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This Week: A Film Becomes VOD

It's sometimes easy to overlook the origins of a movie when contemplating the myriad steps that make it a video-on-demand attraction for digital-cable customers.

Yet in today's digital world, the transit of a film introduces language that can cause one to glaze over pretty quickly — usually within a sentence or two. And then there you are, a participant in a conversation that just made a beeline away from your knowledge precinct. Let it go a few sentences further, and you're nodding awkwardly while wondering how rude it would be to ask for a quick rewind and explanation.

Here's a sampling of the new lingo to describe a movie's journey to a VOD server: Digital asset. Digital package. And one of my personal favorites (it sounds so wise), meta data. Baseball euphemisms are here, too: Pitcher. Catcher.

And now, for the frame-crunching tale of a movie's 44,000-plus mile voyage to VODville. Did I mention that you're going along?

Say you're the guy in Fantastic Voyage
who shrinks — but instead of coursing through human arteries, you belt a few bars of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science," which transforms you into a digital bit. Your mission is to ride shotgun from the studio to the headend.

First, you and the film are loaded into an unmarked van and couriered to a post-production facility. There, for a fee expressed in dollars per minute, you are compressed, encoded into an MPEG-2 file and imprinted onto digital linear tape (DLT) — you're now "in the can, baby."

On the squashed side of the compressor, you're now part of a file of 3 gigabites or so. You, the audio and some overhead for other stuff are coded for MPEG-2 transportation, at a rate of 3.75 megabits per second (mbps). You're still naked, in terms of encryption.

It is here that you and your digital-bit brethren, as constituents of the digitized, compressed and encoded film, become known as a "digital asset." You matter. You become part of a film database that holds you and information about who wrote you, directed you, produced you, and acted in you.

You, the digital asset, are transferred to a satellite uplink — maybe by courier or maybe more directly, depending on your owner's setup.

But before you're jettisoned into the zone of geosynchronous orbit, three more digital assets must be slipped in with you. One is the cover artwork that depicts you. Another is the promotional trailer.


The third is the meta data.

"Meta," in a broad sense, means transcendent. In an applied sense, "meta data" is data that describes other data. It's the information that would otherwise be on the sticker of the tape container for the film, in pre-digital times: Title. Run time. Actors. Writers. Rating. Summary. Availability dates. Expiration dates.

Meta data gets tucked into your overall transmission vessel as an XML (extensible markup language) file, so that certain portions of it can be manipulated à la the Internet.

The meta data, trailer, cover art, and movie get wrapped together, and are now known as a "digital package."

Here's where the baseball begins. In the parlance of N2 Broadband — a company that makes the things that create, manage and move "digital assets" — your next step is to be "pitched" to the satellite. The pitcher is a server located at the uplink. You are the ball: A digital package comprised of digital assets. You get encrypted, so no one can pirate you along the way.

You can likely guess what happens after you hurtle 22,300 miles to the satellite, then down again to a headend satellite receiver. You get caught, by a "catcher" — another N2 Broadband term.

It's also a server, but more in the sense of a short-term cache. Its job is to recognize you, prep you for whomever needs you, descramble you and squirt you to the VOD server.

If this sounds like a stutter-step, remember that you're but one movie among hundreds, with potential zillions of on-demand TV programs right behind you. Being disorganized about who gets what — and when — is a sure recipe for digital mayhem.

All along the way, you're checked and doublechecked to make sure you're OK. An Internet back channel usually exists between the uplink and the reception site so any missed packets can be re-requested. (Alas, if you're the missing packet, you're probably in the same cosmic pile as that sock you inexplicably lost en route from the hamper to the washing machine.)

That's the lingo of the journey, just in case you inadvertently glaze over during a cocktail buzz-phrase attack about that "robust, scalable, digital asset and metadata management system for the broadband space." They just mean they've come up with something that keeps a movie safe with its baggage during its trip to become a VOD event.