Tech Spotlight

Thorsteinson: Innovation Driving Grass Valley

Just three weeks into his second tenure as the head of the broadcast equipment firm, Tim Thorsteinson says he's overseeing a new direction for the company that will be reflected in a host of new switchers, cameras, storage and software. "We want to dramatically simplify the way live content is produced and delivered for multiple screens." Details on the new products are embargoed until March 1 and the gear will be on display at April's NAB Show.

Tim Thorsteinson, who returned to lead Grass Valley as its new president and CEO earlier this month, yesterday promised a panoply of radical new offerings from the 54-year-old TV technology supplier.

New switchers, cameras, storage and software are on the way and will be shown at the NAB Show in April, he said.

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“We want to dramatically simplify the way live content is produced and delivered for multiple screens."

Thorsteinson cautioned that the changes may present a challenge to video professionals used to traditional equipment. “We will try to do this change as evolutionary as possible,” he said.

Thorsteinson spoke about the new direction for Grass Valley and changes in the marketplace at a press conference in New York yesterday and in a subsequent interview with this reporter.

At the press conference, Grass Valley provided information of some of the new products, but embargoed its release until March 1.

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Thorsteinson acknowledged Grass Valley has to do something to regain its financial footing. Its declining fortunes led Thomson (now Technicolor) to put it up for sale and then — after a long search — to sell it in a no-cash deal to private equity firm Francisco Partners two years ago.

Following the sale, Francisco insider Alain Andreoli took over as CEO, but he stepped to aside to make way for Thorsteinson earlier this month.

This is Thorsteinson's second turn at Grass Valley. He ran the company under Tektronix’s ownership in the late 1990s. He has also been president of the broadcast communications division of Harris Corp., and president and CEO of Leitch, an automation company acquired by Harris. Most recently, he was CEO of Enablence Technologies Inc. and a board member of Miranda.

According to Thorsteinson, Grass Valley is entering a period of major structural change in its television business, characterized by the move to software-based products and IT technology and the commoditization of computing hardware.

He predicted 2013 will be a tough year in the tech industry due to economic uncertainly and the start of a quadrennial cycle when there are no major global live television events.

But, he also said, he is confident that Grass Valley can carve out a profitable place for itself in both the traditional TV and new media markets.

“Honestly, the company is in pretty good shape. The previous management did a lot of things right. This [transition] is more about a company that is really strong in some areas and parts where we are not. The company did make money the first half of last year. You won’t hear the next time we make money, because we are private.”

Part of the Grass Valley strategy will be to narrow its focus, Thorsteinson said.

"[F]or us to try to enter the infrastructure space heavily where Evertz, Miranda and Harris sit wouldn’t be a good idea. Although I’d love to make a DA [distribution amplifier] … anybody can make a DA.

“There are spaces, however, we are going to go after and that is where the innovation needs to be," he said.

Although 75% of Grass Valley's business is now coming from overseas, Thorsteinson said the U.S. TV station market is still an important one for the company.

"We’ve also seen lots of infrastructure rebuilds. These are stations upgrading their infrastructure from standard to high-definition. Some stations have a high-definition signal, but don’t have it all the way through their path."

The big trend in TV production and distribution technology is away from "specialized hardware" and toward software. "Because of the processing power of commoditized computer platforms to process video, more of what we provide is software applications that ride on top of this hardware.

"Look at editing, that’s almost entirely a software play today. Back in the day you’d have to buy a $40,000 to $50,000 Media Composer from Avid. Today, you can buy Adobe or Apple software and run it on a high-powered, off-the-shelf computer. In that area, software has taken over."

Broadcasters still tend to spend on traditional routing, signal management infrastructure and servers, although that changes a little bit every year, he said.

"If you look at routing, it’s still very hardware intensive. Live production switching is still very hardware intensive. So it’s a combination, but I don’t think anytime soon you’ll be able to run a broadcast facility with standard off-the-shelf hardware."


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