With improvements in technology, camera manufacturers are now able to deliver high-quality units that record in both high def and standard def, while costing much less than yesterday’s $30,000 units.
While it’s anybody’s guess how the ENG camera market will shake out next year, there are some certainties: the days of the $30,000 ENG camera are over and high definition — even if it’s not immediately put to use — is de rigueur. Camera manufacturers now all understand this new economic climate and are delivering products that address the needs of broadcasters who, despite it all, still need new cameras.
“The economic times plus the development of technology are enabling broadcasters to buy products at a lower price and still get excellent quality,” said Bob Ott, vice president of marketing-broadcast professional audio/video at Sony.
That excellent quality invariably includes HD on even the least expensive handheld camcorder. At the same time, every product must handle SD for stations that have not yet migrated to local HD news or that have, but are still gathering news in the field in standard def.
“The trend is … it needs to be switchable between high def and standard def at least during this interim changeover,” said Jan Crittenden Livingston, product line business manager at Panasonic. “One of the reasons that Panasonic cameras have been so popular is that they are very flexible in the codecs that they use as well as being standard def and high def. And products like our P2 HD line offer solid-state memory recording, a must have for the IT-based age.”
The new market economics also mean that no camera vendor can afford to try to corner the market by demanding that buyers subscribe to their particular brand of recording medium.
JVC was arguably the first to understand the changing economic climate when it introduced a line of camcorders for mainstream HD production and newsgathering that used the non-proprietary SD media storage format.
The vendor’s GY-HD250 — which the Scripps station group has purchased — is primarily an ENG camera for under $10,000, but it can also be used in the studio where it was once considered routine to pay $100,000 for equipment.
“We’ve had stations that were amortizing expensive SD studio cameras plug in one of our GY-HD250s,” said David Walton, JVC’s assistant vice president of marketing communications in the Professional Products group. “They say there’s no difference.”
JVC’s other ENG-focused product is the compact shoulder mount GY-HM700 line that records Apple Final Cut Pro files directly to non-proprietary SDHC memory cards for one-stop field work. It comes with a price tag of under $7,000.
“Many of the group owners will tell you that the days of the $30,000 and even the $20,000 ENG cameras are over,” said Walton. “These are not $30,000 cameras.”
Because the cost of the cameras has come down, broadcasters have been able to move forward with local HD news, albeit at a slow pace.
“As much as [broadcasters] didn’t want to spend the money, they also did not want to suffer the problem of being in a market where consumers were gobbling up HDTVs and they were putting out a standard-definition signal,” Walton said.
“It’s a huge leap in quality to go from an SD camera, even a $30,000 one, to an HD camera that’s under $10,000,” he said. “We have the products that fit into that category nicely and we see that as the big trend.”
The trend towards less expensive, but fully capable, ENG cameras has not been lost on JVC’s competition, Sony and Panasonic, which have long dominated ENG.
Their new units include HD and SD recording capability along with the tacit concession that neither Panasonic’s P2 nor Sony’s SxS media storage is the only way to store content.
Ott said that Sony started revising its product line two years ago because it knew “broadcasters were looking for ways to save money. We started to develop products that would appeal to the reality programming side and a few other things, but also, to some degree, to the ENG side.”
The ENG side is now fully addressed with a line of MPEG-2-based EX camcorders that use SxS flash memory technology and, in the latest EX-1R configuration, record in SD along with HD.
“Everything is HD but everybody still wants to be able to do SD because some [broadcasters] haven’t switched their entire infrastructure,” Ott said.
News crews can shoot 16×9 format SD in the field and blend it with the studio HD newscast.
In keeping with the economic trend, Sony’s EX-1R goes for less than $7,000 while a semi-shoulder mounted EX-3, introduced about the same time as the 1R, costs about $8,000.
Sony, while still supporting the SxS media format, doesn’t force customers to use it, although an adapter is needed to use SD in a Sony camera’s SxS slot.
“There are a variety of manufacturers making an SxS adapter that allows you to use a memory stick or SD in those adapters,” said Ott. “If you find the right combination [of card and adapter] and it works for you, I have nothing against it, but as a manufacturer of the Sony camcorder I can’t endorse any of those cards right now.”
Panasonic has answered the call for less expensive product with the AG-HPX300 P2 HD camcorder that lists for $10,700 and can be configured for studio use. It uses the vendor’s P2 memory cards.
Panasonic says that the P2 medium is no longer proprietary, pointing out that Maxell and Fuji Film also now offer the cards.
Panasonic has also introduced a line of low-cost HD camcorders that give customers the choice between SD and P2 with many of the same features.
“Our least expensive P2 handheld cameras, including the AG-HVX200A and the AG-HPX170, which retail for around $4,000, are very popular options for journalism in the field,” said Livingston. “It allows broadcasters to get independent-frame DVCPRO HD quality and solid-state recording in the field.”
“Our AVCCAM camcorders, an even lower-cost option, record AVCHD at professional bit rates onto SD memory cards,” said Livingston, referring to a line of affordable HD cameras with prices under $3,000 for handheld units.
“These handhelds share a similar imager but they record with a different codec on different media,” she said. “The images from both camcorder lines look great, but it really depends on the overall system at the station and their specific needs.”
Panasonic concedes that not every price-conscious broadcaster wants to spend as much as $1,200 for a P2 card if an SD card can be purchased for about $50.
SD “is probably a lot cheaper, but it is not nearly as reliable,” Livingston said. “With everything, there’s always a bit of a tradeoff.”
Broadcasters are demanding low-cost cameras. While vendors won’t say they’re surprised by it, it’s taken everyone a some time to catch up with products that meet the new demands.
“Three years ago broadcasters had three times the budget that they have today, so it’s driving behavior towards ‘good enough is good enough’ or getting the right product for the right price,” said Ott.
That said, Sony and Panasonic believe that there is still a high end to the market, even in broadcasting, and will continue to serve it — Panasonic with its VARICAM family of P2 HD shoulder mounts and Sony with its PDW-700 optical disc product.
“Optical disc-based cameras will be around for the next 20 years in somebody’s ENG truck,” said Ott.