One Solution Does

There are disclaimers on the EPA average mileage stickers on cars that read "Your mileage may vary." My guess is that's because the places you drive may have more (or fewer) hills than the agency's test route, or that your driving technique might be worse (or better) than that of its test driver.

For the same kinds of reasons, there ought to be a disclaimer from people selling approaches for the transition from an analog to an IT infrastructure. It should say something like "one solution doesn't fit all."

I'm going to use some space this month to pass along some advice given to me by NBA Entertainment, the league-owned operation that produces NBA TV as well as delivers basketball-related material through such channels as video-on-demand, cell phones and the Internet.

NBA Commissioner David Stern charged the NBA with becoming the technology leader in sports. With this in mind, NBA Entertainment built a plant it refers to as the most efficient digital production and distribution facility in sports. Rather than a video house, it is what I think of as an IT facility that happens to move audio and video around.

I've done a pair of stories about NBA Entertainment over the past six months, and in talking with the company's IT and technology people, I've come to understand that you have to have a lot of things in order before you start thinking about equipment.

"You have to approach this as an IT project," said NBA Entertainment senior vice president of technology and operations, Steve Hellmuth. "You've got to have your databases right and your logging information right before you jump into this."

"The way you have to approach this is say 'how does my organization and my process work in my shop? How should my databases be organized? What is my logging information going to be? How is my digital archive going to relate to my physical archive?"

Hellmuth has described his facility as "data-driven," where careful logging of games as they are played gives an accurate location of every basketball shot as well as information about its distance, type of shot and its entertainment value via the timecode. The archive covers nearly 250,000 games, going back to the late 1940s.

"The mistake most broadcasters make is they try to run a DMM [Distributed Multimedia] project in parallel with the installation of the equipment and the gear," he said.

"If you try to run a DMM process in parallel with your editing and your physical hardware, the hardware guys will always outstrip the software guys. In essence, what I'm saying is you have to give your software guys and your database process a head start."

The final hardware piece for NBA's facility will be the digital storage system, which will be installed in time for the 2005-06 basketball season. Storage will then exist on three levels: disk-based storage for immediate access, robotically accessible LTO3 datatapes containing complete game video, and shelved LTO3 tapes for the least used material.

"We started this project five years ago by putting islands out there in our editing world, the logging system, and the editing applications," said Director of NBA Entertainment IT Keith Horstman. The last step "is really just integrating the islands together," and having logging data communicate with storage.

NBA Entertainment is certainly a specialized facility, with its own set of goals and challenges. I think when any facility looks at itself, it will discover it, too, is specialized, with its own set of goal and challenges.

The big challenge I foresee is migrating to a data-driven environment from one based on the physical location of physical media.

While many facilities have a database to help locate a specific story on a specific tape, there's usually a backup in the form of a printed or handwritten list of stories on the tape cassette itself or in the box. Ultimately, these backups are going to disappear and users of the facility will have to rely on the database alone.

This is no small step. Going forward, it relies on real staff discipline to input descriptive data and ensure each day's material can be located in the future. Thankfully, newsroom computers can demand such information as the video moves from the assignment, acquisition, editing, airing and archiving processes.

It is working backwards, descriptively logging archive material as it moves to some kind of digital storage, perhaps datatape, where time, effort and money will be involved. And if there's no commitment to that, you might want to save your money on storage hardware because it ain't a'gonna work without that database.

Recently I was talking with a longtime friend with a Fortune 100 manufacturing company that does a lot of video. I asked about asset management and he told me the company used it for still photographs but not for video.

Why not, I asked?

It's too much trouble and too expensive to do all the logging, he told me. It's cheaper to just hire a crew and go shoot something again if we can't find it.

Unfortunately, a news department can't ask somebody to burn their building down again, so you've got to keep archives and establish a way of navigating through them.