The challenge ahead

If you ask a dozen vendors what media workflow means, you'll get two dozen answers. With that said, let's develop one and stick with it throughout this article. The following definition can be applied to a wide variety of needs, yet covers the entire media lifecycle:

Media workflow is the movement and transformation of content across the three fundamental activities of the broadcast business: acquisition, management and distribution. Movement of content through each of the high-level activities is managed by a series of discrete operations called workflows. These add value or remove cost at each step of the process.

Broadcast engineers are faced with the challenge of reducing the number of discrete steps required to move content through its lifecycle while assuring that critical business processes remain unaffected.

Analog today

An ideal workflow system will be based on business rules and seamlessly integrate and automate, as far as possible, the following steps: acquisition, ingest, metadata acquisition, storage, asset management, search, retrieval, desktop cuts-only editing, transcoding, scheduling, automation, playout, billing, accounting and archival management.

To accomplish this, secure, scalable systems must be designed and built in ways that preserve to the greatest degree possible legacy infrastructure investments. These systems should allow asset-related data to be available to enterprise information systems that manage financial, customer, sales and rights information and reporting. In other words, Mr. Engineer, this solution is a whole lot bigger than you may have thought.

Let's examine an example of a typical analog linear workflow versus a digital, rules-based one. Consider a large media enterprise with the following attributes:

  • incoming feeds from multiple sources, many arriving at once;
  • the need to develop fresh, updated programming on a minute-by-minute basis;
  • the need to feed multiple output channels;
  • a large, growing analog tape library;
  • a labor-intensive process of getting archived tapes;
  • a chaotic production process.

Figure 1. The traditional organization of workflow. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

An integrated workflow

To repackage content from the tape archive requires multiple activities, decision points and employees. At its worst, it might take several hours to go through this process for each tape needed. (See Figure 1.) Once retrieved, tapes must be reviewed and ingested before they can be re-edited, after which they have to be played out to tape again and delivered to the NOC or MCR for broadcast.

This disarray is the result of a process that is inefficient from the outset: From ingest to archiving, the process is mostly manual and subject to inefficiencies and errors.

Digital workflow

Let's look at this same set of tasks at a facility where the broadcaster understands the value of a digital workflow system. Obviously, any engineer worth his salt knows that only a completely integrated digital-based system with automated workflows can meet the demand for speed and efficiency. The savvy engineer will also recognize that no single vendor's software product can come anywhere near meeting the massive complexities in designing and building such a workflow system.

Let's examine what this new automated workflow management system looks like and some of the key benefits. (See Figure 2.)

Workflow benefits

Feed schedules reside in a database and trigger multiple events such as orienting the dish, selecting the channel, routing the feed to the encoder and capturing the digital file. Moreover, once the digital frame has been captured, it may become available to everyone in the enterprise, depending on access rules. Basic metadata is captured concurrently and can be used for immediate search and retrieval.

Producers can identify and retrieve current or legacy content (if it has been appropriately ingested into the system) and create programs on the fly. If craft editing is required, an EDL is sent to an edit suite, and the content is pulled into the NLE, where graphics, music, narration and effects can be added. Conforming and rendering is done in real-time, and the content is instantly forwarded to the play-to-air server and immediately available for broadcast.

Now this may sound like a utopia, but it is possible to come quite close with today's technology. Let's look at some of the potential benefits.

The time required to locate and retrieve content online goes from hours to seconds. No more looking for tape boxes. Requests are now filled from an on-screen database. Lost content happens less often. Once the material is stored and tagged, it's virtually impossible to lose. Compare that with trying to find that partially labeled box containing the tape of last week's fire.

Scale to fit

What about creative flexibility? Before, editors were limited by their access to the content and crushed by deadlines. Now, content is always accessible and instantly deliverable. Also, editors can share content. No longer do they have to wait for a dub to begin work.

Considering the options

The number of staff changes required: few. You and your staff get to keep your jobs. Responsibilities increase and people focus on what they do best: creating programming. Finally, because such a system can be built with nonproprietary hardware and standard operating systems, it's easy to scale, maintain and integrate with an existing IT and broadcast infrastructure.

Such an enterprise-wide workflow isn't cheap. For global media enterprises, those costs are justified by the potential to reduce operating expenses and realize new revenue streams from a system that integrates broadcast, cable, new media and handheld device distribution. Smaller broadcasters may not need to build their own solution at all. It's often possible to access these services on an outsourced or shared-resource basis.

Figure 2. The organization of integrated, digital workflow. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

Suppose you decide to implement an integrated workflow system. What are the options? The first is to build your own. There is a natural temptation for IT and broadcast engineers to demonstrate their skills and expertise to senior management. And, engineers often like having control over the solution. But a word of caution: Such systems can be complex to design and challenging to build when there is no out-of-the-box solution (and there isn't). This means that no single hardware or software vendor can provide more than a portion of the system.

This will require the staff to integrate all pieces of the puzzle. Also, demanding multiple equipment vendors to integrate with each other will greatly magnify the chance for failure, especially where software interoperability is critical to success. Homebrew systems are rarely successful, and they can easily create more problems than they solve. If that happens, the finger of blame will point only to you.

The second option is to outsource to an IT consultant. Traditional IT consulting firms are great for enterprise systems, e-mail and desktop support. But few, if any, have the specific workflow expertise required to successfully design and build systems that automate complex broadcast interdependencies.

The third option is to outsource the project to a traditional broadcast integrator. This will give you broadcast infrastructure design and build experience and access to broadcast hardware sourcing. But, building these complex IT-based systems requires specific skills that may not be available from your broadcast integrator.

The fourth — and, in my opinion, the best — option is to partner with a firm that can staff both sides of the challenge with broadcast expertise and IT knowledge. Look for demonstrated skills in designing and deploying complex, enterprise-wide broadcast IT integrated systems. You don't want to be anyone's guinea pig when it comes to your IT broadcast project.

Fortunately, there are firms that can meet these demanding requirements. But, before you make a decision, do the homework. Look at the company's track record. Call its customers and then visit them. Look at both newly completed sites and those with many months of operation under their belts. There will always be start-up issues in complex systems. What you want to know is whether the vendor took care of them and whether the system works reliably over time.

Don't be lulled into thinking that building an enterprise-wide digital workflow is merely connecting the dots. It isn't. Broadcasting is one of the more complex media workflows and you shouldn't be timid in recognizing that you need expert help in finding and building the best solution.

After all, when the project is completed, you're going to get the recognition for the project anyway. Wouldn't you rather it be for a job well done?

David Rosenberg manages the Media Consulting Practice for Siemens Business Services in North America.