Metadata: Are you keeping up?

Your facility and operators will soon need to exploit metadata — and you should start to prepare now.

The business pressure to streamline processes and, at the same time, maintain quality of content is increasing. To complicate matters, the desire to increase revenue has many organizations exploring new ways to deliver content to their customers. However, it is not clear which will be the most compelling or which will be most profitable. This is why metadata is such a hot topic.

A time for change

There are continuous pressures to change, which are almost impossible to resist. First, the bandwidth of delivery channels is increasing, making high definition easier to deliver. For consumers, the quality of widescreen displays is going up, and prices are falling. The mixture of high-definition, standard-definition, broadband and mobile delivery channels is growing more complicated and steadily increasing, and this is a factor over which we have no control.

All of these aspects increase the pressure on processes for faster speed, more flexible workflows and maximized reuse of content. To achieve this, many organizations are turning to file-based storage and transfer of content. In most cases, these changes are not introduced just for the sake of a new technology. They are driven by the need for new business models, and once these plans are implemented, many aspects of managing the content become easier.

Of course, it is important to remember that everyone is in the same situation. Decisions are being based on the best information available today, and no one has all the right answers. We are trying to anticipate what direction our industry will take and prepare accordingly so that we stay in business. For example, a huge amount has been written about how income could be generated by selling content to handheld devices and mobile phones, but at present we do not know what the actual take-up will be. However, any organization that does not consider this potential runs the risk of being left behind.

The range of program types

Organizations often have to handle a broad range of content type. At one extreme will be high-quality drama or natural history programs that have a high re-use and resale value and justify a high cost per hour in their production. At the other extreme will be fast turnaround programs with a much lower budget and shelf life, which could include, for example, some specialist documentaries.

Programs where there is urgency for delivery, such as news and sports, can capitalize on quick, efficient content delivery. The 30-second clip of that really important goal could be a significant revenue source if it can be sent to the phones of keen supporters!

Alternatively, looking instead at one area of our possible customer base, teenagers — who embrace new technology — are a perfect audience, if we can identify which type of content interests them.

So whether it is the “hand-carved” or “factory television” approach that is used, efficiency and cost-effectiveness are vital. Effective management of both the content and the processes is key to a company's success and survival.

The subject of metadata, and the help it can bring, has been discussed by content owners and product manufacturers for some years in standards committees, so a great deal of work has already been done. However, for many people it is still a new subject. They may have heard the term used by others but have not yet considered the benefits to themselves.

Why metadata?

The idea is simple. Metadata is data about the data in the file. It is a set of items of information that describes all the important aspects of the content.

For example, in the case of a location shoot, it may include the name of the producer, cameraman and creative personnel involved. Program descriptors such as the working title, transmission title, commissioning editor, transmission date and channel will also be added at some stage. Technical information will be included, such as the aspect ratio, video compression scheme, and number of audio channels plus multilanguage voiceovers or subtitles.

When you consider all the aspects of a piece of content, bearing in mind that it might be destined for delivery to high definition, standard definition, commercial and non-commercial channels, Internet, mobile devices, DVD, audio books, clip sales and paper publication with different rights to use for each, it is not difficult to total more than 100 labels. Once you think about the information required for high-quality archiving, the numbers can easily double again.

What should I think about?

So you have planned an end-to-end, file-based system. At what points in this system do you need to consider the metadata?

Let's first consider the program planning stage. Today there are lots of Word documents and Excel spreadsheets to describe vital parts of the program. These usually end up crammed into filing systems that are understood only by the administrator and lose value as soon as the production team moves to the next project. But this background work has cost a huge amount of money, and it is foolish to lose it.

Once in the studio or on location, information continues to accumulate in handwritten notes and on computers and palm devices.

At the edit stage, archive or purchased material might also be incorporated, and now we realize that we can benefit from using metadata in this content that someone else has generated. The emergence of MXF (and AAF) has been the result of a lot of planning by many manufacturers and content owners to create a new flexible interchange standard.

So it is possible to see the pictures and listen to the sound because this has been tightly defined, and it is possible to safely mix products from different manufacturers. However, it has become clear that no organization has exactly the same metadata needs as another.

The ability to extract metadata from an MXF or AAF file and compare it against your own requirements is vital to ensure that you can handle the material properly. Equally, the way in which the metadata is packaged with the essence means that nothing ever needs to be thrown away. (So when that program about elephants has been recorded, edited, transmitted and archived, the name of the local guide in the nature reserve is still kept with the material, and it can be found when their skills are needed next time.) Of course, as well as reading existing metadata, each stage needs to bundle new information into the file before passing it to the next stage.

Also, it is vital to ensure that the HD, SD, 16×9, 14×9 and 4×3 versions are all directed to the correct channels along with their (multilanguage?) stereo (surround?) sound with subtitles. And that is before you consider the broadband and mobile distribution!

In other words, from the very first stage, there is important information to monitor so that you can be confident that the whole process remains on track. However, the chain of steps that content has to pass through varies widely across the industry. So how do you implement a system that works for your organization and your business? (See Figure 1.)

How do I start my planning?

This is not difficult, although it can appear daunting at the start. If you have decided where you are going to employ MXF or AAF file transfer, an audit of the labels that you need for the program and those processes is sufficient. This is the beginning of your organization's schema, which defines how your metadata is organized.

One of the benefits of the past investment by standards organizations is that a basic framework already exists. There is already a standard SMPTE metadata dictionary that can be referenced by anyone. To this, it is easy to add any metadata keys that are specific to your own company, and immediately you have a framework that perfectly fits your needs. You may have heard of the Descriptive Metadata Scheme 1 (DMS-1), which is a good start but not sufficient for many user's needs. However, this is already included within the SMPTE dictionary.

Thus, it is easy to start modestly, either with one specific project or on a large scale, and learn as you go. This makes it very easy to get one foot on the bottom rung of the metadata ladder. It is vital to bear in mind that no one knows your organization as well as its staff. There is no “one size fits all” solution. What suits you today may not suit you next year (or even next month) when you have learned the effect of tomorrow's development and adjusted your plans based on this knowledge. A sensible solution must allow your metadata to grow and evolve along with your business.

You can explore the potential of metadata management with a basic system used by a single operator. Once you have defined your needs and have multiple users, a corporate scale system is appropriate. For organizations that are large or operating on several sites, there are hierarchical architectures.

None of these systems are difficult to implement, but you need to know what you want to achieve. (See Figure 2.)

The tools already exist to allow metadata in an MXF file to be extracted, checked, added to and rewrapped back into the MXF file. This can be done at any stage in the production process, and many manufacturers are building this functionality into their products so that they can design the most innovative products.

The number of manufacturers whose equipment can accept and generate MXF or AAF files is growing rapidly. They will also be exploiting metadata, sometimes yours and sometimes their own, to control the processes in that equipment.


Eventually metadata will be present from the beginning to the end of the content creation and management chain.

Some factors to consider are:

  • Capture factual information at the planning/storyboarding stage.
  • Be confident that metadata created at the shooting stage is present and correct.
  • Add any important metadata (if it not already present) at the point of ingest to a storage system.
  • Check that content provided from outside of your organization has metadata that is present and correct.
  • Be certain that content that is filed for transmission has exactly the right metadata for playout to the correct destination with the correct components, pictures, sound, subtitles, etc.
  • Ensure at the point of archiving that sufficient metadata is added to allow full and complete searching for easy retrieval and resale or repurposing.

You can start simply and capture any metadata that is relevant. Don't make it unnecessarily complex. This will enable you to start cost effectively and expand in the direction that you want, at the speed that you want. No one has all the right answers, so you also need a solution that allows you to change direction easily when circumstances require it. Then you will have a technology solution that can be driven by your business model, and you have minimized both the technical and financial risk.

Neil Dunstan is head of sales and marketing for Metaglue.