Business is looking bright for providers of on-demand content. Within the next few years, the increased popularity of on demand will likely require current content providers to supply hundreds of hours of content per month, while content providers new to on demand will likely supply dozens of hours per month.
Content providers have typically outsourced on-demand content creation. However, given that vendors charge as much as $1000 per content hour and can take up to three weeks to provide content, it is not surprising that many providers are bringing content creation in-house.
Other content providers are eager to enter the growing market for on demand, but do not have a simple way to produce content. And service providers are looking for ways to easily create local on-demand content or encode and convert broadcast TV feeds into a digital format for on-demand playback on network personal video recorders. Fortunately, new software is available that automates the content creation process and streamlines operations, which saves money, ensures high-quality content and gives providers control of their content.
Figure 1. An overview of the content creation process, from file creation to distribution to a content aggregator or service provider. The content is then delivered to customers. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.
On-demand content creation is the process of converting analog content into digital media, adding metadata to the content files and creating a media package for delivery. (See Figure 1.) An engineer uses either an external encoder or PC-based encoding hardware interfaced to a tape player via an Ethernet connection or serial cable, respectively. The engineer views the content on a TV monitor that is interfaced to the tape drive and determines the mark-in and mark-out settings for the content.
Analog content is then sent via a serial digital interface from the player to the encoder, where it is converted into a digital file. This encoded content can then be edited. In this step, such content as ads, previews and posters can be added to the file. Then, the required CableLabs-compliant metadata is added to the file manually or imported from a spreadsheet.
Figure 2. With automated solutions, one engineer can handle the entire content creation process, from encoding and editing to distribution. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.
In this step, using content creation software with built-in intelligence streamlines the creation of repetitive and rule-based metadata to dramatically decrease the time needed to create media packages. (See Figure 2.) With this software, even an engineer unfamiliar with CableLabs standards can easily create the required metadata. Once packaged, the file is ready for distribution via satellite, overnight delivery or an FTP site.
Transcoding is the process of converting digital content into multiple formats, such as MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264 and Windows Media 9. In the future, transcoding will become increasingly important because content will need to be reused for multiple purposes. The need for transcoding is driven by convergence and the idea that multiple service providers will require on-demand content in various formats.
Transcoding can be performed manually by converting and encoding the content into multiple digital formats. Then, the content is edited and reviewed and the metadata is added. The engineer must then perform these same actions for each format and each file type, which can be a time-consuming and costly process.
A better approach is automated transcoding, which converts files automatically. First, an engineer encodes and edits a master file, typically in MPEG-2, to ensure that the information is encoded at the highest quality setting. Other software can then convert the master into other formats as needed. The final content is then ready for distribution.
Content providers must evaluate their current needs and consider the demands they will face in the near future. Some items for consideration include:
- What kind of editing program will be used to edit your digital content? The editing software that is required varies according to file type, and it is necessary to understand your digital media editor choice, such as Adobe Premier or MediaXpress. Certain editors only edit in certain formats. For example, an MPEG-2 editor may not edit Windows Media 9. Consider choosing one format for editing content before you begin to transcode, which will minimize the number of times you need to touch the content.
- What are your future plans for distributing SD and HD content? Will you distribute a combination of both? Think about where you will be in 12 to 24 months. If you want to provide HD on demand in the short term, it would make sense to acquire HD encoding capability. However, if HD is far on the horizon, SD encoding would be an appropriate first step.
- How many different copies of a similar piece of content will you maintain? In many cases, a single copy of a piece of content will not be suitable for all content distribution needs. Many times, different versions of the content — with variations, such as ads that can be used to market to targeted audiences — are required for movie theaters, airplanes, cable networks and DVDs, for example. Rather than supplying one copy of the content, the content provider will need to supply multiple versions. Content creation software simplifies the creation of multiple versions.
- How many hours of on demand are being encoded on a per-month basis today? How many hours of on demand content will need to be encoded in 12 months? Analysts and industry experts predict that worldwide users of on demand will surpass 30 million in the next few years. To meet the demand, many content providers expect that they will soon need to ramp up their production efforts and produce far more content than they are currently handling today. When future costs are considered, an in-house solution can substantially reduce the cost of creating content.
OpenVision Content Creator, a solution for creating CableLabs-compliant on-demand packages, simplifies and automates encoding, editing and the creation of metadata.
To maximize savings, content creation software must be suitable for use by staff with all levels of experience. It should be comprehensive enough for use by an IT or video specialist, yet intuitive and simple enough for a less technical person to easily learn. Software must meet the technical requirements of each service provider and support the encoding of content within multiple formats.
Software can support quality assurance efforts by allowing users to preview content in its final format prior to delivery. Software with automated metadata verification locates errors in advance and can prevent costly and time-consuming retransmission. Users must be able to easily edit content, such as removing R-rated material or inserting ads, quickly and easily.
Most important, software should be based on open standards, which ensure easy integration into production environments and compatibility with existing hardware and software solutions. Open standards also eliminate the need to make additional software and hardware purchases. When carefully selected and properly implemented, the right content creation software will realize a return on technology investment and will help meet future demands.
Seana Rubin is the communications manager for IMAKE.