As we head off for another IBC, I remain impressed at the burgeoning number of companies offering solutions to better manage content and media. The convergence of broadcast and IT processes, combined with divergence from linear broadcasting toward new media distribution, challenges every broadcaster considering an optimal content management strategy. Solutions must be able to manage many new file-based processes and be more efficient than their predecessors — a tough business case indeed.
Understanding your assets and their usage within the organization is an important and difficult challenge. How much information is displayed about individual assets depends largely on the technical subsystems in which that information resides. It is not as simple as the IT industry contends, but neither is it as complicated as some broadcast manufacturers would have you believe.
Creative knowledge about assets, however detailed, is only part of the requirement. Equal focus needs to be given to their progress and readiness for business.
Creativity vs. productivity in content management
From an operations viewpoint, what is content management really for? Who is using it and why in real daily processes? Here lies the real challenge, as there are many different ways to present, change and move content on its way to the viewer. This is often an area of confusion. Depth of creative knowledge about material within one specific system is easily confused with accessibility or progress around the organization.
With so many solutions now offered, it's clear that someone should have come up with the right solution by now — but for whom? Anyone who has looked for an end-to-end solution may be disappointed. Is there even a one-size-fits-all solution from production to publishing? Should you make an investment with one of the bigger players or choose a number of island solutions? Maybe the choice needs to be more philosophical, based on a clear understanding of the real needs.
Who is managing content? And for whom?
In production, there is a particular set of needs based on deep and real-time knowledge of content. Post-production operations deal with as yet unconstructed content in different ways, telling a story using complex editing, adding layers, crafting sound and graphics. Compositing and 3-D effects move this even deeper, usually in the skilled hands of a creative. The latest tools offer amazing levels of creativity and support varying levels of collaboration.
In transmission and publishing operations, the simpler post-production tasks such as reversioning, compliance editing and promotions often use the same complex tools but the real focus is now productivity. The volumes of work, speed of turnaround and an audit trail for edit actions are important.
Staff with real operational experience of end-to-end content management are hard to find. This can be a problem when new systems are brought in as raw technical engineering solutions. Other content management solutions are unfortunately just add-ons to existing automation or post-production subsystems.
Looking at the bigger picture, broadcasters are seeking more efficient processes to exploit a wider market for their output in new media platforms, such as mobile and IPTV. This requires a more driven approach with a shallower knowledge of content from a creative point of view and with a much stronger focus on business priorities and content rights or usage.
Service-providers: An evolving breed
A new breed of business emerged several years ago to supply services to broadcasters who want to add channels but without a proportional increase in costs. This new breed is called the transmission service provider. These companies are now evolving to be more like publishing houses.
Service providers aim to manage larger numbers of channels, which requires resilient and scalable media and content management solutions for a wide range of content, channel types and outputs across all platforms.
Combining their proximity to delivery systems with in-house creative talent and economies of technological scale, these operations endeavor to offer their clients end-to-end service and support. They aim to manage content libraries, quality control, compliance, promotions, channel graphics and access services — making broadcasting more like publishing. Channel management with acquisition, channel design and scheduling everything in-house adds up to an ambitious undertaking. For the service providers, the optimum content management strategy should help scale up operations and increase efficiency for the many repetitive tasks that form part of the service.
Program types such as news, sport and general entertainment have their own media logistics and diverse workflows. The growing number of thematic channels often require a step-change increase in efficiency to be commercially viable, an area where better content management can help.
When devising a future content management strategy for broadcasters and service providers, instead of working from the bottom up with technology, perhaps it is time to change our approach and look from the top down.
So where is the top?
Content management may now best be considered as a middleware platform to unify operations and to manage apparently disparate activities with batch processing where possible. Many processes, however complex, should be almost invisible in a well-designed content management solution. Digitization and transfer management can be managed without direct user interaction. Certainly no one should need to look at folders or a file explorer; this is far too error-prone and risky with one slip of the mouse.
The same system should manage the underlying technology and hardware — including VTRs, ingest servers, automated quality control, online storage, archive, post production and transmission — can be managed by the same database and transfer management platform.
First and foremost, the priorities in publishing environments should now be dictated by higher level traffic, scheduling or channel management decisions and processes. Tasks such as ingest, compliance, promos and trailers can be prioritized more efficiently based on knowledge of acquisitions and scheduling. This higher level management is also suited to handling compliance regulations for different territories, international language voice-overs and subtitles.
Acquisition, production, post production, transmission and beyond have overlapping needs for processing video, audio and the associated versions of aspect ratio, Dolby 5.1 and subtitles. However, the complexity of real creative “work in progress” during production and post production doesn't always need to be passed along the chain to service provider processes such QC, compliance, promos, approval and transmission. This is often a cause of confusion among engineers and operators, centered on the correct use and quantity of metadata.
Too much metadata creates process confusion. A better strategy with metadata is to keep it all and only show each user what he or she needs for the task at hand. It is now possible to track multiple program versions in progress at component level (e.g. international audio and subtitles) by employing the latest enterprise database techniques. Standard Web browser-based user interfaces offer practical and cost-effective operation alongside high-quality browse content throughout the enterprise. This can be accessed as many times as required for the tasks at hand. Search and logging tools enhance creative data processes such as archival and research if more information needs to be added or retrieved.
Content often originates as a placeholder somewhere in the workflow. Prior to the acquisition, scheduling or even production of new material, it may be necessary to plan ahead for the workload in areas of operation like compliance, promos and particularly approvals. Reports of workflow progress should be available to channel managers and customers.
Some operators who work in the middle do not use production or creative systems. Instead, they work in areas like compliance and approvals. These areas can be cost-effectively executed using desktop browse allied with a secure workflow. Browse should be everywhere in a well-specified system, allowing maximum collaboration and cooperation between departments.
Extending the enterprise away from the local system further enables content owners to experiment with their content and schedule. This allows service providers to extend their capacity. Third-party subtitling and post-production talent can be hired, particularly when content is internationalized. Language subtitles, graphics and voice-overs are often better managed by using local language talent. This requires more intelligent accelerated file delivery subsystems to be added to the media management transfer system. Outside agencies need to be dealt with securely and will need certification to receive and return the processed content.
Channel planners should be able to see a schedule or commercial break pattern. The graphics staff members need to see their designs in action. Subtitles should be seen with the pictures. Production of promos can now be handled by the media management system integrating editing and graphics systems with the online and archive storage systems. Prioritizing the production of promos is based on the schedule, and can incorporate international audio and voice-overs at the same time.
The split between producer/broadcasters and publisher/broadcasters and the emergence of dedicated service providers puts a new emphasis on efficiency. For the latter, traditional metadata-centric media/digital asset management systems do not provide the right answer. With the focus on productivity rather than creativity, a content management system should manage the processes and infrastructure that drive content from the archive to air — a process that is more like publishing.
A new approach is needed that will allow all areas of operations to work together using a common platform and user interface. This will increase productivity, improve management reporting and deliver the right content with the appropriate metadata for the task at hand. In practice, new content management architectures look more like middleware, operating as slaves to traditional schedules, next-generation channel management systems, on-demand and, soon, user-generated requests. This will more closely match the needs of the publisher/broadcaster and service provider who aims to deliver more content to more channels for an increasing variety of delivery systems.
Russell Grute is director of marketing at Pharos.