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Where Tech Meets Workflow

God bless Monica Lewinsky. When it comes to attempting to lay out the challenges and promises of digital asset management, there is no better example than the videotape that shows President Bill Clinton giving her an apparently innocuous hug. No doubt you can picture the earnest and eager smile on her face as you recall one of the more memorable embraces in history.

And, while Republicans will forever brandish Lewinsky as a weapon to sully Clinton's presidential legacy, video professionals involved with digital-asset management will always point to that clip as an example of why digital-asset management needs to be taken seriously.

The only reason the clip of Lewinsky ever surfaced was the very long memory of a video librarian. Inevitably, in discussions of digital-asset management, it is used as an example of a pitfall: Once content is moved into a large server- or data-tape-based archive, how can material be searched and catalogued so that material that takes on a new relevance months or years later can be found easily, if at all?

The concept of digital-asset management (DAM) is rather straightforward: It's control of the distribution of and access to video, audio and graphic content. But that's where the simplicity ends.

DAM can mean anything from managing graphics templates for a nightly newscast to storing content on massive server farms that then serve content, like the Lewinsky clip, throughout a facility or even out to the public via the Internet. It can be part of creating a new revenue stream or can simply be used to streamline operations and make content easier to store and find.

Digital-asset management begins, unsurprisingly, with the digital asset itself. For the vast majority of TV stations and cable networks, that means a video or audio asset captured in the field on a digital tape format. Managing that asset in a digital environment is still very similar to what it is in analog: The tape is barcoded, catalogued and placed in storage.

The big difference between analog and digital is the introduction of video servers and computer-based distribution, viewing, editing and control of content. The costs associated with servers and related systems still prohibit their use for long-term archiving and put full digital-asset management out of reach, but that is changing.

"As storage costs continue to decline, it makes it possible for more content to be kept online within the server or on a SAN," says Michael Wilke, Avalon director of marketing operations and channels. "If there is also a near-line storage repository associated with the online storage, then there is simply more capacity for storing content."

As that repository grows, so does the asset manager's job. Likewise, says Wilke, if there are multiple departmental servers and client applications accessing the near-line storage, the data-management software's role also increases. For example, it may be satisfying requests from an automation system and an asset-management system connected to air and news operations.

National Teleconsultants (NTC) Senior Consultant Bill Harris notes that the biggest challenge in implementing a digital-asset-management system is changing work habits.

"It isn't only teaching the engineering staff how to maintain the system," he says. "The staff has to be changed, and they need to buy into the system and understand it. Because, if they aren't behind the new system, an organization will have a hard time realizing the benefits. A digital-asset-management system is not a job-saving technology; it's about repurposing people."

What will change

And what that means is that adding digital-asset management requires first and foremost an evaluation of the workflow processes and how they will change. That means setting up numerous meetings with those who will use the system.

"What's the point of investing in a powerful, centralized operation if people can't use the assets or applications of their choice to get the best, most competitive material to air?" asks Mike Cronk, vice president and general manager, server and digital news production, Thomson Grass Valley. "The key here is to consider the entire media workflow."

Cronk says it's important to make sure the infrastructure is based on open, standards-based technologies for storing, transporting, retrieving and manipulating digital assets.

"Making it bullet-proof from the user's perspective is the best way to ensure that a facility isn't locked into a limited set of applications," he says. "It also eliminates the possibility of technological obsolescence."

The integration of the video server and data-storage tape into facilities is beginning to offer new alternatives for that asset management. The vast majority of long-term storage will still simply be a tape-storage area in the facility (or even away from the facility where real estate may be cheaper). Some of the larger media companies are beginning to look into data-storage tape as a way to more cost-effectively (and space-effectively) store thousands upon thousands of hours of footage and content.

The reality for local broadcasters, however, is that the environment is a mix of tape and servers, with tape still the main repository for archives. According to Jon Hammerstrom, Encoda Systems vice president, worldwide sales and marketing, automation solutions, smaller broadcasters are finding that new video servers support all the simpler requirements and volumes they need, and thus they are moving faster to an all-digital environment.

Simpler systems

"Simpler digital-asset-management systems provide these broadcasters many benefits by directly accessing material metadata within a single video server environment," Hammerstrom says. "Larger-volume networks often have to operate mixed environments, with separate tape-management systems, because of the size of preexisting investments and the inability to easily convert to an all-digital server environment."

Many commercial broadcast stations have play-to-air servers that can hold all the spots and commercials online, so they typically have no need to store programs for long periods. "The exceptions," says Brian Lay, Harris Automation Systems director of product marketing, "are stations that have contracts to play syndicated programs several times over a long period and public stations with similar needs. Those facilities often have archival storage and a need to manage its contents. Stations that produce local newscasts also have a critical need to archive news footage and need an efficient way to rapidly search the archive to reuse media."

But the mix of tapes and the potential that they could be located at a facility miles away complicates the capability of rapid search.

TV Azteca in Mexico City, for example, uses an Ancept media server for archives. Notes Josh Bruhin, vice president of business development for Minneapolis-based Ancept, the search for content can take hours without a proper asset-management system. "In the case of TV Azteca, their archive is in a separate building more than a half-mile away. A digital archive allows the retrieval process to take place in minutes, not hours."

A media server, Bruhin explains, allows users to view one or many low-resolution proxies of the content on the server and pull out only the needed video content from within a file, rather than the entire file. "It understands how to navigate to specific frames within that clip and how to reassemble all the segments into a new clip that can be used in a nonlinear editor."

The various products that can be used and the various approaches to digital-asset management are often as numerous as the facilities that would use such a system. Most manufacturers and consultants find that, if they talk to five different clients about asset management, they'll hear of seven or eight different approaches.

And that begs the question: Where does a facility begin in planning a digital-asset-management system?

"The first and essential step users must make before buying and deploying DAM solutions is a comprehensive review of their workflows," says Pinnacle Systems Senior Vice President Bob Wilson. "That will lead to changes in the way data is captured and stored and, generally, a better operating process."

For one thing, the tools themselves are constantly changing. DAM systems were born out of automation and traffic systems (as well as the move to servers).

Getting sophisticated

First-generation automation and asset-management systems were primarily concerned with such issues as device control. According to Odetics Broadcast President Steven L'Heureux, second-generation automation systems began to incorporate sophisticated media-asset-management capabilities, most of which involved comprehensive metadata support built into a system's database.

"As early as 1996," L'Heureux says, "we delivered our Hierarchical Video Management system that enabled automated media and metadata migration and management between on-air servers, videotape libraries and archive systems, all under control of our software. We've subsequently added automated content ingest and browsing solutions to our automation."

All of the browsing and ingest products in the world, however, mean little if they aren't integrated into the workflow-control systems. L'Heureux says, "A standalone DAM with 'arm's-length' interfaces to critical workflow system—such as on-air automation, traffic, graphics, production, etc.—are simply not going to deliver the desired benefits nor ROI that justify the effort and cost of implementing such systems."

The introduction of a third-party DAM system introduces an additional level of complexity, and that cannot be overlooked. Products and DAM capabilities offered by automation manufacturers like Odetics or Encoda Systems can go a long way toward eliminating some of that complexity. For example, Encoda's use of tightly integrated databases can help ensure that digital material and metadata aren't replicated in multiple locations, removing workflow problems and pitfalls.

Avalon is one of the third-party companies that can come in with a data-management system. Wilke says its system interfaces with asset managers and other workflow managers, such as automation and traffic systems, to bridge the management of content across local and archive or near-line storage at the file level.

"A storage system [disk, tape, DVD or any combination] managed by Avalon might be used to store both short-lived content that is simply being staged temporarily before being played to air and content that is being archived for long periods," he explains. "In both cases, the existence of the files that Avalon has stored is known to the asset manager or automation system so that, when they're requested in response to a playlist or a breaking news story, Avalon can restore them transparently to the user."

Avalon offers a graphical user interface, called Avalon Console, that monitors, administers and controls the data-management subsystem. "In addition to providing a view into the system, Console allows customers to add or modify policies," Wilke explains. "Through Avalon's policy engine, you can set different models for different groups of files or even down to an individual file level. So the management of data is driven by the life cycle of that content."

David Fairclough, Encoda Systems senior vice president, marketing and strategy, Media Management Solutions, points out that "the migration to digital from analog essentially merges traditional broadcast functions with those of information technology [IT]. The processes, tools and philosophies of IT are equally applicable to the management of any and all digital assets within a company. At one level, there is an inability to distinguish between digital assets—such as a high-res video clip, an audio clip or a spreadsheet—but, within a specific business function, specific tools can recognize and manipulate the proper asset."

But making sure the asset is recognized means major change in the workflow process from the analog tape-based way of archiving and accessing content. The video librarian, which has typically been an end-of-chain function in an analog facility, is a beginning-of-the-chain function in the digital facility. The metadata and keywords that will be associated with a given video asset will need to be put in place at the start of the ingest chain, because the metadata will eventually be used to determine where the asset is stored: in long-term, near-term or short-term storage. But that also means a change in what is required of library personnel.

New class of employee

"The asset-management librarian won't have time to do research so they can understand the content coming in. They'll have to know it as they ingest it," says NTC's Harris. "And that means they have to be a new class of citizen and employee who is very well informed about the content coming in and the news because they have to work on the fly. It's a very interesting change in the workflow."

One bit of advice from those involved with implementing DAM systems (or any new workflow process) is to make sure that the grumpiest, unhappiest employees are involved in the process. The logic? If they can be convinced that the system will work and mean good things, then anyone in the facility can be convinced.

"Our goal is to make asset management an invisible part of the daily workflow," says David Schleifer, director of Avid Broadcast. "With that in mind, it should never become complex. Users have a prime goal of getting their jobs done, as opposed to tinkering with technology. To do that, they need systems that help them find what they need, sample it, use it and publish it. Asset management is a means to an end, not a goal in itself."

Unfortunately, it's still an expensive end. Harris says that, even though the cost of technology and hardware has come down tremendously, the cost of building a system is still probably prohibitive for individual stations. "Station groups or networks looking to share content can financially justify the expense a lot more easily than a call station."

L'Heureux concurs, adding that centralized operations can dramatically improve the return on investment for well-implemented DAM systems. He says the opportunity for common or shared media preparation and the resultant cost savings can be a major justification for broadcasters' implementing a centralized automation and asset-management system.

"Clearly, most customers envision a DAM solution with all assets available electronically via either online or in near-line storage," says L'Heureux. "However, cost considerations often dictate a compromise on this issue, with some assets maintained in an offline environment. As large-scale near-line storage devices become more cost-effective, the trend will be toward migrating all offline assets into a near-line environment."

One of the more interesting aspects of digital-asset management is the impact it has on the relationship between traditional broadcast engineering and the IT department. As content and assets move to the server and computer domain, the importance of an IT department that can meet the DAM challenge will grow.

Challenging notions

Fairclough believes that the increasing use of IT and generic solutions in place of traditional broadcast practices and solutions challenges the notion that proprietary industry standards are needed and that perhaps generic technology standards should be pursued instead.

"For example, a number of generic content-management solutions are available from a number of technology providers that use MPEG-based storage formats," he explains. "These formats are well-understood and easily manipulated by vendor solutions that differentiate amongst themselves by adding workflow or vertical-specific functionality."

But whether broadcasters are ready for generic and IT-based solutions remains to be seen. Some companies, like Omneon, see a future where the IT approach to technology fully infiltrates the broadcast market. That means that hardware is sold without software and software is sold without hardware. But that requires a big change in thinking. As a rule, says David Schleifer, director, Avid Broadcast, broadcasters still seek product solutions.

"Broadcasters want a manufacturer to know and understand their business and deliver an integrated solution that they can drop in to their facility," he says. "It's the difference between playing with the technology and launching an integration project, and buying something you can use the day it arrives at your site."

He adds that some large broadcasters have been willing to undergo the process of specifying and customizing a solution—but some is not all.

"The vast majority of broadcasters have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for integrated products that include these components," he says.

And for now, that is pretty much where broadcasters are with DAM: on the sidelines, waiting for the perfect confluence of technology, price and workflow. It will happen—but, at this point, it will probably be later rather than sooner.