In The Footsteps of A-V

This article was published in InternetWorks magazine back in January 2002. I wrote it after having had some tangential involvement with the A-V industry, and noticed some similarities between its then-history, and new media’s then-present (time, eh, isn’t it great?).

Ten years ago A-V was an emerging industry. It tended to comprise a large number of small two-or-three-person businesses with just a handful of major players. There were few, if any, recognised standards and business practises varied from one company to the next. It was difficult for clients to compare bids or assess the competence of the bidders. The field was not level.

To make matters worse, no one outside the industry quite knew what it was all about. Those inside had trouble explaining exactly what it was that they did. As a result, the sector tended to get slotted into other, similar but not quite appropriate, categories – was it electrical engineering, acoustics, video, IT? Perhaps a bit of all of them, but not quite any single one.

Sounds familiar? These are exactly the same issues that the new media industry has faced more recently.

So what exactly does the A-V industry do? It deals with supplying and integrating audio-visual equipment, infrastructure and technology in physical spaces – auditoriums, conference centres, classrooms, lecture theatres, stadiums, boardrooms and so on. Video projectors, screens, speakers and amplifiers, cameras, microphones, control systems etc. According to the International Communications Industries Association, it is worth in the region of US$4 billion a year and, unlike new media, it is not yet experiencing a slowdown.

In recent years, the A-V industry has had to adapt to the transition from analogue to digital, an increasing rate of technological change and a maturing marketplace. Recognised standards, qualifications and best practise have begun to emerge. Smaller companies have joined forces or been subsumed into larger organisations. Clients are better informed. The industry has grown up. What was almost a cottage industry has become big business.

Some might say the new media industry is just beginning this process…

Broadly, and simplistically, speaking, the A-V industry comprises five sectors – equipment manufacturers, dealers, installers, content producers and end-users. Installers are of particular interest – they are, perhaps, the most analogous to web developers. Their job is to design and build the required system.

The problems faced by installers are many. They have to identify and source appropriate hardware. They have to integrate a large number of different devices and ensure they all work together smoothly. They have to work with architects designing the physical space. They have to have some appreciation of the content that will be delivered over the system. They have to understand how and when the system will be used and by whom. And as digitisation allows A-V systems to become simpler, through the use of local area networks, client-server architectures and unified control systems, they have to understand information technology and graphical user interface design.

Again, this might be sounding familiar…

Developing a good A-V system requires an understanding of a wide range of disciplines that is often not found in a single company, let alone a single person. There simply aren’t enough such people, with talent and experience, to go around a large industry, so inevitably there are many companies whose core competencies do not cover the entire spectrum from needs analysis to specification to design to implementation.

The same is largely true of new media – graphic designers, HTML coders, server-side programmers and even systems administrators are not in particularly short supply. But people who understand the creative, technical, content and business issues , who have experience, and who can undertake high-level conceptual design and planning work are rare.

The solution in the A-V industry has been specialisation. No longer are entire projects handled by a single contractor. In particular the rise of independent consultants has been significant. Typically, their role is to spec out the required system and put the job out to tender on behalf of the client. It is their job to worry about design and specification, and to liase with architects and so on, leaving the installers to focus on their core skill – building the system. By being independent, consultants can recommend the best solution. They are not tied to dealers, so they can find the most suitable hardware. They are not employed by installers, so they can suggest the most appropriate contractors. And time after time, independent consultants have proved that they add value to A-V projects.

Interestingly, the A-V industry also recognises this specialisation. A-V installers, for example, frequently refer clients to independent consultants rather than attempt that part of the job themselves. By contrast, in new media there has been a tendency for agencies to grab the whole project including those parts that are beyond their core competencies.

According to ICIA research, roughly a quarter of all A-V systems projects, worth US$1 billion a year, is bid through independent consultants. This figure is expected to grow. Many A-V clients have had their fingers burned by rushing to implement poorly planned systems. They have learned from their mistakes and have recognised the need for independent advice at the outset of the project.

The new media industry here in Britain is perhaps a year behind the A-V industry in this respect. Small, specialist companies are beginning to emerge as so many of the larger full-service agencies go to the wall or scale down their operations. Clients are becoming better informed as they, too, learn from past mistakes. Standards may not have emerged yet, but they will do so as clients increasingly demand measurable results, as projects become more complex and commissioners need more reliable ways to compare proposals. As in A-V, independent consultants have an essential role to play in new media. They are, however, few and far between and there is still much work to be done to persuade clients of their value.

The new media industry has spent the last few years feeling its way, largely learning – or even defining – the rules as it went along. As the current economic slowdown and agency failures have shown, it is now time for the industry to grow up, to come of age, to move from cottage industry to professional business. The A-V industry has been there before. We could do worse than look to it for direction.

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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