Navigating the distribution maze

The media and entertainment industry continues to adopt digital media in all stages of acquisition, manipulation and distribution. Whether the focus is broadcast, film or animation, across all media and entertainment segments, digital technologies for creating, managing and distributing content are in various phases of adoption.

Why is a digital media distribution strategy necessary? The media and entertainment industry is facing requirements that are summed up: Create once; consume anywhere.

This refers to creating a program master to provide all required versions for satellite, terrestrial, broadband, mobile and portable device delivery. Implementing a digital media distribution strategy is critical to meeting these business-driven initiatives.

Moving content

When was the last time you consciously thought about how content moves inside and outside your organization? Do you click the send button and cross your fingers that the content will actually get there? Perhaps you are still sneakernetting drives or copying and handing them off to bicycle-bound couriers or using overnight airline-based delivery. Or maybe you've run into worse trouble and had to recopy 300GB of data on a drive because the media wouldn't mount at the receiving location due to the dreaded “format unrecognized” error message.

When you have to worry about how you send, receive and coordinate the movement of content among many locations, there are a lot of concerns to account for. First is making those all important transmission deadlines. How close have you come to missing one? Second is maintaining security and prevening piracy.

Third, how do you plan to keep up with moving all digital media that your company generates? That includes accounting for getting all the new deliverables to where they must be on time.

Adoption of file-based workflows

While there is still an enormous amount of film and tape-based content, there is also an inevitable move to file-based acquisition using cameras that record on either optical disk or solid state. The creation of disk-based files has spurred the growth of file-based workflows where acquisition, manipulation, mastering and delivery are completely file-based. The simple notion of “a frame is now a file” requires a digital infrastructure to support file-based workflows. It is often helpful to classify workflow methodologies.

New workflows and requirements

Time to market demands and multiple distribution channels force us to adopt new technology and to adapt our workflows. Why is it important to carry programming in so many different forms and to so many different screen types? Let's consider some developments:

  • In 1994, the average amount of time from start to finish of a major motion picture was 12 months. Today it is seven months.
  • In 1973, according to John Kramer of EMAK Worldwide Marketing, a company that wanted to reach 95 percent of women aged 25 to 49 would need three network commercials. Today, 92 commercials would be needed to reach that same group.
  • In 2001, the theatrical-to-video window was 165 days. In 2006, the window was 129 days.
  • In 2006, it was estimated that an average of 62 percent of Internet traffic consisted of unmonetized video.

File-based workflows help to meet these various demands, but implementing such workflows does not come without complications. Figure 1 outlines the process of content acquisition to delivery. Note that each of the distinct processes is, in itself, cyclical.

Requirements of a digital media distribution system

What are some of the functional areas and technologies that form the basis in implementing a digital media distribution system? They include:

  1. Centralized management.This refers to capabilities that allow users to determine rules and policies by which content is transmitted on the network. An example of this is the use of tiered pricing where content is assigned a high, medium and low priority designation for scheduled delivery.A dashboard view of the media delivery system can easily provide that feedback. Figure 2 is an example of a global view of media transfers that can be centrally managed. Centralized management of digital media movement is indispensable in order to gain access to extremely valuable information, such as asset tracking, reporting, network and storage use, and billing generation.
  2. Network resource management.Functionality must enable users to manage the allocation of network resources and tie those resources to media transfers. This could take the form of real-time bandwidth allocation and readjustment to media transfers, for example. Or, perhaps, it is important that a series of media transfers being sent over a media path not exceed certain bandwidth limits imposed for that path.In addition to standard TCP/IP networking capabilities, compensating for highly latent networks and providing WAN acceleration via employing user datagram protocol (UDP) is critical. Other standard networking techniques, such as check-pointing, snapshots and auto-resumption in case of line disruption, are all desirable. Figure 3 is an example of how bandwidth could be adjusted in real time in order to facilitate transfers of greater or lesser importance.
  1. Security. Data integrity and data confidentiality are implicit requirements of any digital media distribution system. Through a combination of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), additional media content encryption, and the use of a public key infrastructure (PKI), digital certificates can be issued and signed, and mutual port-to-port authentication can occur. Transmission of content can result in the issuance of a digital certificate for each piece of content sent, and reports can be generated, proving that a specific piece of content was both sent and received.
  2. Automation. The automated processing and movement of content is also crucial to a scalable digital media distribution system. For example, a common workflow can be characterized by the following steps: Content is ingested and deposited into a folder on a storage volume. A process is run that interrogates the storage volume folder and upon detection of a file moves the file to an encoding system. An encoding system implements existing profiles to encode the file into multiple formats. These newly encoded files are deposited in a specific set of folders Finally, another process is automatically run which interrogates that set of folders, detects that new content is present and then transmits the files to their predesignated recipients.
  3. Performance and scalability. Another important aspect of a digital media distribution system is how many points of interest need to be served and whether the deployment is a client-server or managed peer-to-peer architecture. Fundamentally, how does the system need to be designed so that it can process not only the required job submissions but also handle the actual movement of content?
  4. Integration and interchange.
    In practiceThe use of SOAP- and XML-based APIs further facilitates the interchange with and integration to systems found in the media and entertainment ecosystem for metadata, essence and device communications. SOAP interfaces enable powerful Web services implementations for interoperation between systems.

In summary

Figure 4 on page 68 shows an actual deployment of a digital media distribution system. In this example, central management is a mirrored configuration between East and West Coast operations. Data mover software is placed at specific locations representing O&O stations and key affiliates. For transfers to and from vendor partners, data mover software is also located at key areas. Finally, for ingest and review of both user-generated content and in-field staff videographers, a Web-based upload/download capability, which provides for WAN-accelerated file transfers, is provided.

Increasingly competitive and stringent business demands placed on the media and entertainment industry to create more content faster, to deliver it in more formats, to more places and to more devices. This has raised the necessity to extend the management and control oversight of the process to a centrally managed digital media distribution system.

Tom Ohanian is vice president of product management at Signiant. He is an Academy Award and two-time Emmy Award recipient.