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Multiplatform distribution in the real world

Defining the technological obstacles of designing and implementing an infrastructure for creation, formatting and distribution of content over a number of channels is a huge challenge in itself. But a sound business plan must also guide the overall media creation and distribution strategy if all of this hard work will pay off in the real world of broadcasting.

Distribution channels are everywhere, and each offers implementation with implied financial benefits. Consider the similarities between multichannel content repurposing and Internet uptake. In 1999, it seemed like the Internet would grow forever. More experienced industry observers felt there would be a bust when the “Internet fad” was over. In its stead, the business-savvy Internet as we know it today was born.

Multichannel distribution today is at a similar stage of deployment as the pre-bust Internet. Broadcasters are jumping on the multiplatform bandwagon, trying any approach that seems plausible. In reality, a long-term content production and distribution strategy is necessary for sustained success. It is an undertaking that requires a huge financial investment in production and distribution technology, with no guarantee of financial return. No one can foresee which combination of platforms used in what complementary manner will survive, and no broadcaster wants to repeat the ESPN Mobile disaster. Everyday another online broadcaster is re-launching its Web site.

Still, distributing repurposed content over every possible channel is a “safe bet” game. No broadcaster can fail to implement a production/distribution chain that will ultimately prove to be financially successful; all distribution bases must be covered.

For example, multicast OTA DTV was touted as a cash cow. Some broadcasters offer weather and targeted programming over their unused bandwidth; yet, has any broadcaster made money from a multicast channel? And even though HD programming is sometimes degraded because multicast channels reduce bandwidth available for true HD, it is a safe bet to experiment.

Similarly, Internet, mobile and other emerging distribution channels for repurposed content must be an integral part of any media distribution blend. Even if a profit cannot be directly turned from the mobile Web, the channel can be used to build brand loyalty and drive consumers to traditional broadcast services, for a theater-like entertainment experience that cannot be delivered elsewhere.

Multichannel distribution and copyright

Multiple channel distribution of repurposed content on various platforms has ignited a debate, if not a war, about copyright and royalty payments. Ones side touts that failing to distribute content royalty-free inhibits technological innovation. Yet outside of the open-standards world, intellectual property reaps large licensing fees and profits for companies that benefit from free content distribution. The other contingent insists that the only way to insure that talented people can produce compelling content is to pay them enough so they can make a decent living from their creative efforts.

A phrase that gets bandied about in support of royalty-free content is the “democratization” of creativity. With inexpensive technology, everyone can let his or her previously inhibited creativity run free — anyone can be a musician, photographer, filmmaker, etc. However, there is no substitute for talent, training and time dedicated to honing those skills. This democratization of creativity can then be said to be the glorification of mediocrity.

The “me” fad of today will eventually be supplanted by the need for quality content. High production values are beyond the reach of democratized creators. And if the truly gifted can’t earn a living exploiting their talent, broadcasters will be left with a morass of indistinguishable programs.

The impossible dream of a Renaissance engineer

During the discussion about parallel production for multichannel distribution, one thing should be strikingly apparent — the supporting infrastructure is an intricate integration of engineering, computer science and data processing technologies.

Characterized by a “can do” attitude, broadcast engineers have pursued IT industry certifications to acquire the required skills to design, deploy, configure and manage file-based broadcast infrastructures. It’s a noble effort, but doomed to come up short.

Digital broadcast systems are conglomerations of complex integrated technologies. Though a support engineer may be able to perform first-level fault analysis, any deeper problem will require an expert. It is totally unrealistic to think that a Cisco Certified Network Analyst, Microsoft Certified System Analyst or SBE Certified Network Broadcast Technologist certification alone can rival the experience of someone who has labored in any of these disciplines for decades.

It is not uncommon for a broadcast organization to be led by someone who has come up through the production ranks. Prior to the advent of modern digital “systems of systems” dependent on engineering, networking, storage, processing, software and security technologies, a production perspective was sufficient to specify equipment. These were pretty much boxes that were simply interconnected via coax. Analog signals were somewhat forgiving; they just got noisy. SDI was simply the real-time digital equivalent. Digital, as all broadcast technologists have learned by now, is a completely different ball game. Drop one bit and your signal goes bad.

This impossible dream of making broadcast engineers into IT/computer science/security experts still persists in some organizations. Others have realized that they have to hire real network, storage, computer, application and security experts. But, just getting the right people onboard won’t do the trick.

Someone else is needed to lead the team of engineers; someone like the “coach” espoused by extreme programming methodology. The danger is that as the infrastructure grows in scale, design flaws will precipitate the need for massive system upgrades. In the worst case, whole infrastructures will be inadequate.

Using professional project managers has become almost standard. Basing a project on the premise that project management is a skill independent of knowledge of what is being managed can prove to be a fatal flaw when non-engineers make engineering decisions. In addition to project management skills, technical expertise, documentation, team building, communication and a coherent vision round out the required skill set.

IT-related certifications for veteran broadcast engineers are great. The knowledge gained will allow intelligent communication and at least a modicum of understanding of the nuances of an integrated broadcast infrastructure; the danger is in thinking that this relatively small amount of knowledge in a particular discipline is sufficient.

From the writer

I’d like to wish all my readers a happy holiday season and new year. I’d also like to thank each of you for your continuing support in reading my tutorials. Since I began writing the Transition to Digital e-newsletter in February 2005, the TV business has evolved from deliberating on the viability of HD to the expanding opportunities of multichannel distribution. I have attempted to cover technical, business and creative issues in an interesting and insightful way. The goal was to inspire readers to think in new ways about issues, and help you find answers to those challenges. I hope I have succeeded in my efforts.

Editor’s note: Broadcast Engineering would like to thank Phil Cianci for his hard work and dedication to the Transition to Digital e-newsletter and wishes him the best in his future endeavors.

Expect a new voice to bring you another round of DTV Tutorials in the coming year.