IBC 2010: Competitive Cooperation Is the Norm in European OB Market

In Europe, the outside-broadcast market has always been intertwined, but, in recent years, OB companies have become more tangled than ever.

“The industry is of a size where you find that your competitors one day are your customers the next day and your suppliers the third day, so everyone has to be professional about how you work with each other,” explains Phil Aspden, commercial director for UK-based SIS Live. “You have to be quite grown up about that.”

Culture Clash
Competitive cooperation has become the standard throughout Europe, although each country’s market is slightly different. Germany, for instance, counts a large number of OB companies in its marketplace, each with just three to five trucks in the fleet. Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, on the other hand, have just three or five companies, each with eight to 12 OB vans.

In some countries, the culture is to build an OB van, use it for five years, then consider it obsolete and build a new one. In other countries, notably Germany, companies expect to drive a van 10-12 years and redesign the interior two or three times during its lifetime.

“The UK is, to some degree, discrete from the rest of Europe, but there is still crossover,” Aspden explains. “We get European companies working in the UK, and we’ll go over to Europe.”

SIS has 25 units in its fleet and expects to build two or three each year. The company is in the process of converting the remainder of its SD trucks to HD, which is essential to fulfill current market demand.

The HD Migration
“Whilst the demand for HD is increasing rapidly now, to the point where, in the UK, there is a default assumption that people want things in HD rather than SD, production budgets have never been under greater pressure,” Aspden says. “There is no additional money to do it in HD, and quite often there’s less money than in past years to do an event, so that’s a big challenge.”

With margins so tight on every production, European pricing must be extremely aggressive — which is particularly difficult given that a company’s competition one day is its supplier the next.

“That’s the problem: too many companies want to win the customer over the price, and that’s not good for the market,” explains Constantin Novotny, technical manager for Germany-based HD Broadcast. “I think companies in the Netherlands or Belgium are more team players than they are in Germany.”

The 2006 World Cup in Germany jumpstarted the HD conversion in that country especially.

“A lot of companies built as many as three new vans, or redesigned all of their vans, for the World Cup,” Novotny says, “so we’re at about 50/50 now with HD in Germany.”

Preparing for 3D
Even with HD still growing, some companies are looking toward 3D.

“Customers have already started to change specifications to ask for prewiring for 3D,” says Peter Jakobsson, of Broadcast Solutions GmbH, a Germany-based systems integrator. “European production vehicles have double video facilities because it’s very common to do two different programs with your source material. In a 3D application, you consume some of that workspace, so you lose the double-production capability.”

Still, he says, customers are nervous about being left behind if they haven’t prepared for 3D, so Jakobsson’s company has begun to prewire its trucks for 3D. If customers want to use that capability, it is up to them to rent the necessary 3D rigs.

“Everybody talks about 3D, and we have no equipment for it, but we have prewired our newest truck for 3D,” Novotny says. “When a customer wants 3D, we’ll do it, but we have to know how to do it well.”

SIS Live has been involved with a handful of 3D productions, but Aspden cautions that only time will tell how much demand there will be for 3D productions — or more to the point, how much money there is to spend on it.

“We’re keeping an eye on the growing cinema-distribution demand for 3D,” he says. “Sky Sports is going to be launching their 3D network, so that will drive demand. As consumer sets become more available, that will drive demand as well. There will be more 3D in the future, but, whether it really gets a foothold other than a niche offering, only time will tell.”

Life on the Road
In the meantime, however, the lifeblood of OB vans is deployment, so companies must work to keep their trucks on the road.

“Utilization is key to the success of OBs,” Aspden points out, “so we pick up quite a lot of work out of contract.”

The toughest part of keeping trucks busy, Novotny says, is building them so that they are specific enough to please particular clients but flexible enough to handle diverse assignments.

“For example, I get a contract and build a truck with two production rooms and many cameras for football but with not as good audio capabilities,” he explains. “When I build a van for music concerts, I need a big audio room and good insulation. But, for our latest truck, we built the van using our own company design, and we want to do everything with it: sports, theater, and music. When we do sports, we need logo and timecode insertion that we don’t need for other productions. So we have to find a balance. That is a risk you have to take.”