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Coping With Content’s Complexities

As content distribution channels continue to expand in the United States and abroad, the business of formatting and delivering that content has become an increasingly complex minuet. As vice president of media and content delivery for Scripps Networks Interactive, Chuck Hurst and his team bring together broadcast operations, IT and affiliate sales, making sure Scripps’s content is delivered to the correct distributor in the correct format at the correct time. Multichannel News contributor K.C. Neel spoke with Hurst about the intricacies involved in that daily dance.

MCN: What part of the business do you oversee at Scripps?

Chuck Hurst: I am responsible for all of our enterprise media management, videos, still images, recipes, closed captions and all the distribution to our business partners for those products. That includes our own digital group, as well as external partners that we engage with to provision and display our video.

MCN: How do your distribution contracts today differ from a couple of years ago, and how is content delivered and stored through your unit?

CH: One of the biggest changes in the industry is the advent of IT-distributed content, whether that’s over-the-top, whether that’s sell-through to entities like iTunes, or whether that’s SVOD like Amazon.

That next-day demand for multiplatform distribution has forced us to increase our network. We’ve also had to increase our storage and we’ve had to go out and get transcoding resources. Even our transfer capability — the ability to push that content out to all of our providers — has forced us to increase all [our IT resources].

Let me give you an example: In 2006, we were pushing out about 200 hours of content a year. Last year, we pushed out 30,000 hours of content. And the quality of video that’s going out the door today has dramatically increased.

The other big change that has come out of that has been in our business processes. Broadcast has always been king — and it still is, by the way — but the digital side of the house has become equally mission-critical. There’s a real natural partnership between broadcast operations, IT and a content sales organization in the way we deliver that content in the timeframe we do.

MCN: How do you break down the business unit silos of IT, broadcast engineering, affiliate relations? What do have to do to make sure everyone is on the same page?

CH: Customer expectations are forcing that integration of business functions, because you can’t satisfy those expectations with a single group.

[For example] our affiliate group is responsible for content distribution deals and they deal not only with the [traditional multichannel distributor] affiliates, they deal with iTunes and Amazon and the other providers we choose to exhibit our content.

The broadcast operations group — who are really the experts on video quality, video handling and the video formats we need to have — needed to reach into the IP-delivered world. The affiliate group has done a great job of engaging with us as they get deals. They bring them in, we evaluate the technical specifications, we talk about the metadata, we talk about the video spec and we come back to them with recommendations for changes to the ways that we can make this work. And that has been a very effective cycle for us.

MCN: I get the impression the content requirements and the way content is delivered to various new distributors — Netflix, Amazon, Apple — varies. Is that the case?

CH: Yes, and in some cases, wildly. The current digital distribution market is very dynamic. The broadcast market has a relatively fixed set of deliverables, but that’s not true in the digital world. There is also a constant escalation of the quality and everyone wants a slightly different flavor of the video. So even if they all want Apple protocols, they want different features or they might have a different bumper or trailer. It’s very hard to get standards, even internally, as we look across the providers. We’ve had to stitch together commercial applications, custom applications and integrate those together to give us a very flexible, dynamic environment where we can make changes right away. We’re supporting around 22 different receivers right now. That will probably grow to be about 26 by the end of the year and each one of them will be a relatively different product.

MCN: Are there outside IT applications that you can purchase or subscribe to that help you with all of that?

CH: Certainly, there is a growing body of providers that will entirely outsource your media preparation. There is a real cost tradeoff on that because those obviously are not cheap resources to employ. Our IT group has fit in with our media operations group and our broadcast operations group to create an automated workflow while reducing the manual intervention we have to do to get content out the door.

MCN: How are you storing all this data? How many hours are you storing right now? Are you using the cloud to store your product?

CH: Well, hours and bytes are different. From an hours perspective, let’s say episodes, I think we’re about 45,000 episodes of standard def and somewhere around 20,000 hours of high-definition video. And then you add onto that some of the digital flavors that we store.

In terms of bytes, we’re sitting at about 1.3 Petabytes of digital storage for our video archive. That will probably grow this year to about 2 PB. And that’s all on an internal disk we store here inside our own data center facility.

We use cloud storage in a very limited aspect right now. We have a rotating set of assets we take up to the cloud for a particular job and then bring those down. So we really have only about 60 Terabytes of storage on the cloud right now. Cloud storage will grow, but right now, all of our storage is pretty much internal.

MCN: What will it take to transition to cloud storage and what are its advantages?

CH: We can still expand with the internal system we have in place right now. Still, the cloud and the cloud infrastructure are an integral part of what we want to do in the future. I expect we will maintain hybrid operations, meaning we’ll do operations both internally and in the cloud and then add some level of synchronization back and forth for that.

The big driver for the cloud is certainly going to be time to market. There are some things you can just do more rapidly in the cloud. We could transcode the entire archive to a new flavor that we want to use, or carve off part of that collection for a new opportunity overseas. Global access is a big driver for using the cloud.

Certainly, cost is a challenge right now. Trying to move up a 2-PB archive into the cloud is going to be expensive. And it’s going to be an operating expense, as opposed to a capital investment, which hits your bottom line in the year you spend that.

MCN: How do you measure success? What does that mean for your unit?

CH: Whether you are in broadcast operations, IT or digital, you really have to measure yourself against the business metrics that your business partner is being held to. For us, that’s been a conversation around on-time delivery, making sure that we meet all the contractual obligations. It’s also about cost: What’s the actual cost for us to deliver an hour to an end provider and end user? It’s been a refreshing conversation and it’s forced the IT team to examine their processes and the way they measure themselves.

MCN: What’s the biggest challenge for you going forward? What does your business look like in 18 months from now?

CH: The biggest challenge for any IT group right now is the tremendous amount of pressure to respond more quickly to the business opportunities coming in the door and to be able to operate more efficiently. There is continual pressure to respond to the market and deal with the changes that are needed but, at the same time, stay within your budget and head count.

So where are we going to be 18 months from now? It’s obvious viewer fragmentation is an ongoing issue in the industry. There are more ways every day for people to consume video. That means more platforms, more formats, more delivery cycles to get out there. We must also remain focused on our brand and on quality. It’s going be a real challenge to continue standing out in the market because there are so many different sources of information. And there is certainly a technology component to in the way people find us, how they see us, and what they associate us with.