Defining asset management

While technologies have advanced dramatically since the TV business started 60 years ago, the fundamental workflows have not significantly changed. The
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While technologies have advanced dramatically since the TV business started 60 years ago, the fundamental workflows have not significantly changed. The transition from film to tape and eventually to file-based delivery over a shared storage network has made life easier, but it hasn't altered the basic operations used to create and distribute content. Business applications (billing and traffic) are still disconnected from content playout. And, the different operators' roles in a TV station have remained primarily the same, even though the required skills have evolved. The result is that many stations have rigid, inefficient and expensive workflows, despite new technology. These factors can greatly affect operating expenses (OPEX).

Fortunately, new IT commodity products, standards and technologies can be leveraged with asset management to provide flexible, efficient and affordable solutions. When IT is combined with asset management, content is produced faster, with higher quality, fewer errors and at lower cost. Let's look at some of the issues involved with implementing a digital asset management workflow.

The business issues

While asset management applies to most businesses, broadcasters face a unique limitation. They must sell commercial time, or spots, but there is a limited availability (24 hours) in each day to place those spots.

Consider the difference between a TV station's advertising slots and cans of paint for sale in a hardware store. Once a commercial time slot passes, that opportunity for revenue is gone. Yesterday's 10:16 a.m. commercial slot cannot be recovered. Yet, even if a can of paint doesn't sell on Tuesday, it's still available to sell on Wednesday. For broadcasters, time is everything.

In addition, spots often depend on the content itself. Some commercials may not be appropriate for children's programming. Or, sporting events may run long or short. What happens to scheduled or unscheduled spots? These factors make it difficult for MCR engineers to schedule commercials.

Finally, competition from the Internet, satellite, IPTV and portable/mobile video places tremendous pressure on stations to effectively manage both avails and content to maximize income. Unfortunately, if a station is locked into a tape-based workflow and old business practices, it becomes virtually impossible to maximize revenue or take advantage of new opportunities.

However, if a TV station can dynamically sell and manage advertising and content in response to short-term or changing events (i.e. weather or sporting events), new options are created.

For example, if it rains, there's an increased prospect of selling new advertising to basement repair and roofing companies. When the local football team wins, restaurant, fan and sports memorabilia stores may suddenly want to advertise.

If a football game goes into overtime, new ad slots open, but can they be filled at the last minute? It is seldom possible to take advantage of these last-minute opportunities with a tape-based or rigid workflow. The solution? TV stations must implement an effective digital asset management system that can support such time-sensitive events and new content streams.

Create more content

The development of new content is one area where TV stations have an advantage over all the competition. Broadcasters generate tons of content every day. That content can be sold once, or with proper management, it can be sold many times over many channels.

This is where asset management can really shine. A DAM system manages the essence, the video/audio and the descriptive metadata. For those of you older than 40, think of metadata as an electronic version of the library card catalog. If you are younger, consider metadata as tags, like those used to describe Web or blog content.

Once the essence is tagged with metadata, either at ingest or through the editing process, the content can be stored, tracked, repackaged, transcoded and distributed in many ways. One benefit of a modern asset management system is that many of the steps previously done manually can now be done automatically. Let's examine some of the important steps involved with implementing a media asset management (MAM) system.

Decision-making

Managing content, whether it's programs or commercials, across multiple channels is challenging, especially if it requires significant human intervention. These factors create a complex business environment and increase OPEX. The challenge is to improve workflow with the help of a systemwide infrastructure and workflow. The new workflow must effectively integrate the business system with the playout technology.

An example of an asset management system with a tightly integrated workflow is illustrated in Figure 1 on page 73. Note that the uppermost part of the system is the business application. This is the heart of every TV station and where decisions regarding content and commercials are made. The rules regarding programs, channels and commercials are all handled by the traffic and marketing departments. The illustrated system confines much of the previously manual and disparate processes into a tightly integrated workflow. Once content is ingested into the system, it can be transcoded, moved, logged and played out based on workflow templates. By integrating the business decisions with content, metadata and controlled playout, OPEX can be reduced while maintaining a high-quality output.

Any required manual intervention is supported by low-resolution browse proxies, which are available throughout the facility's network. Operators can add metadata, such as program IDs, broadcast dates and other business or production information. Content can be edited, graphics added and entire programs created along with descriptive metadata. This metadata remains with the content, no matter the ultimate path it may take. The asset manager's software resides above the entire workflow, providing detailed status information and tracking back to the business side so management has a complete picture of processes and technical operations.

One key benefit of such a process is that content aggregation no longer has to occur prior to playout. Instead, output channels can be built on the fly with content automatically assembled as it is delivered, even to different channels. Technically, it is possible to actually assemble programs all the way out to the neighborhood or home level (with an addressable set-top box). Such benefits could never be accomplished with manual workflows.

Workflow templates

The first step in implementing asset management is to develop a flexible workflow that supports the station's goals. This requires the technical, production and business departments to analyze the facility's current workflows. (See Figure 2.) It is important to carefully examine current processes and look for repetitive patterns or steps. Many stations are still moving content like it's videotape, except now it's a file.

Begin the process by considering asset management as many pieces of a large puzzle. Identify all the steps content takes while passing through the system. Also, carefully define what is needed at the output stage of the finished product before making decisions about the internal steps. Making a hard decision to perform a down-resolution at step three could prevent getting an HD image out of the system later.

Once you've defined desired flows, patterns will become apparent. These patterns are then modeled into a set of templates called workflow templates. The asset management system will store these in a workflow library. They contain information about the content path through the facility, execution rules, default parameters and conditions. These templates become the blueprint for every workflow needed.

Each step inside a workflow template is often referred to as a task. A task can be either manual or automatic. Manual tasks are given to an operator for execution, while an automatic task is directly executed by the underlying DAM infrastructure. Tasks assigned to an operator appear on workstations, along with a description of the work to be completed. The workstation provides the operator with all the tools necessary to complete the task. Business and technical rules are implemented here. For example, metadata fields can be made mandatory. Leaving a field blank will prevent the operator from sending the project to the next step.

It is important to maintain consistent metadata terms, so you'll need a facility-wide metadata dictionary. This will prevent errors like one editor calling a story an “automobile accident” and another from calling the same story a “car wreck.” A SMPTE committee is developing a metadata dictionary, and the current version is available at www.smpte-ra.org/mdd.

Completing the DAM puzzle

Another benefit of examining the workflow and current practices is identifying wasteful redundancies. This is the time to streamline work practices, eliminating duplicate steps — and duplicate copies of content, which can reduce storage requirements.

Because workflow discovery involves multiple departments, expect conflicts. Resolving disagreements in how work moves through a facility will improve efficiency and accountability. Although departments may initially disagree about what constitutes the best workflow, consensus among all players is important.

Buying DAM software and simply laying it over a facility as homebrew automation can be done, but that solution misses out on the full potential asset management has to offer. Success typically requires the combination of good technology and an experienced systems integrator or an in-house IT/engineering team that can implement the right software to support the desired workflows. Combining the management of digital assets with an organization's business operations is the key to creating an efficient profit engine. However, this engine can only be enabled by leveraging an open and robust architecture that is tightly interfaced with an organization's specific workflows, legacy systems and third-party applications.

Eric DuFossé is chief marketing officer for Networks and Integration Solutions, Thomson.