As Rumored, Blackmagic Announces Purchase of Echolab Assets

Posted by Joe Zaller
Aug 12 2010

As predicted here last month, Blackmagic Designs announced today that it has acquired “all the assets of Echolab,” putting Blackmagic in the production switcher business.

Echolab was forced into liquidation a few months ago when its primary shareholder stopped funding its operations.  The company had been in business for more than 35 years, specializing in low-end production switchers.

Blackmagic is buying Echolab for the latter’s ATEM product line, which was introduced about two years ago and has been continuously upgraded since under Echolab’s former CEO Nigel Spratling, who apparently not part of the Blackmagic deal and has now joined Ross Video in a marketing role.

This is great news for the affected Echolab employees, who were left jobless in an instant when the company shut its doors in mid-May.  It’s also good news for the industry, because the ATEM switcher product line, which looks like a pretty good product, will continue to be available through Blackmagic.  In fact, Blackmagic has said that it is adding to the engineering team responsible for ATEM.

It will be interesting to see how Blackmagic approaches the production switcher market, which is different than the company’s core post production market.  The part of the production switcher market where Echolab is active has considerable competition. In addition to Echolab, Sony, Panasonic, JVC, For-A and Ross Video are all very active players in this space.   

In addition to the competitive aspects of the deal, it seems to me that selling production switchers is a bit of a departure business-wise for Blackmagic.  Production switchers are a “high-touch” product category.  They are mission critical elements of the live production workflow, and as such they can require extensive demonstrations and training.  The majority of Blackmagic’s products are plug-in cards or stand-alone units, which are sold primarily through third-party dealers.  

At this point, I am unsure whether Blackmagic’s all-dealer sales approach is a positive or a negative for Echolab.  On the plus side, the compact HD production switcher market is a large and somewhat amorphous, running the gamut from broadcasters to corporation, to churches to education —  so it requires a large dealer network, which Blackmagic already has in place.  On the other hand production switchers require a specialized sales approach. Every buyer wants a demonstration, which typically involves shipping equipment and people, thereby increasing the cost of each sale.  Blackmagic will probably have to augment their approach somewhat in order to be successful selling production switchers.

Still if they can get the distribution right, Blackmagic may have a good chance of making their purchase of Echolab a success.  Blackmagic most likely paid very little for Echolab’s assets, and since it’s buying the assets and not the company, it gets a brand new HD switcher line, but not 35 years of legacy products that need support.  And Blackmagic does have experience buying distressed “traditional” vendors and changing their approach.  Last year, Blackmagic acquired leading color grading vendor Da Vinci Systems, and proceeded to radically change Da Vinci’s market approach, not to mention its pricing, turning a $200,000 hardware product into a sub-$1000 product according to TVB Europe.

Arguably however, Da Vinci’s color grading products (which are used off-line in post production) were easier to port to software platforms – and they still require a very expensive hardware controller.  Live production switchers are a different kettle of fish than off-line color grading systems for post production.  They are the key element of any live broadcast production, and they are still a relatively expensive hardware platform that requires specialist sales and support.

Blackmagic CEO Grant Petty is obviously familiar with this.  In the company’s press release that announced the deal he said: “I have been using live production switchers since I was in school where we covered local theater, sports, racing and bands. I think it’s the most exciting way to do production because it’s all live and thousands of people are watching what you are doing! Production switchers need to be powerful while also being familiar and easy to operate.”

Petty also said that “Since the acquisition, we have already dramatically expanded the engineering team working on ATEM. This fresh engineering team, which is a combination of new as well as experienced EchoLab staff, will allow us to move faster in adding new features to the ATEM product.”

Blackmagic will be displaying the ATEM on its booth at the IBC show next month. 

Here is a link to the full press release announcing the deal.

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