Technology in Transition: Media asset management systems

Media asset management systems

This issue we complete a four-part series on station automation. We have looked at station automation, newsroom automation, data archive systems and, in this issue, media asset management systems.

In the simplest view, broadcasters have always had media asset management of some form. Any form of cataloging assets and keeping track of where they can be found could qualify as a media asset management system (MAM). A card file at a library is an asset management system, and so on. Media assets are no different in reality except that they are often stored now in ways that are not easily obtainable.

Media assets have some characteristics in common with any class of assets. They may be tagged with a name or title, the date they were created, and a host of other information. The asset management system keeps track of all of those pieces of information and makes them accessible for the various purposes one might require.

In the case of media assets, one might need to move them to a location where they can be stored for a long time without damage and then later moved to a location where they can be played into a station's air signal.

The difference between media assets and other classes of physical assets is that it is important to think of the number of instances of the asset. As an example, you might have a car spot recorded on videotape, in the air server, on a backup or mirrored server, or in a long-term archive like I discussed in the last issue. In addition, that same spot might be stored in other instances with a local tag. This gives rise to a parent-to-child relationship, which is very important even though the new instance is stored under a different name.

Production footage has the longest heritage of such relationships, beginning with camera originals, protection copies (often cloned), perhaps a copy downconverted from an HD master, the production intermediates, edited masters, protection and air copies, and so on. Each instance of an individual shot might well be tracked all the way to the camera original, which might be a can of film negative. Keeping track of the information about the content has become the job of metadata.

When an asset management system stores the content, or essence, it also stores the metadata related to the content so you can find the specific asset you are looking for at any point in the future. The MAM system is a database that keeps all of the information in a logical form and allows you to manage the movement and keep track of the use of the content as well.

A news operation might, for instance, have the right to use content only once and thus would need to track the parent-child relationship as the pictures purchased are used in finished stories. This specific type of data is often handled by a rights management system, which might be accessed for other purposes, but has to be linked to the MAM system to ensure the essence still exists and how it has been used.

The MAM system is sometimes part of an interrelated system for browsing the content using a proxy copy made when the media is first entered into the MAM database. Though this function can be entirely separate, the browse system is usually closely linked to the MAM database (usually providing key bits of metadata, like scene descriptions and automatically detected scene changes). Browse systems can sometimes act as simple MAM systems, allowing content to be added to or deleted from the MAM database, though not usually controlling the location and use of the media.

The MAM system is usually not the physical keeper of the essence. It does, however, normally manage where the content is kept. Take the case of a server system with a backup and a near-line archive, like a data robot. The automation system is told by traffic that a spot is needed for air. If it doesn't find it on the server, it queries the MAM system if any instances of the spot exist and if so asks that it be moved to the air server.

It might be found on the backup server, or on the archive, in which case the content is moved to the air server, perhaps without the operations staff ever knowing the process has happened in the background.

It might, however, find that it is on the shelf on a data tape. In that case the MAM system must report back that physical action is required to load the tape before the process can be completed. If it is not found in the MAM database in a form ready for use it might request that the copy on videotape be loaded (mounted) so a copy can be made (dubbed) on the server. All of those actions take multiple steps.

The system is queried to see if the asset exists, if it is the right version and so forth. It has to find the instances of the spot and decide which one is the most appropriate to report back on.

MAM systems are usually under control of the archive robot, often acting as the gatekeeper deciding what assets are moved from the active library to the near-line or offline storage.

Some MAM systems are purchased once and no annual fees are required, though annual maintenance contracts are strongly suggested. Others are licensed and not owned by the user, and the fee is calculated on the basis of the amount of content currently under management.

One system introduced in the last 12 months actually has physical access to the essence itself, making a copy on its own disk drives to allow the media to be cached and written to more than one archive at a time. At the same time the system converts the MPEG-2 file to MPEG-4 for browsing.

Implementing a MAM system is a complex process requiring thoughtful setup and rigorous management. It can, however, be the link between simple use and the ability to repurpose content for many other uses, allowing a user to develop a rich library of content without losing track of what begat what.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development for AZCAR. To reach him

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