Issue: November 1, 2009


“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Kirk Arnold, COO of Avid Technology (www.avid.com).

Just three years ago, dire predictions of the death of Media Composer, Avid’s venerable flagship editing system, were rampant. The slayer?  Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Avid’s own apathetic intransigence. For many, the obituary was already written.

To really understand how far a fall Avid had taken, we have to go back little more than a decade. In its heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, Avid and the Media Composer virtually owned the new, nonlinear editing landscape —they were the big boys on the block. They could dictate features, methodology, and especially price. The fact that you had to buy Avid’s hardware didn’t hurt them either. There were other systems out there, but Avid’s Media Composer dominated both in TV and film…and it seemed they always let both facilities managers and editors know it — it was their way or the highway.        

After more than a decade of astronomical costs, inflexibility, pricey and overtaxed support, and arrogance and innumerable incarnations of editing software (with stripped features and enough price structures to make Microsoft blush), Avid’s stony grip on the industry seemed insurmountable…until 1999, when Apple came up with it’s own killer app…

Final Cut Pro, in its one version, with an economical price, amazing, interactive suite of programs, powerful feature set, and hardware flexibility  (not to mention the marketing prowess and design panache of Apple) began a tidal wave of converts and conversions. FCP seemed to be the People’s Editor. Final Cut systems quickly started blanketing the landscapes and Avid, still seemingly asleep at the wheel, woke up to find itself in the battle for its life. To be sure, Avid as a corporation had also been busy diversifying during this time…Softimage, Pinnacle, Digidesign and many more vital products and lines ensured it would not disappear overnight if Media Composer went away…but they were distracted. They started losing market share in the editing sector, but even more importantly, Avid lost popular support —beyond the hardware-software problem, it had an even bigger image problem.

As a freelance Avid editor, I started feeling the effects of this tidal wave professionally and financially. I found myself losing out on more and more jobs calling for Final Cut and hearing more and more about the death of Media Composer through very vocal FCP converts.

One week almost exactly two years ago, I found myself taking Final Cut classes. I immediately saw the attraction for Final Cut…but it wasn’t the “ultimate answer” I had been led to believe it was…it was a great system, it had a lot of innovative features…but it was still just an editing system.

Taking the train back home, I was angry…this was NOT the transition from linear to nonlinear I had to take 10 years ago out of technological necessity and evolution…this was a lateral move from one excellent nonlinear system to another. Like switching from a Lincoln to a Cadillac…different features, some cooler than before, some lacking…but it was still getting me to the same place.

I wrote an open letter to Avid and posted it to their Website, putting the blame for their (and my) situation squarely on their shoulders. (The letter can be read at: http://tinyurl.com/ygtd849)

To my surprise, Avid responded. (To be fair, this was far from the first time they’d heard these complaints). By now they were well aware of their problems, predictions of Media Composer’s demise and incredible erosion of its market share were public knowledge. New leadership had been brought in to lead the company out of its tailspin and other changes were afoot. But my letter gave them a human face to their problems…the letter was read out loud at a company-wide meeting and taken seriously. And, finally, (maybe too late) this “lumbering giant” began to change.

“Final Cut Pro was the best thing that ever happened to Avid,” says Kirk Arnold, COO of Avid. Brought in February of 2008 to lead the broadcast and post divisions, Arnold (along with new CEO Gary Greenfield) began reinventing the company. “This was not unique to Avid…you’ve seen it in other companies…great innovators who’ve hit this space where they can’t see past wanting to do the same thing because it used to work…But it wasn’t working,” says Arnold.

Some executives were let go, others brought up from the ranks. New methodologies of dealing with problems and interacting with customers were enacted. Nothing seemed immune from scrutiny: from rethinking better support for emerging technologies like the Red camera and newer formats, to pricing, revamping its presence in schools and colleges, and studying what Apple was doing right.

Says Arnold, ”Our goal was not to “emulate, but to redefine”  the competition and their successes. One paramount task was to get the different divisions and brands encompassing Avid; consumer, broadcast and post — together and more unified — literally. “Our audio and video customers were saying,  ‘Don’t just open them up, but make your stuff work together.’” Arnold sees this convergence as key to future success.

She also had to deal with changing the negative public perception of Avid.
As she puts it: “Underneath what felt like arrogance to the market was ‘we created this paradigm, we love our customers…we know what’s best.’ ”

“We listen” became the mantra. Customer and editor advisory boards established, customer support became “Customer Success” with a revamped support network. “Code Blue” support was created. “When we have a customer who has a problem with our product stopping their ability to work — that goes to a system when top leadership would call them personally,” says Arnold.

Avid, already with a strong Internet presence, improved that too: “We’ve invested in more online videos and our community for increased customer and peer-to-peer support,” says Arnold.

Having a QuickTime-based codec structure gave Final Cut significant headway into things like inter-format editing, dragging and dropping media into a timeline, export simplicity and overall user-friendliness. Media Composer was re-tooled, but had to play catch-up. New system architectures designed, response sped up, prices dropped, inferior versions were jettisoned. Innovations like AMA, a powerful software-only version, ScriptSync, better codecs, and beefing up shared media-management capabilities all started to resonate with users. “AMA is a perfect example of changing the game,” Arnold says. “So when the next five cameras come out with different codecs, we can be first to market…we get it.”

With Version 4’s Mix and Match capability, Avid more than stepped up to the plate against FCP, surpassing Apple’s mixed-format, mixed frame rate implementation — even in software-only systems. New tools were added for stereoscopic editing and production suite tools were updated. Avid even opened up Unity, allowing FCP usage alongside MC — something inconceivable a few years ago.

Even dyed-in-the-wool FCP users took notice: Shane Ross, an LA-based editor/blogger says, ”While MC 3.0.5 turned my attention back to Avid, I still liked FCP more. But now with MC 4, my interest in going back to Avid is piqued.” Ross still admits unhappiness with the higher costs of Media Composer’s hardware, a problem Arnold says is being addressed.

Third-party developers who previously felt marginalized with little support also saw changes. Todor Fay, CTO of NewBluefx (www.newbluefx.com), a developer of AVX filters, among other products, has seen a clear shift in their attitude: “Avid’s third-party support team has been a pleasure to work with. They keep us up to date with releases make sure we are in sync with their beta testers and provide opportunities to educate customers. It’s a refreshing improvement.”

With a new attitude, retooled technology, lower costs and bottom-up change, where does Avid and the Media Composer sit now? Just recently The Ellen Show switched back to Media Composer from FCP, citing difficulties in meeting its needs. The A.C.E. recently endorsed Media Composer as its editor of choice; talks with Red and other future developers are in full swing; and new network commitments are in progress.

So, have rumors of MC’s death been greatly exaggerated? “We’ve absolutely stabilized market share. We are growing in certain segments, in education, but we still have much work to do,” says Arnold. As far as her thoughts on Media Composer’s chief competitor, Apple and Final Cut Studio?  “Apple does many things brilliantly”, she says. ”They are certainly brilliant marketers. We let them into markets we shouldn't have. They do not have a product better than we do for many markets. They have a great toolset for certain things and we’re going to have to remind customers of all this one at a time. We’re not going to try to out-hip Apple...part of how we’re going to compete is to embrace...we're going to support their platforms...Mac is a critical platform for us going forward.”

Going one step further, Arnold has an unusual take on the competition and the future: “We want to be the provider of tools that will enable you to collaborate easily...and we think we can beat Apple that way...we think we can do that better by enabling the collaboration and the sharing on Avid and Final Cut. So that when someone puts a project up, you can use Avid or Final Cut because our infrastructure allows it. That kind of project sharing and collaboration is where the industry is heading.

Stay tuned.

Jonathan Moser is an Emmy award-winning editor who has worked on numerous shows, including Making the Band 2 and Dateline . He can be reached at: flashcutter@yahoo.com or www.flashcutproductions.com.