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Content exchanges

The global economic crisis has had some interesting effects on the media business, one of which is the continuing decentralization of many production and post-production processes that have traditionally been handled in-house. Driven to reduce costs and empowered by newly digital, file-based workflows, large media companies are increasingly outsourcing functions such as editing and language dubbing/subtitling to freelancers and small “mom-and-pop” outfits — many of whom are highly specialized and geographically dispersed. The ability to exchange high-value media assets securely and efficiently with business partners outside the enterprise has always been important, but the task has become more complicated as these boutique enterprises join the workflow.

A complex world

In the old days of international distribution, conversion from NTSC to PAL or some other video format might have been all that was required for international playout, and language was not a large consideration. Today, media companies must not only contend with international video standards conversions but also the requirement to distribute the content in many different languages, in HD and (in some cases) 3-D as well as SD, and in formats to support a dizzying array of new platforms and services such as mobile devices and pad computers, video on demand, etc.

In order to prep so many different flavors of a single title, content owners must involve larger numbers of outside partners and vendors, many of whom might be working with their own subcontractors. Because so many more people have to touch this highly valuable intellectual property to get it into its final form, security becomes a much larger and more complex proposition.

Content exchanges are further complicated by the increased size of the files required to traverse the network, with “super HD” formats such as 1080p50/60 and 3-D becoming more common. Working in these new formats often requires moving files that are two to 10 times the size of SD, a prospect that can bring traditional corporate networks and FTP systems to their knees. With multiple, tight distribution windows to meet in order to maximize profits for a new title, content owners can't afford the delays and missed deadlines that might result from having to restart a download over from the beginning, or a transfer that slows the network to a crawl and jeopardizes other communications.

So they fall back on their comfort zone: tape. As hard as large media companies and major studios are trying to move to completely file-based, tapeless operations, many still rely on videotape to move content to and from vendors and subcontractors. There are two great problems with this continued dependence on physical media. First is the requirement to build extra time into the workflow for the customs hassles, inevitable delays and potential for loss that is inherent in any overseas shipment. The second problem, as ironic as it seems, is security. Thanks to a spate of highly publicized network security breaches, many organizations have well-justified concerns about trusting their valuable assets to an unsecured network. But the reality is that valuable video assets are far safer in an electronic exchange than they are when shipped on physical media that can be easily hijacked in transit.

Towards content exchange Nirvana

The good news is the latest developments in content supply chain management (CSCM) software designed specifically for connecting large enterprises with smaller workgroups or vendors. The most advanced CSCM systems specifically address all of the inherent challenges of file-based, business-to-business content exchanges by providing a highly managed infrastructure for rapid and reliable content transfers, with enterprise-class security based on a B2B content peering model. These systems offer all of the benefits, and none of the expense, of a private dedicated network — but use the public Internet.

A CSCM system designed for ad-hoc file exchanges between media organizations and their outsourcing partners should be browser-based and enable users to exchange content with other users, systems and applications regardless of location or the size of the digital assets. Also — and important for small, boutique service providers with no IT department — the system should offer a simple Web user interface with minimal client software or server software at all to install and maintain. In addition, it should offer network flexibility to accommodate a mobile work style. For example, a contractor working from one location can begin a download, then pause it and move to another wireless location. Instead of having to start the download all over, the system picks up where it left off even if the computer is now connected to a different network. The transfer is seamless and secure, regardless of file size.

Finally, the ideal CSCM system should offer the ability to add some degree of automation to the exchange, for maximum security and efficiency. For example, the media company could specify that all files coming in from 39 vendors be virus scanned and QC'd before going into the server, or that certain vendors' output be transcoded to specified formats.

To summarize, CSCM enables media companies to electronically send files of any size at light speed to their vendors and get the amended versions back without causing so much as a hiccup in the production schedule. Companies can do these exchanges with even their smallest, least technically sophisticated vendors, and they have the assurance that their files will arrive safely without any risk of piracy or other digital security breaches.

Rick Clarkson is vice president, product management for Signiant.