While many broadcasters continue to grapple with the cost burden of establishing digital television services, many fail to comprehend the benefits - and challenges - associated with fully exploiting the technology itself. Carolyn Heinze investigates.
As broadcasters leverage new technologies to boost both productivity and the quality of their offerings, the gap between TV and IT is closing.
This dictates not only the need to apply new skills related to the operation of broadcast equipment, but also an entire revamping of how facilities approach workflow.
John Honeycutt, chief media technology officer at Discovery Communications, whose flagship Discovery Channel broadcasts to more than 431 million homes in 170 countries worldwide, observes that the emergence of IT offers appropriate, real-time interaction between day-to-day business activities and what goes on inside a broadcast facility.
As a result, changes to logs and modifications to what programmes broadcasters wish to run and when, can occur much more efficiently, adding a level of flexibility that didn't exist previously.
At Discovery, the broadcast team works closely with the marketing and sales departments on promotions. When a new promo is announced, the broadcast staff will electronically transfer a new log into its environment, make the changes and provide an electronic validation.
"The other thing that we have the capability to do is to provide a low-resolution preview of what the change will look like," Honeycutt explains. "A change will come down, we can create a Windows Media file of what it's going to look like on air, and email it back to them to see what impact the change has made visually.
This necessitates a different approach to how assets are processed, emphasising the need to apply networking, software management and software configuration skills.
"When you built a facility 15 years ago, the most important thing you got at the end was a wiring diagram that detailed which device was hooked up to what," Honeycutt observes.
Today, the focus is on a software dependency diagram that breaks down what data flows between different pieces of software. Because of this, job titles such as 'director of Network Engineering', are becoming increasingly common, he says.
"Someone who has Cisco skills or data router skills, network traffic management skills, is important," Honeycutt explains. "However, you can get lost in the IT side of it, so finding that individual who understands both broadcast and IT applications is a huge challenge for us.
The job descriptions attributed to traditional positions, too, have evolved. Three years ago, Showtime Arabia relocated its broadcast operations from the United Kingdom to Dubai, transitioning to a tapeless environment in the process.
Mike Whittaker, Showtime Arabia's vice president of broadcast operations and technology, notes that today, producers working in a digital environment are being required to do things that were once relegated to an editor.
"You're not just encouraging them to use new technologies, but also to do things themselves," he says. "Their attitude might be: 'I'm a producer, so I can just sit back and observe.' But the fact is they can quite easily edit, now. Some people just run with that and have a whale of a time. Others don't.
Whittaker believes that the most effective way of making this 'human conversion' is to sell staff not on the technology itself, but on the benefits that it makes available to them.
"Technology is merely an enabler," he says. "You are going to get a new computer because it's going to enable you to not have to wait to get into the edit suite, and to not have to sit in front of a machine, shuffling through it to get a tape. You can use the time that you spend with the craft editor in the edit suite more creatively."
This evolution, when managed properly, allows broadcasters to make better use of their employees' skills: when producers are given the tools to cut and sequence together something like a simple promotion, craft editors are freed up to work on more complex projects.
"There is a constant moving down the chain: something comes in, it's very complex; then it becomes simpler and you can move it to a desktop-type environment, and it's replaced by some other new thing," says Whittaker.
In a digital environment, metadata becomes extremely important, since one asset may be impacted by several different procedures.
How a company's metadata scheme is configured depends on a number of factors, most notably where the asset will be broadcast, what language it will be broadcast in, and what digital rights regulations apply to the broadcast location.
Over the last year, Discovery instituted a corporate metadata model to address this issue.
"Discovery is a global company, we have broadcast centres in four major cities around the world and we have more than 100 feeds in 35 languages," Honeycutt said.
"Being able to track where those assets are, and the flow of what needs to be done to those assets in terms of language customisation and cultural sensitivity editing has had a huge impact on our operations."
Honeycutt and his team have dubbed this their 'Aircraft Arrival Board,' which addresses the following: when are the assets coming in? What tasks have been assigned to them? What resources are available to complete these tasks?
"You have to really organise yourself to be able to track your assets, understand the status of your assets, and then order your tasks," he says.
The nature of a digital infrastructure mandates the need for careful planning in advance, because making modifications to a file can have a negative trickle-down effect otherwise.
"When you are storing assets and moving them across a network, it can have wide-ranging implications if you haven't scaled your network properly," Honeycutt says.
"If you weren't organised enough to know that when you moved that asset you needed to do six or seven things with it, pushing it back and forth has huge implications for the infrastructure of your facility.
The technology, he adds, is the easy part; the real challenge is coming up with a plan that works.
Without a clear picture of where assets are, and when, facilities can also run into trouble managing the volume of their digital assets: the more files your operation ingests, the more storage space is required - and digital storage isn't cheap.
"Online storage is great, if you can rationalise the fact that it's online when you actually need it to be online," Honeycutt says. "If you put it online and it just sits there and no one ever touches it, what's the point?"
In some cases, tape is still a more cost-efficient method of ingesting certain assets, he suggests.
At the same time, Honeycutt reflects that the cost associated with transitioning to digital isn't necessarily an added cost; the source of the investment has simply changed.
There are new technologies that, 10 years ago, we just weren't buying," he says. "You are investing in new areas, but you are also using the technology to make yourself more efficient.
Today, broadcasters can quality-control their assets with a file-based tool that analyses a file automatically, rather than requiring a human being to sit and watch a 60-minute show to check for errors. "It's a different type of spend," declares Honeycutt.
Danny Wilson, president and CEO at Pixelmetrix Corporation, a Singapore-based firm that offers design and production management of telemetry systems for digital broadcasters, notes that in some cases, what the new spend encompasses can come as a bit of a shock.
"All of these asset management systems and asset cataloguing systems - being able to retrieve content, and have it being retrieved not only from the server room itself, but from a journalist's laptop in Beirut, is a new expense that they never really had to deal with before," he says.
"They have to learn that they need to spend money on that. They never bat an eye when they spend $50,000 on a tape deck. However, when they need to buy software to track where their asset files are for $20,000, they're reluctant to do it."
One of the biggest potential costs associated with transitioning to digital is what Whittaker calls 'creative inflation' - an unseen expense that can arise if the temptation to go too far in applying the latest features isn't curbed.
"We used to edit on tape, and then when you move that to a computer and you can actually see the waveform, you spend hours getting the perfect edit," he said. "No one can hear it, and you have wasted three hours. For what?"
At Showtime Arabia, Whittaker and his team couple the term 'cost' with 'digital dividend'. "There has to be a dividend and not just a cost, because otherwise you are spending money for the sake of it," he says, adding that going digital because it's the trend isn't the right reason; the focus must be on the product and the process.
"Otherwise, you are just going to digitise a poor process and you won't get any benefits from it, which is a consequence of focusing on the technology and not the desired outcome."