Workflow's Disruptive Process

JOHNSTON, IOWA—One of the most frustrating things for me to write about in the Journal is the subject of workflow. Don't get me wrong, understanding workflow is a crucially important component in making an operation efficient and sustainable.

My frustration comes from my experience that, in the digital world, smooth workflow only lasts until one of the component systems within the overall system receives an update. The seemingly minor changes within the updated system propagate throgh the overall operation, disrupting the workflow. I guess it is just the nature of the beast and I need to accept it, but there are times when it drives me crazy, not only for the repetitive work it creates but also for the circular reasoning that is used to justify the issue.

As an example, here at Iowa Public Television we are working on an archiving project. We have some 35,000 hours of material in our current library. Much of it is on analog video tape, one-inch type C, every flavor of Beta, three-quarter-inch U-matic, and even some 16mm film. We keep the material in a controlled environment so the condition of the tape is still quite good despite the age. However, the machines required to play back the content are a different story, especially the U-matic and type C machines. So getting material off of the tape into our digital archive is crucial, not because of the age of the tape but the availability of the machines to play it back.

Another factor in moving to an archive is to improve the access and availability of the material. There are some amazingly interesting items captured in our library but finding them is a challenge. If we are going to maximize the value of the migration to a digital archive, then improving the interface between the existing digital workflow and the archive is extremely important. This brings me back to my frustration and my concern regarding digital workflow. I sometimes view this process as organizing annual reunions for a close but dysfunctional family... you get everything sorted out and running smoothly and the next year someone gets a divorce and remarries and the system is disrupted again.


So my research starts from the fundamental belief that managing the media within the system is the key. The premise is that regardless of file format, resolution, channels of audio and other characteristics of the essence, the management layer has to know where everything is and what its makeup is so that users can find it and when they desire to use it, the appropriate resources are used to conform and constrain it to the needs of the end user. In an ideal world, the end user would merely see that the element they are interested in is available and the path that is used to bring it to them for use would include all of the appropriate steps necessary to adapt it for them.

Recently I was reading a white paper regarding management of media in this type of environment, "Broadcast Media Management in a Data-centric Workflow" by Greg Doyle of SGI. I always try and go into these things with an open mind but I have been in the business so long that sometimes my historical memory causes me momentary blowouts. As a for instance, I am reading the abstract for a paper that is explaining why the media management is needed in this digital workflow. One of the rationalizations is the connection of "previously incompatible video-centric islands" in facilities.

Now I remember installing digital equipment in many video-centric facilities. Time base correctors made the video output of video tape machines stable; frame synchronizers made remote video feeds usable within a facility. Digital still stores replaced 35mm slide chains and digital character generators and graphics made camera cards and magnet boards go away. 2D and 3D digital video effects let us manipulate video in wondrous ways.

The one thing all of these digital devices had in common was they were compatible with the video-centric world in which they were installed. The incompatibility didn't really start until we started trying to move files from one digital device to another. So the real issue then is not the video-centric system but the file-centric system. The first step in fixing a problem is correctly identifying the cause.


Another interesting item raised in the paper was the concept of a "heterogeneous file system. " If something is heterogeneous, it is made up of dissimilar or varying elements. The concept therefore is that media files, regardless of their makeup, would be stored in what appears to be a common storage area. All of your MPEG, AVI, QuickTime, etc. files are stored in a single repository that is universally available to your editors, producers, directors, promotions people and so on. As stated earlier, my fundamental belief is that the management of the media is the key to a stable and successful workflow and a heterogeneous file system would seem to be a significant portion of the answer.

In the real world however, things are never quite that simple. The fact that a file system can store and recall files regardless of their format is pretty trivial when compared to the concept of using those files to create a new blended piece of content. To make the work actually flow, the media management layer needs to understand and deal with the properties of the content, the constraints of the system, or systems being used to access and manipulate the content, and the vision of the end user for the finished product. As long as an upgrade on a subsystem still disrupts or disables the performance of the overall system, we still have a long way to go in realizing the promises of file-based workflow.

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television. He can be reached via TV Technology.

Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa PBS, has been at the forefront of broadcast TV technology for 40 years, 23 of them at Iowa PBS. He’s served as president of IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, is a Partnership Board Member of the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) and has contributed extensively to SMPTE and ATSC.  He is a recipient of Future's 2021 Tech Leadership Award.