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Garbage In...Considering Content Quality Control

In my last column, I described the initial stages of a five-year project designed to bring traffic and scheduling at PBS in line with the more rigorous demands of a new media world. After a lengthy phase to identify requirements and an exhaustive search for an off-the-shelf package, we came to the painful conclusion that no such package existed and we would be better off writing our new system from scratch.


Anybody who has ever managed complex software development will tell you the best way to negotiate such a large project is to break it into smaller chunks. Introduce changes gradually while you continue to monitor, balance and incorporate developing factors such as industry changes, technological advances and of course, evolving budgetary realities.

With that in mind, we started our development. After much discussion (read "arguing") with our lead consultants about platforms, we made our first set of critical "no going back" decisions and settled on a combination of Windows servers, MS SQL database back-end and the .NET development environment.

I am still amazed at how otherwise intelligent people continue to believe old tales about these platforms even in the presence of massive amounts of information to the contrary. But that's material for another column.

Next we had to decide which portion of the system to tackle first. Since one of the project tenets entailed the creation of a metadata-driven workflow and the use of best practices from supply chain methodologies, we started at the beginning of the content cycle with a system we called "Orion," which appropriately enough means "the breaking forth of light."

This portion of the project focused on the acquisition of program metadata from our producers via a Web interface accessible from our corporate Intranet. It gathers data on upcoming programs and, if properly implemented and used, it enables the automation of the majority of the downstream processes at PBS and, later in the sequence of events, at our member stations.

This brings us to this column's title and one of my biggest pet peeves. A hundred out of 100 people will tell you that the ending to "garbage in" is indeed "garbage out." Yet an enormous number of people in broadcasting believe it is impossible to get content producers to create content that is technically within specifications, delivered in a timely manner and coherent with its own metadata.

While this might be true in a tape-based and real-time environment where you must quality-check every step, it becomes absolutely anathema in a server-based digital file handling and distribution environment.

Lest we forget, the same exact process evolution and reliance on upstream quality control has taken place in every single manufacturing environment throughout the land. Imagine, if you will, a General Motors auto assembly plant that has to check every component of an automobile provided by a third party before it sends it to dealers; or a Mitsubishi factory stopped in its tracks because the tire manufacturer is late on this week's delivery. In these days of razor thin margins and global competition, these companies would be hard-pressed to remain viable.

I would like to believe that these immensely creative people that produce such amazing content would indeed appreciate the elegance associated with the entirely automated workflow that this accuracy would enable. Maybe I am na•ve, but I am convinced that when given the proper tools and education about the substantial efficiencies that their initial and relatively minor effort will bring to bear, producers and distributors will respond in-kind, embrace the concepts and ultimately make them work.

So, after a couple years of development, testing and training, we launched the first iteration of Orion. Although it opened to mixed reviews, over time and with the implementation of user suggestions, Orion became the initial entry point for PBS-distributed, program-related information.

As we prepare to go live with the next iteration of Orion, the stakes will increase again. We are asking content producers to enter frame-accurate metadata and complete distribution rights information, and to have closed captions ready.

Only time will tell if we can get to our ultimate goal, but I can assure you that we are going to continually drive this quest for overall supply chain efficiency throughout our system.

Count on IT!