Is Netflix turning broadcasting engineers into networking experts?
Networking & Communications

Is Netflix turning broadcasting engineers into networking experts?

The success of OTT services such as Netflix, driven by its own productions such as Stranger Things has had a previously unimaginable impact on the broadcast industry. Who would have thought that when Netflix started flogging DVDs online in 1997 that it would come to this? In October, Netflix claimed that in Q3 2017 it added 5.3m subscribers globally boosting its total subs to around 109m. While it’s not the sole reason the broadcast market is going through a technological shift, it’s certainly the poster example of how entertainment consumption is changing fast and how the media industry needs to adapt.

From developing content through to coping with new distribution demands, including multi-platform delivery, broadcasters are going through their own digital transformation. This transformation is quite simply a shift from traditional SDI-based (Serial Digital Interface) equipment and methods to IP-based technology. It sounds simple enough but wrapped up in that change is years of investment in both hardware and skills.

The pressure to change has dominated broadcaster thinking too. According to research analyst Devoncroft’s Big Broadcast Survey 2017, IP networking and content delivery was the second most important industry trend this year behind multi-platform content delivery. Keeping pace is clearly a concern and nowhere is this realized more than in the skills required to manage productions through the change and develop modern distribution capabilities.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence on the average age of broadcast engineers. This ranges from being on average 64 years old through to the bulk of engineers retiring within the next ten years. Clearly there must be some truth in it but are broadcast engineers really a dying breed or just, like most professions, having to adapt to technological influence on the industry?

“Broadcast engineers are not a dying breed,” says Ed Tischler, UK managing director at service provider Gearhouse Broadcast, which has helped with facilities and crew for events such as the FIFA World Cup, Olympics and The X Factor. “Some within the industry have potentially resisted change, but a new generation of broadcast engineers will adopt ways of working that help to deliver the best programming for consumers, which is only possible with new technology.”

That new technology has a considerable IT flavour about it. Networking, cloud computing and virtualization are becoming necessities as they are in most industries, to manage, move and store large amounts of data. The demand for 4K and live TV streaming are also putting huge demands on broadcasters who have yet to shift to a fully-fledged IP-based infrastructure.

Many countries are already suffering with IT skills shortages. The rapid rise of data analytics has led to industry wide demand increases but in broadcasting this shift has seen the growth of IT-heavy broadcast engineering courses in places such as Southampton and Birmingham. Tischler agrees.

“We’re seeing more universities offer broadcast engineering courses with IT at their foundation, so new graduates have a comprehensive understanding of the most appropriate technology for the job,” he says. “With this new talent, quality training and education of existing personnel, there won’t need to be an extremely high influx of software engineers taken from other industries. Broadcasters will continue to invest in engineers that are able to grow and encapsulate the new skillset required.” 

Of course, creating courses is one thing but having those courses well attended and producing suitably qualified, IT-literate engineers is another. The challenge for the broadcast industry is the same as any other – manage transformation through a self-sustaining skills programme, whether that’s re-training or developing a suitable stream of well enthused, skilled graduates. The alternative is a bun fight for talent and having to deal with the rising costs of supply and demand that any skills shortage triggers and industry, and the broadcast one in particular, cannot really afford for that to happen.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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