By TVBEurope Staff | TVBEurope | Published 1st June 2020
Pixel Power’s James Gilbert wonders what keeps his customers awake at night, and thinks we need to “sex up” opportunities for young people
How did you get started in the media tech industry?
I read engineering at Cambridge, and for beer money did some development work for a company making a graphics system, including a 24-bit (“full colour”) framestore. This was around the time of the Quantel Paintbox. When I graduated in 1987 I had an offer to go into digital audio processing, but I had met my business partner Nick Wright, and together we set up Pixel Power, and I have been here ever since. I think it is really important to remind people that we started in broadcast graphics and we have been committed to the broadcast industry for 33 years now. A couple of years ago we joined Rohde & Schwarz because it was a great fit: we are now part of a bigger company dedicated to the broadcast industry.
How has the industry changed since you started your career?
The most obvious difference is that, although Pixel Power was always a software company, at first we had to build our own hardware to support the software. Today we can buy the same workstations as banks and airlines, which are powerful enough to run the very complex software that we produce. But the bigger issue is a change in the sense of the industry, in the way we think. Today the industry is more dynamic, more adaptive: the pace of change is much faster. Because we can rely on the IT industry to do the hardware development, we can be much more responsive to the demands of our users than we were. When we started, decisions were made by engineers because everything was limited by what was technically possible. Today vendors can quickly respond to demands by users, which has meant that we are no longer dominated by a handful of manufacturers, chiefly those with the latest in video tape formats. It is a much more creative, fast-moving industry today.
What makes you passionate about working in the industry?
My interest remains in finding out what keeps our customers awake at night, and finding solutions that will allow them to make better television, more costeffectively. That is as much about people as it is about technology: if the right workflow for today means changing long-established workflows, then it is down to us to create the path to adapt and change. Everyone says that this is very much a people-driven industry, but this is really true: my kick comes from understanding what people need to do and finding ways to achieve it.
If you could change one thing about the media tech industry, what would it be?
That is easy. I would lower the average age. We still haven’t cracked the challenge of attracting new talent into the industry. Not just to my company, but into the industry as a whole. Even though television is self-evidently glamorous, whether you are looking at the latest dramas or the latest Attenborough documentary, we do not seem to be able to sell it to kids at school age, so they are lined up for university with the right qualifications and the right goals. To do that, we have to find the right way to engage young people. We need to show we are not all old blokes in dustcoats, but developers working on solutions to very demanding challenges.
How do we do that? How do you think we crack that challenge?
Who wouldn’t want to be involved in creating the next Blue Planet or Normal People? We have to sell the excitement of delivering things that engage everyone around the world. It should not be hard to ‘sex up’ the opportunities in, say, designing machine-learning driven live graphics as opposed to, say, finding bugs in the ‘like’ button on Facebook. In an ideal world, every vendor would be engaging with local schools to explain what they do and evangelise the industry. Just at the moment – with a lot of business's fighting for survival – that may not be an easy option. If you are a small company of 10 people, then sending one out to do presentations at schools is a huge burden, so the bigger businesses may have to shoulder a big part of the load here. But it surely should be an easy sell.
How inclusive do you think the industry is, and how can we make it more inclusive?
I think we have a pretty good record in inclusivity – we are doing better than many industries. We can point to strong female leadership in our customers, as well as good female role models on the vendor side. Organisations like Rise provide excellent resources including mentoring. But I say it again: if we can get young people coming into the industry, then we can get young women coming in to provide fresh ideas and, in due course, fresh leadership.
Where do you think the industry will go next?
Up until a couple of months ago, my answer would be that there will be more consolidation. Niche companies are great for innovation but not so good at serving a worldwide industry that is used to a high level of service. Now we have the Covid-19 factor to add in, and I am afraid that it will have a lasting effect on companies, particularly those who were already close to the edge. In terms of trends, I think we will see more remote productions. Obviously today we are seeing a lot of content generated from home which would once have been a studio. But interest in remote production has been growing for a while, with sufficient bandwidth over fibre or 5G for multiple cameras from a distant venue to a production centre. Added to automated tools, it is a way to achieve quality production – and quality will always be important – while controlling costs. The industry will also take a fresh look at exhibitions, I think. There was no NAB this year, and we now know there’ll be no IBC. But not going to Las Vegas did not cause the end of the world, so how much do we need the big global events, at least on the scale we have become used to? For us, the benefit of a major exhibition was being able to sit down with potential customers and work through the details of a project, most of the time these meetings were arranged long before we got on the plane. Surely there are other ways to create opportunities for these one-to-one conversations.
What’s the biggest topic of discussion in your area of the industry?
Replacing legacy technology with more agile solutions. That was already the big driver in conversations about playout automation, but Covid-19 has brought home the realisation that software-defined architecture provides much more flexibility and resilience. One of our customers, a major broadcaster in Germany, discovered that its legacy playout system simply could not be operated remotely. Systems that separate control and content, that virtualise workflows, not only give agility but allow management from wherever you need to be. Sadly, we now all know how important that is.
What should the industry be talking about if it isn’t at the moment?
You can guess my answer to that! How are we going to get the best, the brightest, the most enthusiastic talent into the industry, so it can continue to innovate and continue to deliver compelling content in impeccable quality? Recruitment really is an existential threat to our continued success, so we should all be talking about how much time we devote to telling the rest of the world, and young people in particular, how exciting our industry is and how they should come and join us.