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Securing content

In the professional media industry, one fact is clear: Everything we do is about getting content to viewers, wherever they may be. The end goal, of course, is to make money off of this transaction. Clearly, if we do not have content or our content is compromised in some way, then this transaction breaks down, with serious financial consequences for the media companies involved.

This fundamental equation drives everything we do: CONTENT + VIEWERS = $$$. That is why you see the film and music industries constantly struggling with new technologies and opportunities that threaten this model. The issue of content piracy is vast, encompassing technology, legal and moral issues. Because of space constraints, we are going to have to take a different tact in this column. We are going to limit our discussion to what a broadcaster can do to ensure that content is always available, thus ensuring the success of the equation above. Specifically, in terms of securing content, what can the average broadcaster do? What steps can a broadcaster take to ensure that content is available when it is needed (not missing) and that content is not copied or stolen?

Where is the real problem?

I would posit that when it comes to content theft, broadcasters are not the problem. Why? Because, with a few exceptions, by the time most broadcasters have access to content, it has already been released by content creators in other domains, be it theater, DVD or through high-quality Internet distribution. Ten years ago, this might not have been the case, but now theft of content from broadcast facilities is the least of content producers’ worries. Before the advent of HD and commodity, high-quality consumer storage and viewing devices, broadcasters had access to content that could be extremely high-quality — and they still do. What is different now is that everyone has access to this same, high-quality content. If we are talking about securing content, and theft from broadcast facilities is not a major industry concern, then exactly what are the problems that broadcasters face in this area?

Chiefly, the biggest area of concern for broadcasters is ensuring that content is secured so that it is always available when needed. As such, the challenge is to secure content in a way to ensure that it is not accidentally erased, moved, lost or otherwise unavailable when on-air time arrives. Most vendors already provide solutions to this problem, which usually come with a price. Let’s look at this more closely.

It is important to keep a big-picture view in mind when thinking about securing content. There are many options open to the broadcaster, and as I said, almost all have associated costs. So, it is good to constantly ask whether the cost involved in a particular solution is justified by the risk of a loss of content. It may not be necessary to have every content system backed up; it may not be necessary to provide high availability on all computer networks in your facility.

Figure 1. As the air date approaches, options decrease and costs increase in order to replace lost content.

As Figure 1 shows, another way to think about the worth of cost to secure content is to look at what your options are at any given time in the broadcast process, and what the cost to replace lost content is at that stage. Consider a commercial.

When a commercial order is placed, copy instructions (instructions thatdescribe when and how commercials should air) are forwarded to the broadcaster. About the same time, commercial content arrives at the station. If the content fails to arrive or is faulty in some way, there are a number of options for replacing it, and the cost of those options can be low. However, as time goes by, the number of options narrows, and the cost of the remaining options increases.

For example, early in the process, content might be replaced simply by sending another copy of the commercial by mail. However, later in the process, you might have to use overnight delivery or a satellite feed. Ultimately, if the commercial cannot be replaced, the cost of the lost content is equal to the selling price of the commercial air time. Once the time has passed, no amount of money can bring it back. Naturally, it makes sense to spend more money to ensure the security of the content as it gets closer to air.

Steps to take

There are specific steps you can take to ensure content security:

  • Know your infrastructure inside and out. You cannot understand what your options are regarding ensuring content is available when you need it if you do not have people on staff who understand your infrastructure well. This includes having people who understand how vendor products such as automation systems and servers work. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in broadcast facilities to cut technical staff, but it is difficult to ensure content security if you do not have good technical people.
  • Study systems and architectures so you know what your options are. You should not only understand how your facility operates, you also should seek out opportunities to learn about other facilities and architectures. Visit other facilities, and attend local SMPTE, SBE or other broadcast forums where you can learn what others are doing about ensuring content security.
  • Establish architecture patterns based on system designs that work well. Once you have looked at your own facility and studied other facilities to determine what works best, seek to establish architectural patterns — reusable templates for system designs. Needless to say, these templates should be proven designs that work for your organization. Take the time to not only educate your staff, but also to explain the benefits of these patterns to others in your company, business and financial people, for example. When you have buy-in from a large number of people, these patterns can simplify decision-making.
  • Ensure that you have a range of patterns with different levels of protection and cost. As discussed above, you will need a range of designs. Not everything needs to be completely redundant. Not every system needs RAID storage. Plus, it is not possible to justify the unnecessary costs of employing these systems everywhere in your facility. Be prepared with a variety of designs that allow flexibility in the amount of content security provided. Remember, at some points, content security may be as simple as dropping a tape in the mail.
  • Study and actively discourage architectural anti-patterns. Surely you have seen (and maybe participated in) designs that should not be repeated. These are called anti-patterns. Study any failures of content security, and when you find something wrong, do not just fix it. Instead, actively discourage that design from ever being used again at that point in your content chain.
  • Understand what high availability means, and that high availability does not have to mean high cost. In this context, high availability in content security means that content is always available when and where you need it. Put simply, when you are close to air, content must be available. Period. There are some expensive solutions that do provide reliable systems. But, in some cases, two lower-reliability systems and a suitable changeover design might provide a cheaper high-availability solution compared to a single system designed to be extremely reliable. For example, consider disk drives. In some special applications, you can purchase specially manufactured disk drives that have high MTBF. Those drives could be put into a RAID array. Of course, you could then mirror multiple arrays to ensure the same content is stored on more than one RAID device. However, after this, you might end up with a storage solution that costs thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars. And, because of chained dependencies, it actually has a lower availability (due to design complexity) than a simple two-disk mirror with an LTO tape backup. Be sure you do not get caught down in the weeds and lose sight of the larger high-availability picture.
  • Continuously review systems and options. Technology is moving so fast, and capabilities of consumer devices are increasing at such a fantastic pace that you can never come up with a set of solutions for your broadcast facility and then take a year off. Continue evaluating designs and technologies that improve content security. Look for the tipping point at which it makes sense to replace systems or change your approach due to improved technology.

Brad Gilmer is President of Gilmer & Associates, Inc., executive director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association and executive director of the Video Services Forum.