Go with the Flow

Driven by the demand of 'instant access' to media, the streamlining of workflows and the perceived financial savings that this would bring, content owners and broadcasters alike are embracing the concept of file-based technology, writes Greg Hoskin.
Greg Hoskin, Managing director, MHz Broadcast.
Greg Hoskin, Managing director, MHz Broadcast.
Newscasters have been particularly keen to embrace digital workflows due to the improvements they create when handling there large archives.
Newscasters have been particularly keen to embrace digital workflows due to the improvements they create when handling there large archives.

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Driven by the demand of ‘instant access’ to media, the streamlining of workflows and the perceived financial savings that this would bring, content owners and broadcasters alike are embracing the concept of file-based technology, writes Greg Hoskin.

The media industry has processed videos as files for some time as file-based editing, digital graphic creation and other special effects, as well as more recently playout, have been the early adopters of this technology. However these have historically operated as isolated islands of technology.

Today’s challenge is to link these independent islands together to provide a truly seamless and transparent workflow throughout the content distribution chain from acquisition and ingest, right through to transmission.

However to embrace the real benefits that file-based workflow solutions can deliver, the media industry needs to move away from its tried and trusted current operational practices which have been derived from years of working in tape-based environments. Instead to ensure the design will deliver the financial benefits of such a solution, companies need to engage in developing new workflows practices and harnessing the advantages that these technologies bring.

With traditional tape-based workflows, the physical media brings with it a level of familiarity and recognition of the content. This is often lost in a file-based environment, as the physical media is replaced by files within a computer system.

This can lead to a perception, often amongst operators, of ‘losing’ content. This can easily become the outcome as the simplest typing or naming error to the file can result in the media ‘disappearing’ into the system. To prevent this requires rigorous discipline at every stage, especially in the naming and cataloguing of media.

Key to this process is the choice of user-tool and hence the media management or asset management system that becomes extremely significant to the success of a file-based operation. Systems must provide a user-friendly and intuitive desktop experience combined with superb media delivery. Broadcasters will need to allocate time and money to train their staff while manufacturers must develop systems that can be easily and quickly adopted across a facility – while at the same time meeting the workflow requirement and company’s business needs. Ultimately they need to simplify the business process of content management and bring clearly identifiable cost and revenue benefits.

However clients often make these fundamental decisions without obtaining the true facts or setting realistic expectations.

It is at this stage that a trusted and respected systems integrator (SI) comes into it own. SIs can provide an objective view to evaluate the operational needs and expectations, and then review and evaluate potential applications with their corresponding configurations.

Those SIs not aligned to any particularly manufacturer, will choose the best-of-breed solutions to meet the customer’s individual needs. Failure to do this may produces designs that fall far short of meeting the business and operational objectives of the client’s management teams.

In practice, the implementation of file-based workflows is no trivial task since the media can be encoded (digitised) in any one of many different formats and resolutions – each delivering a specific benefit, although often incompatible with each other. Furthermore equipment interoperability is paramount. Today we see different equipment vendors each putting their own interpretation on the industry’s best efforts to standardise interfacing thus hindering the true implementation of seamless file-based workflows.

That said, the industry has for many years been striving to develop workable interoperability standards.

For instance, it produced MXF to replace the SDI and tape formats that have been refined over many years.

Nonetheless as soon as MXF was born, variants were developed to meet specific technology and operational needs. This in itself created its own issues for those designing a system that required interoperability.

In fact Turner Broadcasting Systems, along with a selection of equipment vendors, has developed an initiative to attempt to cut through the interoperability issues and to provide proposed, real-world solutions for key workflows, focusing on creating a single MXF master file from which multiple versions of a program may be created.

Last year Harris opened the first “Interoperability Lab” seen in the industry at its Toronto headquarters to ensure that interoperability issues amongst its own products, as well as those with third party products, were identified before they popped up in the field. These initiatives are all heading in the right direction as they ultimately provide best working practices for everyone in the business.

With all this in mind, it is possible today to design and deliver operational benefits from file-based workflow solutions. In fact with competitive challenges to the traditional broadcast model, and the increasing expectation from the viewer for immediate results, a file-based workflow is the only practical way for content to be simultaneously delivered in today’s multi-platform environment. Examples of this can be found in the home where time-shifted recoding from downloading Internet media players (such as iPlayer), personal video recorders (PVR’s), web and other mobile devices.

The process of determining the optimum workflow for a facility therefore involves various considerations.

Improved workflows and the resulting efficiencies may in fact enable a content owner and broadcaster to use less physical space, thereby reducing their overheads for rent and related costs.

Although it might appear a simple task, the choice of technologies requires considerable deliberation about the longer term business and strategic goals of the client. But before this can happen it is necessary to ensure that the reliability levels and robustness of a complete file-based solution is at least on a par with the “perceived” security offered by the use of traditional tape.

Consideration must be given to the source of the content and the formats as well as what vehicles will be used to deliver them. Also thought must be given to the type of content and commercial opportunities presented by that content and the markets being served today and well into the future.

It is also paramount to ensure that the level of training to operate and maintain the file-based new systems is implemented and maintained across the board.

And of course there needs to be a business plan underpinning this change to ensure its ongoing success.

The choice of an experienced systems integration partner is a fundamental part of this equation – not only to provide best-of-breed, integrated turnkey solutions which deliver the business plan but also to ensure that cost efficiencies are maintained across the operation and the potential revenue streams, which the adoption of new technology enable, are optimised now and into the future.

Greg Hoskin is managing director of Megahertz Broadcast.

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