Avid’s IPTV opportunity

It amazes me how infrequently Avid comes up in discussions about IPTV. Years after the company replaced “Tools for Storytellers” with “Make, Manage, Move | Media,” Avid is still thought of as primarily an NLE maker and not much else by video professionals. It still makes fine NLEs, but then again so does everyone else. For the most part the NLE has become a commodity. That’s why Avid has transformed itself into an infrastructure provider. Take a look at its most exciting announcement of 2005. Isis is an enterprise-level shared storage solution. Enterprise level? What editor do you know who describes anything as “enterprise level”? Read further and Avid emphatically states that the server works with non-Avid workstations as well. This is all quite interesting to the IT workers in enterprise-level enterprises. But it should be of interest to content producers of non-enterprise means as well.

Avid is well positioned to become a dominant player in the IPTV space. Avid’s strength is media management, and that’s what IPTV is about. In the short to medium term, there will be multiple platforms – some will be based on Windows Media technology, some will based on QuickTime/MPEG-4. New platforms might spring up rather quickly. What one company manages media creation and sharing comfortably on both platforms? It’s not too much of a leap to imagine editing some content on an Avid NLE and then telling the system to publish it. Convert the content to the appropriate format(s), and either serve it from an Avid server or FTP it elsewhere.

If the Long Tail is a reality, then viewers in those little niche markets will have some iPods, some PSPs, some Windows Media Centers, and even a few mobile phones. Avid’s the company best positioned to manage the distribution of multiple assets from the same media. Avid’s technology can make serving technically diverse markets economically viable. It’s not hard to imagine this as the direction Avid plans on going. For real niche programmers with audiences in the dozens that can’t afford a full featured NLE and the talent to run it, a version of iNews Instinct can be a perfect fit.

According to the US government’s latest Economic Census, there are over 50,000 non-payroll enterprises in the video production business. (There’s another 11,000 with payroll.) While many are sole proprietors who only do work for hire, it’s not unreasonable to assume that 10,000, or 20%, of those are content creators who would invest from $1,000 to $2,000 in hardware and software to publish their content via IPTV. That’s a market worth pursuing if it can be served with technology that’s already on your shelf.

Compressor 2 video iPod settings

Though I haven’t been able to figure a way to get an H.264 encoded file out of Compressor 2 that will load onto the video capable iPods, I have been able to encode valid MPEG-4 files that work. I’ve found that 512 Kbps works well on the iPod. This setting doesn’t look as crisp as H.264 encoded material, but is passable on the small screen. I don’t consider it acceptable for NTSC display.

Pictured are the settings I use. Don’t forget to resize the material to 320×240 in the format tab (circled).

It’s surprising Apple hasn’t released an update to Compressor 2 to address the H.264 shortcoming. I would expect one shortly.

Speeding up H.264 encoding for iPods

I’ve gotten a lot of mail asking about alternatives to the QuickTime Pro Export to iPod preset for H.264 encoded media that will transfer and play to an iPod. The Apple preset is easy and yields excellent results, but apparently the deinterlacing algorithms are the cause of the excrutiatingly slow encoding process. Also, the 750 kilobits per second data rate makes for some pretty chunky files. My Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes are over 200 megabytes apiece. This is a fine setting for video destined to be played on an NTSC monitor, but it’s overkill if the iPod is the video’s final destination.

Here are my alternative settings. They render three times faster than the Export to iPod preset and take up about a third less disk space. I find the results look good on the iPod.

In the QuickTime Pro Player, select Export -> Movie to MPEG-4.

In the file format selection window make sure to select MP4 instead of the default MP4 (IMSA). That will make the H.264 codec available in the Video Format window. Select the 320×240 QVGA setting for Image Size. I haven’t experimented with the keyframe settings yet. If anyone has, please leave a comment below. I’ve set the data rate to 512 kbits, but if the content is mostly talking heads in a studio or other non-taxing content, then 250 – 350 kbits may be fine.

Next, click the video options button. Restricting the profiles to main and baseline yields a file that will play on first generation iPod. Switching to single pass encoding also speeds improves the render times.

Ars Technica has a tutorial that uses the shareware FFMPEGX utility. I haven’t gotten to create an iPod-friendly video yet, but will report back if I do. In the meantime I’ll continue experimenting with Compressor 2 as well.

So you wanna be a video podcaster?

A source tells me of his doughy, on the other side of middle-aged television producer flashing a shiny new iPod extolling his minions, “Podcasting. We’ve got to get into podcasting.” Kind of like in the Graduate, “Plastics, son. Plastics.”

Many of the content producers I’ve spoken to about video podcasting approach it like web video. Few make a distinction between video podcasting and web video, yet the user experiences are vastly different.

Web videos are pulled. Podcasts are pushed. Based on what the user sees on the web page, she decides whether or not to watch the video. If she doesn’t like it after a bit, she stops watching it. Podcasts are syndicated. Once the user subscribes, she’s trusting the content producer to deliver on the promise of what she signed up for. Podcasts most often land on the hard drive automatically, many then they get uploaded to the iPod automatically as well. Users will become frustrated quickly if they find that you’ve filled a third of their free iPod space with content they are not interested in.

  • Deliver narrowly focused content that the user expects. Don’t cram too much into a single feed. Create multiple, targeted feeds if necessary.
  • Keep the list of available podcasts on the subscription feed manageable. Make old versions available through an archive, but keep the RSS feed to six to ten items if possible.

Web videos are almost always viewed at the PC. Podcasts can be viewed almost anywhere. This is huge. That cooking podcast might be viewed in the kitchen, the grocery store, or in the gym. If you think user behind the PC are easily distracted, a user on the go is even more so. The portable video user’s hands may not be as readily available to hit pause or rewind as the PC user’s.

  • Cut slower and hold shots a little longer for the podcast. Odds are the user is multitasking. Keep it moving, but realize it’s unlikely the video podcast will fill the viewer’s field of vision as completely as a television show or a PC screen.
  • Use large type or no type at all on screen. Small type will do more to irritate than illuminate.
  • Test your content in the environments it’s likely to be viewed in. If there’s a good chance the viewer will be outdoors, make sure the image is bright enough and has enough contrast to be visible on the often underpowered screens of portable devices.
  • Knowing the context of the viewing experience will help you determine the proper length for the podcast video.
  • Understand that everything will be heard in your video podcast. The user likely has earbuds or headphones. Magicians know you can fool the eye, but never the ear.

Web videos exist within the context of the site. Podcasts must stand alone. In fact the web video viewer can be reading the web page as the video plays. The video is only a part of the full experience, even if it’s a very important part. The video podcast is the complete experience. The old television rules apply. Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.

Podcast audio is crucial. PSP and iPod users are wearing earbuds, some video podcasts will be played on the living room TV. Every production error is heard. Web video remains a predominantly small PC speaker experience.

Conflict revolution

There’s an ongoing debate between some new school new media and some old school old media types about the role of production values in the podcasting space. The back and forth between Steve Gillmor and Stephen Hill on Gillmor’s blog is illustrative. I come down firmly on Hill’s side of the debate. Gilmor seems to believe that audiences will tolerate poor production values in narrowcast content simply because they are so hungry for that content. His typo-infested, grammatically challenged, stream of consciousness blog stands as proof. It’s terribly disrespectful to the reader.

I don’t believe people will tolerate poorly presented content for long. If it’s a wide open free market of ideas and content, then once an audience is developed there will be competition to serve that audience. Gillmor’s podcasts recorded over Skype with his interviewee sitting in a crowded Starbucks just won’t cut it a few years (or maybe even months) from now. Gillmor’s probably brilliant and worth listening to, but there are millions of brilliant people worth listening to. Surely some one of them will create something that’s a little bit easier on the ears as well as insightful. Think Chris Lydon. The audience only has a fixed number of hours in a week to devote to radio.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks died yesterday. It’s is fitting to take a moment to take note of what one person who seemingly didn’t have a voice, didn’t have a platform, was able to do. She changed America with a single nonviolent act.

We have a voice and a platform. We have the means with our cameras, editing systems, and internet connections to be seen and heard. The truth, spoken softly and with dignity, is a powerful thing. Our daily professional lives don’t often afford us the chance to speak great truths, but when the opportunity does present itself we should seize it.

My big break in the business was being hired in 1989 to be the post production supervisor for the civil rights series Eyes on the Prize. The very small part I played in helping to tell the stories of people like Rosa Parks remains among the highlights of my career. Sadly, Eyes isn’t available on videotape or DVD. The rights to much of the archival footage and music of the era have lapsed.

As Edward R. Murrow said of television,

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Those moments when we can make the television more than a flickering blue pacifier are what it’s all about.

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