Skip to main content

That DAM Elephant

When somebody says "Digital Asset Management" (DAM), I think of the John Saxe poem about the six blind men of Indostan describing an elephant. If you ask 20 people what the DAM thing is, you'll get 25 different definitions. Different names suggest alternate, sometimes subtle differences in approach: Media Content Management, Media Asset Management, just plain Asset Management, etc.

Depending on your vantage point, it could be anything from a basic storage system that just knows where the programs and the spots are, to a "Knowledge Management System" that catalogs and tracks everything in the company down to the phone logs, emails, and toilet paper.

While it can be a murky and complex subject, the underlying rationales of DAM are simple enough. If you don't know what you've got, where it is, and what rights you have to use it, you can't make a profit from it, and digital networks make it easier to manage digital stuff.

Carol Owens, head of the BBC Media Data Group, put it a bit more formally in a presentation at the last Montreux TV Symposium. "Material on its own" she said, "is valueless without information to identify it--then it becomes 'content.' Content on its own is valueless without the right to use it, indeed it's a liability incurring storage costs...and earning no return. Therefore the media asset is a three-atom molecule of media, data, and rights. Asset management is the process of bringing together these atoms and managing them efficiently...Its aim is the effective re-use of (already created material) in subsequent production and distribution cycles and for commercial exploitation."

If you can quickly find and re-use an existing graphic or clip, you don't have to pay and/or wait to recreate it from scratch. With the right tools, it's easier to resell or repurpose assets digitally, especially if you can deliver them electronically.

All this makes sense. It doesn't sound too difficult. We've got library systems that tell us what we've got and automation systems that tell us where it is. The legal department has the contracts. If we're beyond the Post-It note and file card stage, what's the problem?

The problem is the possibilities. As processing speeds increase and storage costs continue to drop, a multitude of new opportunities beckon. The more material you have on-line, the more metadata (information about the material) you have at your fingertips, the more automated the handling processes are, the more options you've got.

A whole new world gleams in the eyes of asset management gurus. It is one in which everything is digitally captured, cataloged, stored, and linked: not just the original pictures, music, dialog, effects, graphics, outtakes, trims, and all versions of the finished programs, but reams of metadata as well: pre-production notes, scripts, storyboards, EDLs, rights, permissions, royalties, publicity materials, sales data, user histories, and on and on. Once assembled, these digits can be mined for sale and re-use in whole or in part with a fraction of the human effort previously required to find or re-create them. It's a grand world and much of the technology is there, but we haven't exactly reached the shrink-wrap stage. While the promise is real, there are thousands of details to be addressed when you dig beneath the gleam. Few of us can start from scratch. Analog formats must be migrated to digital. Legacy library, traffic, and automation systems must be accommodated. People have to buy into the idea. We can't expect (or afford) humans to enter and re-enter the mountains of data necessary: it must be captured and/or translated automatically.

The rights issues alone (distribution rights, exclusivity rights, usage rights, editing rights, element rights, actor rights, advertising rights, and so on) are so complicated that automated decision making seems impossible. At the moment, perhaps the best we can do with this atom is link to the full text of the appropriate contracts and let humans sort it out. In a way, I guess, it's nice to know humans may still be needed somewhere in the back rooms.

There are literally thousands of individual pieces to be integrated. At first glance, the task is daunting enough to send you back to bed with the covers pulled over your head. But don't despair. There are early adopters who have succeeded, and they have some good advice.

Wendy Aylsworth, vice president of Technology at Warner Bros., has faced these problems. Noting that "It's not rocket science--you just need money," she stressed the value of "small solutions." Start with a small piece of the puzzle where the payoff is clear, and build from there. Many stations have started with news editing and the news archive.

Aylsworth also stressed that we "need interoperability standards. User tools need to move from one DAM system to others." That's particularly true if you're building from separate, smaller projects. Proprietary file formats and data protocols are not a solution, they're a roadblock. Fortunately, there are emerging standards that enable manufacturers to pick up the ball and produce DAM systems which can talk to each other.

SMPTE, EBU, AAF, and the Pro-MPEG forum have developed standards for asset IDs, data coding, file formats, transport interfaces, and metadata definition and handling. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) has formulated vocabularies and standards for the detailed description and cataloging of media, and MPEG-7 is delving deeper in that area to enable such things as non-verbal searches. Nobody wants to re-invent the wheel and wherever possible, the standards bodies in our industry are adopting and referencing the protocols and document structures developed for the Internet by organizations such as the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Just as no single standards body can provide all the answers, no one vendor has a global DAM solution either. There were more than 50 companies at NAB offering pieces for one part or another of the asset management puzzle. One of the largest recent DAM projects has been CNN's Digital News Archive. While IBM and Sony were the principal suppliers of that system, it was built on software and hardware from nearly two dozen vendors according to Sam Shore, vice president, Solutions Consulting, Concadia Solutions, the media management joint venture between Accenture consulting and Sony Electronics.

In a presentation to the recent SMPTE Conference in New York, Shore discussed some of the lessons learned from the three year project. We've already touched on a few of them: No off-the-shelf solution will meet all your needs. Be prepared to compromise your requirements, modify your workflow, or pay for customization. Adopt a standards-based approach. But even if you do, be prepared to implement customized interchange methods because some portion of your data is bound to be proprietary and some field mapping will be required to move data between systems.

Among Shore's other lessons was the admonition that you've got to provide extensive documentation of your workflows, existing systems and data structures, and you must be ready to spend an inordinate amount of time defining and refining the metadata dictionary--first on your own and then with your systems integrator.

Even a perfect dictionary won't protect you against a poorly implemented workflow. If it isn't natural and easy to enter the complete data, it doesn't matter whether the data fields exist or not. Also, no system will be perfect the first time out. Make sure your implementation allows for broad post-entry data manipulation. Global changes, deletions or additions across all portions of the data are essential.

You've also got to understand the consequences of changes after launch. Asset management systems enable new ways of doing things that aren't necessarily apparent until you begin using them. You need to consider what effect changes in the metadata structures of the on-line system will have on cost and productivity. And that leads us to ROI.

At the DAM workshop during the XML Europe 2001 conference in Berlin last May, Sebastian Holst, vice president of Marketing at Artesia Technologies, suggested some steps to define and quantify the ROI for a DAM project. First, he noted that ROI comes primarily from increased productivity and cost reduction. He recommends concentrating on those assets (programs, graphics, file footage...) that promise a high degree of reuse and/or represent branding or unique intellectual property values. Next, using the assets as a guide, determine their relationships with various stake holders (engineering, operations, production, news, art, sales...) over their lifecycle. Look for clusters of re-use, redundant workflows, and other processes that could be optimized or automated. Then, map the "before" and "after." Re-assess processes that are asset-centric.

Contrast detailed scenarios of how things are done now with how they might be done. Concentrate on areas where re-use replaces re-creation, self-help replaces human support, digital distribution replaces shipping, transportation, and travel. Finally, do the math. Will you save time and avoid legal hassles tracking down and validating rights, and what is that worth? How much can you save by eliminating duplication? What does electronic distribution save over the way you're doing things now? Can you develop new revenue streams from old material? And, of course, beyond the implementation costs, where will you need additional staff and services to support the new digital systems? Reinforcing the last point, Aylsworth said, "As with much in the digital world, the maintenance costs sometimes outweigh the benefit of the operational savings."

The basic conclusion seems to be that there are advantages to be had, but approach Digital Asset Management systems with your eyes wide open. As Shore said, "By all means undertake the deployment of an asset management system...but don't underestimate the complexity of the entire project and the importance of...metadata within the overall solution."