The future is now

Broadcasters are using innovative approaches to keep pace with today’s digital world.

As we enter the second decade of this new century, it is a time of tremendous change for the media and entertainment industry in general, and networks and broadcasters in particular. We have all witnessed the challenges presented by today's economic climate, migrations in audience consumption patterns and the movement from “dollar to dime” content.

What is required now, even more than ever, is a focus on new ways to enhance business models and to optimize and revitalize core operations in order to respond to a more complex marketplace. With an approach focused on three areas — open, standards-based platforms; streamlined workflows; and new business intelligence — the industry is addressing a rapidly changing market while pursuing new cost savings and revenue opportunities.

The challenge: Shifting consumption patterns

Consumers are adopting and using new multimedia devices at an accelerating pace. Based on recent IBM research, 30 percent of consumers now own a smartphone, 58 percent an HDTV, 54 percent a game console, 25 percent a portable game player and 45 percent a portable video player. Commensurate with this device adoption, new Web, mobile and on-demand video services are experiencing substantial growth. Our survey reports 38 percent of U.S. users have watched video on an ad-supported online site like Hulu, 25 percent do so at least a few times a month, and 40 percent have watched video on demand on their television. Close to 20 percent have watched video through a mobile phone or portable video device, and more than 40 percent of consumers desire the ability to port content from one device to another. All of this adds up to more content, more devices, scarce consumption time and the resulting audience fragmentation.

Industry players are in this battle for attention often supported by technology and hardened workflows that were optimized for an era when content was prepared for a single distribution topology and a broad audience. While this approach enabled and even propelled the analog age, it has left many firms with siloed, tightly-coupled and often inflexible custom systems that are costly to maintain and difficult to change. In the media industry's new reality — with its welter of devices, platforms and applications — standards-based IT can enable firms to more efficiently and cheaply connect to assets and services both inside and outside the organization. A smarter, more intelligent, instrumented and interconnected world of media is emerging.

One of the hallmarks of the new digital age is agility. To command audience attention, industry players have to understand ever-changing segments, usage patterns and device preferences. Content may still be king, but media firms now have to respond to the context — where, when and how — in which consumers want content. Consumers are empowered to act as their own programmers and directors. Advertisers are also seeking value for their advertising spending. Changes in CPMs, audience size and cross channel reach are tilting the field against established business models.

In addressing this dynamic market, broadcasters are using a more open framework to improve flexibility while simultaneously reducing operating costs. They are deploying systems that can understand consumer behaviors and tools that can provide better control of and real-time views into business processes. This allows for more efficient deployment of scarce resources in order to seize opportunities as they arise.

The opportunity: Greater business flexibility

These trend lines all point toward a more horizontal architecture where information can flow bidirectionally across business units and with business partners as well as consumers. In this enhanced enterprise architecture, data is not confined to a single destination or use but is harvested to inform the holistic organization. This approach can allow core production and distribution processes, back-office systems, and customer-facing content Web sites and platforms to work in a more integrated manner. And, importantly, it allows data, metadata and content to flow more efficiently among loosely-coupled applications that serve the various parts of the business. Additional benefits are being realized by deploying enterprise collaboration, analytics and reporting solutions to improve team communications, streamline workflows and provide more visibility into business processes.

An important step in this direction is deploying open standards-based software like service-oriented architecture (SOA) middleware. An SOA approach can abstract applications from the underlying server and storage infrastructure and make them capabilities, or business services, that are uncoupled from specific hardware architecture. This can allow firms to deploy new capabilities quicker and reduce the challenge of untangling custom systems. In this more open environment, companies are also benefiting from a broader set of application choices, enabling them to pick vendor applications and tools that best reflect their business model and specific workflow needs, and move away from a world where limited application choices often dictated format and function.

However, in order to achieve the value that SOA can deliver, the interface standards for these common media business services need to evolve. In response to this requirement, new open source standards are beginning to emerge. The goal is to reduce the integration effort required to assemble composite business processes by providing more standard Web service interfaces. Work is now underway in both the Advanced Media Workflow Association and the EBU to support this approach. This will allow software vendors to have a set of interface standards akin to those used by broadcast hardware vendors. By adopting this standards-based, modular approach to workflow — and this abstraction of business services — media firms are gaining more flexibility, speed and adaptability to compete in today's challenging environment.

A related design requirement for this transformation is automation. To achieve the desired economics — expressed essentially as the average unit cost of production for a piece of content — we need to further streamline and automate production and distribution workflows. (See Figure 1 on page 38.) A media-intelligent architectural framework that understands data in three forms — transaction data, metadata and the content essence itself — is key. This can help deliver a more dynamic and flexible workflow that incorporates rules-based decision making with fewer manual interventions.

With today's technology, business rules can be created that let the architecture do much more of the work. Data on how efficiently processes are working can be harvested and published to dashboards that allow executives to see what's going on and determine where they stand at any moment across a number of fronts. They can receive instant status updates on campaign management, spot make-goods, sales force leaders and laggards, and program availability. And, they can also determine whether infrastructure resources, like transcoding, are running at peak loads or sitting largely unused. Having access to this level of intelligence means they can use content and advertising more efficiently, and support movement across channels to optimize inventory on new channels like the Web and mobile.

Clearly, a transformation of this sort isn't only about technology. It's about culture, skills, union rules, personnel policies, individual responsibilities, dealings with partners and vendors, and much, much more. It's also, importantly, about a marketplace shift. The reality is that historically, the broadcast industry has largely been served by many specialty vendors whose R&D budgets were largely funded by the broadcast industry alone. As such, the rate of innovation of products and service offerings was gated by this limitation and the pace of transformation ultimately dependent on the collective broadcast industry spending.

However, with general-purpose technology now able to provide the requisite performance and robustness, the broadcast industry is availing itself of the best applicable technology from the much broader IT industry. We are seeing how this broader R&D spending is providing real advantages for broadcasters. The Linear Tape-Open (LTO) consortium is an example of a standards-based, multivendor approach to data tape storage. With the announcement of LTO 5 support for dual partition tape cartridges, workflows that have previously been restricted to disk or flash memory can now be extended to LTO. As the resolution and archiving demands of the industry grow, broadcasters can leverage the price, performance and density advancements that data tape storage provides without the complexity or proprietary encumbrances previously accompanying videotape-based approaches.

A three-faceted approach

Three key focus areas are emerging. First, optimizing operations and infrastructure to reduce costs (a shared, virtualized infrastructure of servers, storage and data tape — powered by fast file systems and orchestrated by systems management software) is allowing media firms to pool and deploy resources more efficiently. It is also allowing firms to select tools commensurate with the workflow, purpose and intent. An example is editing. Instead of a single editorial platform, broadcasters are capitalizing on multiple editing tools sharing a common infrastructure. This allows firms to use high-end resources for high-value content while optimizing more simplified tools for lower complexity workflows. This virtualized approach can also be extended to incorporate emerging capabilities like cloud computing — where the on-premise infrastructure is augmented by remote infrastructure and services delivered over the Internet.

The second focus area is the horizontal workflow capability engendered by SOA middleware. As already discussed, this allows for integration of workflows across the business. Most importantly, it allows applications to be “snapped together” and, as needs change, to be unsnapped and reassembled into new forms. This unbundling of application functions is a key element of a more flexible media organization.

The third focus area involves using enhanced analytics and decision support tools to derive more insight. To achieve this, companies are extracting more data from workflows and cleansing and standardizing it so they can get a better view of what's actually happening with content, advertising and more. Crucially, this allows for a more holistic view of operations such as licensing, business agreements, and how content may be used or exploited. This enhanced data flow is enabling executives to make more informed decisions sooner, and to get more out of their resources — both human and technology.

To continue this transformation, there are several steps that broadcasters are taking:

  • Assessing legacy infrastructure, pooling assets and creating a roadmap for optimization. This often involves virtualization of resources and evolving infrastructures toward a more standards-based architecture. There are now many good marketplace examples of the benefits of end-to-end file-based workflow and using IT in lieu of specialized media platforms.
  • Uncovering what workflow exists today and determining what the key inhibitors are to responding to evolving business requirements — costs, redundant format transforms, manual processes, rigid technologies, etc.
  • Focusing on unique value. This includes achieving strategic objectives and serving multiple audiences across mulitple channels while securing cost advantages and capitalizing on opportunities to differentiate.
  • Outlining the path forward. Developing a roadmap can help broadcasters get to a more dynamic business framework with clear metrics of success and a focus on what internal tranformations and external partners are required.

Clearly, the future is now.

Steven Canepa is general manager, IBM Global Media and Entertainment Industry.