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Managing the digital future

Broadcasters and cable operators have always known their content has value. The question is, how can they fully exploit the value they have in video libraries with thousands of hours of content? The best way to access that potential revenue stream requires a move to digital operations and an asset-management system. And the potential payoff is making the technological investment a logical one.

Despite the promise, software and hardware vendors involved in digital asset management have not found it an easy sell. For one thing, not every station or cable operator has figured out how it wants to handle its content going forward.

"Buying into asset management lock, stock and barrel can be very dangerous if you don't have a particular problem you're trying to solve," says Dave Girouard, senior vice president, products and services, for archiving-software provider Virage. "Modest steps driven by business needs work best. Many broadcasters have spent a lot of time and money assessing the asset-management market. The leaders in the pack have looked at their own operation, chosen a problem or opportunity to start with, and found technology solutions to address the issue quickly."

Providing the means for multiple users to locate and access assets within the same facility or remotely is crucial and requires implementing sophisticated database systems that manage content stored as digital files within a server system. In larger media companies, these servers are digitally connected to a room full of videotapes cataloged with bar-code numbers.

Many professionals believe that this hybrid approach will be the most attractive approach for the foreseeable future. "You have to establish a system whereby the elements that are most valuable or most popular can be accessed from a file server while older or less desirable material can live on tape until it's needed," says Gordon Castle, senior vice president of CNN's Technology division.

CNN has embarked on a multiyear, $20 million project that will convert more than 150,000 hours of videotape from the past 21 years into a digital archive. This will offer better protection for CNN's footage and make it more easily accessible to CNN journalists worldwide.

And the footage keeps coming in. Last year, the cable news network archived about 30,000 hours of news footage.

Sony's Systems Solutions division was tapped to help CNN implement the project. As the system comes online, internal CNN users can access digital video, audio, graphics and text files from their desktops.

Sometime in the future, users from the public are expected to have access to clips as well. Television producers and consumers will be able to search the archive and all areas of production, providing CNN with a new source of revenue from its archive material. Clips will be viewable from a desktop in a low-resolution format and available for use or purchase.

A key part of the solution is the Sony PetaSite, a large robotic data tape-based library system from Sony. It stores all of the digital material and related metadata. IBM is providing its Media Production Suite of database, media-management applications, and middleware software to organize the material. The result is a media-asset-management production system that can ingest material, catalog, manage, and store it and offer search and browse functionality as well as simple editing features.

When Castle started the project about five years ago, virtually no products were available that met CNN's needs, so his design engineers combined different technologies from Ascential Software (formerly Informix), IBM, SGI and Virage to create their own system called Media Source.

CNN also set up a content-management system for its Web-based properties. It allows staffers to write stories, produce Web pages, and distribute content in one process. The system is being used to send content to cell phones and pagers, two businesses in which Castle says CNN sees great potential.

"When we started thinking about this, there were very few people we could turn to for guidance," Castle adds, explaining that the Media Source system will be in daily use beginning next year. "There are many players, but people should do some research before they commit to one technology. We feel the best strategy is to put in place a diverse system that offers flexibility to work the way your company wants to work."

Beyond marketing

The term asset management
has become a marketing hook that can mean many things. But the basic concept is easy to grasp. An asset-management system can be broken into three areas: the backend, middleware and ingestion. Once the system is implement, digital assets are available to a wide-area network as low-resolution images for browsing. When a file is selected, the physical master tape or digital file can then be accessed.

At the backend of a facility, there's a video-server farm and the videotape (or data tape) library from companies such as Ampex, Concurrent, Leitch, Grass Valley Group, nCube, Pinnacle Systems, SeaChange, SGI, Sony and others. The library holds the files and distributes them as directed.

The servers are designed to fit a wide array of storage needs while improving both production work flow and fulfillment activities that allow restricted access to content from the outside world. These clips could be moving video or a still frame.

"In terms of the content companies that we work with which want to increase the value of what they own, digital file servers are helping them organize and monetize their material in a multitude of ways," says Louise Ledeen, senior manager at SGI's Media Industries division.

SGI's Studio Central, an asset-management server based on the company's Origin computer, is being used by Viacom in New York, where digital files are repurposed routinely for that company's many media properties. This continuity among different media also helps support brand identity.

Middleware software serves as the brain of the system. Available from such companies as Encoda, IBM, Miranda (which recently acquired Keyvia), NDS and most of the station-automation-software vendors, it enables different systems, such as a newsroom automation system and a storage archive or database, to work together. It links the physical content to its descriptive metadata in a low-res version of the content. This middleware is often "customized" for each user, taking into account what equipment the customer is using and how the customer wants to work.

Finally, ingest and logging software organizes the material in a manner that allows it to be quickly located using general keywords, time-code numbers or metadata. This software, which is provided by such companies as Artesia Technologies, Ascential Software, Bulldog, Convera, FloriCal, Harris Broadcast, IBM and Virage, facilitates the digitizing, organizing and locating of specific video clips of, for example, every time President George W. Bush appeared in public with British Prime Minister Tony Blair or every slam dunk by Michael Jordan.

For broadcast news departments, networked production systems from companies including the Associated Press, Avid Technology, Grass Valley Group and Pinnacle Systems have enabled them to produce a story once and have the system automatically archive the file, with related metadata, for future repurposing.

"Broadcasters are asking for systems that manage their content-creation process with as little staff as possible," says Lee Perrymen, vice president of marketing for the Associated Press's Electronic News Production System. "This includes the frontend, where stories are created, and the backend, where archiving occurs. It's simply more efficient."

For content owners, sophisticated archiving functionality is invaluable. The National Geographic Television (NGT) Film Library will use Convera software to digitize and index thousands of hours of video content that it plans to market over the Internet to local broadcast stations. As video is digitized, the film library will use Convera's Screening Room software to search for, preview and repurpose video and other assets. For a fee, NGT will also give customers secure, online access to the archive.

Convera will supply two Screening Room capture servers at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, where they'll use the software to convert 35mm film and analog video footage to digital files. Pathfire's Digital Media Gateway will be used to provide one hour of news footage every week to broadcast stations on a subscription basis. More than 100 employees worldwide will have continuous online access to the archive via the software's Browse interface.

The right path

Internal sharing of assets within an organization is another important aspect of the management system. The NBC News Channel has been using Pathfire's News Tracker news-on-demand system for two years to share content among the network's stations. Content arrives automatically on DMG servers located at the stations, reducing the need to schedule or monitor satellite feeds while streamlining the content-creation process.

ABC NewsOne, the digital news service among ABC stations, and cable operator Charter Communications use the Pathfire Digital Media Gateway system (NBC plans to upgrade to the same system soon) to manage in-house advertising content.

"The Pathfire automatic-delivery model offers many efficiency advantages to the TV station," says David Kasperek, director of engineering and broadcast operations for ABC affiliate WTAE-TV Pittsburgh. "They've enabled our producers and writers to access, view, select and manipulate content from their desktops. This saves valuable time and allows the staff to become more creative and productive."

Most professionals agree that having quick and unrestricted access to content makes for a more productive environment. But a standard for describing metadata so that another system can use it is, thus far, not a reality.

In addition, the ability to interchange MPEG-2 files, for example, is still problematic, according to Dave Trumbo, product manager at IBM's Video Content Management Solutions group. For example, if a content file is created on a Sony system, it can't be played back on a Grass Valley Group system.

A new initiative, the Media Exchange Format (MXF), is being developed by SMPTE to address this dilemma. Other MPEG standards for handling assets in a number of ways are also on the horizon, namely MPEG-4 and MPEG-7.

"These are still early days for creating a digital work environment," says Castle. "We'd like to see more defined rules and standards for how to manage material so that we can share and market digital files with other broadcast organizations."

Cost is also an issue, according to Trumbo. With a $100,000 asset-management system, Trombo estimates that 20% of the cost goes for software, 40% for hardware, and 40% for technical support. Training software may help minimize the latter.