtualized and centralized production solutions and the future of the OB
Centralized Production and Virtual Solutions have been buzzwords in the industry for over a decade and have slowly taken root throughout the industry. With the impacts of COVID, out of necessity, centralized and virtualized production platforms have been seeing broader use.
NEP began their foray into centralized and virtual solutions over a decade ago. In 2008 their team in Oslo began work on Mediabank, their Media Asset Management system. In 2015, through their hub in Hilversum, they started handling centralized production. And this was expanded in 2018 when their team in Australia opened the Andrews Hubs in Melbourne and Sydney. They have continued to innovate and add new solutions across their worldwide network. We sat down for a conversation with Andrew Jordan, Global Chief Technology Officer for NEP, to talk about the past, present, and most importantly, the future of these platforms both at NEP and in the broader industry.
Let’s start with looking at where you see the industry today when it comes to centralized and virtualized production solutions.
So, we are combining two very different movements in the industry here. Both very good topics – but they will likely have very different trajectories. Let’s look at centralized production first. Clearly, the adoption, or the pace of the adoption, has been different in different parts of the world. Now, some of that is based on available infrastructure, most importantly connectivity. In many regions, the infrastructure hasn’t lent itself to be to be able to stand this sort of thing up very easily yet. This is one dynamic at work. The other, that you can see in the U.S. for instance, is that many times the investment tied up in productions can’t and won’t withstand the risk of moving to a platform that isn’t as proven or tried and true quite yet.
So far, we – speaking both of the industry and more personally about NEP – have seen areas where the available infrastructure and the eagerness to move forward has aligned. For instance, what we’re doing in Australia with our Hubs in Sydney and Melbourne delivering centralized production from all over the country and the APAC region. This was a massive success story even before COVID. We have the sporting leagues, broadcast partners, and technology partners all moving in lockstep forward. Then when something like COVID hits, well, we are already set up and working just fine.
But then you look at the U.S., and It has got a challenge that I would argue no other country in the world has, and that is size and scale. Not only is it geographically big, the number of venues, broadcasters, events, everything is just so much more than anywhere else. Mind you, we are figuring it out and making massive inroads with this at NEP, but it is a big challenge – no denying it.
That being said, this is definitely the direction that we’re going. The industry is heading toward more use of centralized production as the production model of choice. It’s a platform that gives you more options, because you can make it flex more than you can with just a single OB unit. Once at scale and proven out, it ought to be able to deliver it in a more cost-effective manner, offer more flexibility, and probably most importantly provide a faster pathway to new innovation than ever before. It will just make it so much easier to test out new technology, new workflows, everything.
But if you were to turn around to a major broadcaster in some regions now and say, “We’re going to produce your largest production of the year from one of our Hubs.” They’ll just think we’re nuts. They just wouldn’t be willing to risk an event of that magnitude using a different production model. A few years from now, this will be a drastically different conversation. And COVID has certainly put us further down this path at a much faster pace.
Now, virtualized production is a wholly different category because in some form it has been around for a long time. Greenscreen technology, virtualized set elements or graphics is nothing new. What has happened recently is that it has exploded – both in technological advancements and where we are seeing it pop up in productions. This was started before COVID, but COVID has definitely accelerated this, too.
From a live event perspective, we are taking massive events, that would have normally been in-person, and recreating or reimagining them in a virtual setting. From a broadcast perspective we are seeing these solutions used to both create a virtual fan experience, or, to literally create fans where there can’t be real fans because of COVID restrictions. Or look at the virtual studios that we are offering which allow talent in two different locations, their guests, commentators, all come together seamlessly into the studio environment and interact real-time with one another. This is all possible right now.
So, what of this stays and what goes when we make it through COVID?
There have been many debates about that – especially when it comes to these virtual events. Everyone is asking, “So, is this just for COVID and then it goes away?” If you talk to many people who are working on and with these solutions, they will say that this is now a new category of event and I firmly believe that. If you think about it from a marketing perspective, if you can create a virtual event that layers on top of your in-person event, your reach is just going up by ten-fold. You capture some of the people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t attend your event in person.
Some of these other solutions, like virtual fans, will likely go away. But the interesting thing here is I think that they are going to spur innovation that will be here to stay. This is especially true when you look at fan engagement. I think that COVID is setting the stage for a different expectation when it comes to fan experience. I think these elements are definitely going to be put to work to enhance higher levels of fan engagement.
This is definitely true when we start adding in other technology trends, like the development of 8k, and a lot of the additional solutions that are coming along because of what is possible with centralized production. We are talking about the development of a more personal, localized fan experience – both live in the venue and via broadcast or stream.
We can see that the industry is getting a bit flatter. There is a lot more direct to consumer interaction now. So enhanced fan experience becomes more and more critical. We have seen this coming, and NEP is well-positioned to help with this.
Yes, so let’s talk about this a bit more. Where does NEP stand today in this whole ecosystem?
In the realm of centralized production, we are very far down the road. We are already providing these solutions at scale out of the Netherlands and Oslo, Norway, plus expanding to the UK in Europe. In Australia we are humming away. These are proven models, and having done it already we are moving into other regions – like the U.S. – with the knowledge of how to get it done. That’s not to say there aren’t still some things that we need to overcome, such as the geographical challenge, but it has certainly put us in a good spot. This is our focus right now. This and we are moving to connect our hubs around the world together. This will be huge for us. The ability to share resources, engineering, capacity around the globe. Big.
Virtual solutions are the same. We have had the capability for a long time. COVID has expanded this, and our teams are thrilled to be out there innovating and working with our partners to keep pushing the technology forward.
What is interesting also, is that for many of us, this COVID period has been a time to incubate innovation. During the time when no events or sport were happening, many of us took that as a time to take a step back and say, “Where do we want this to be headed on the other side?” It is exciting to look forward to.
So where is all of this headed for NEP, for the industry?
Well, we are lucky, because we have a solid, firm foundation in software within the company. So now the name of the game for us becomes making this all work together, making it accessible to our clients at any level and in any geography. How do we tie it all together and make it operate seamlessly in the entire ecosystem?
Our clients aren’t one-size-fits-all by any stretch of the imagination. Not only are we talking about radically different productions in type, but also in scale, size and budget. We have always, since the beginning, respected that, understood that, and want to deliver the best to every one of our clients. This is no exception. We want to make these new solutions accessible for everyone. Customization is key.
And, as we look down the road, I don’t think you’ll find anyone will disagree with the statement that the obvious evolution for this is that it ends up in the cloud. We can see this reality coming much sharper into focus when we start looking at AWS. Their network is massive and has made giant leaps forward in offering media-specific solutions.
For the longest time, professional-grade media production, processing and transport was provided by media-specific dedicated hardware. Now we’re in a world where we are increasingly moving to more use of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware. And the introduction of IP has also brought more modern ways of actually doing a production.
The emphasis is definitely shifting away from hardware and to the software that powers it.
Because underneath all of these different solutions is highly sophisticated software.
I also think this all becomes far more interesting as we start to introduce the next generation here – who don’t have any history with traditional baseband models. They do, however, have a history with their PS 4, their computer, their iPhone. Their expectations and their experiences are going to help move the needle on all of this.
There is also going to be a much heavier emphasis on data science, AI, and robotics. This is all going accelerate when we start talking in terms of things like dynamic metadata and some of the stuff that that Google are doing with auto tagging of content. These will – and have already started – to translate into things that are embedded in the workflow so that you’re actually making things easier for the crew. Some of this is already at work for us at NEP when we look at solutions like our Mediabank Media Asset Management system that relies on metadata to automate certain routine tasks.
We think this is a great place to lead us to where this takes OB units and OB unit design in the future.
Yes. You know, clearly OB trucks aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. They will have to be around as long as cameras, camera operators and audio need to be out at a venue. For the shift or change, I think we are talking about a combination of things. Definitely advances in hardware. A lot of this is about capacity – the ability to take more feeds, and at a higher resolution.
The other end, the software end, is going to be more fundamental. We are looking at changing the way you embed software in the truck – from the design and build stage. The ability to control what is going on in the truck, configure it – even remotely – with a universal control system. We are moving here. This is happening for us.
But, one thing, through all of this – present developments, future developments – that I keep my mind on, is that we at NEP are focused on “what we are ultimately doing here?” “Why are we doing all of this?”
We are helping people create content and get that content to as many people as possible. The purpose of the content is to entertain people. And that entertainment is about the experience that the viewers are having – the feelings they get when they experience it. That is where this whole journey starts – designing and creating great experiences. That’s what we want our solutions to do. To help our clients design and create great experiences for people watching and enjoying live sports and entertainment. People like you and me.