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Broadcast asset management: A talking point

Asset management is among the major technological talking points in broadcasting today. But there have always been assets in television and radio, with an equally long-established need to manage them, writes Kevin Hilton.

Managing your material is paramount in the world of broadcasting. Kevin Hilton looks at the various systems that exist for keeping one’s house in order.

Asset management is among the major technological talking points in broadcasting today. But there have always been assets in television and radio, with an equally long-established need to manage them. Quarter-inch audio tape and videotapes of myriad formats had to be stored and fully catalogued.

Digital technology has made assets – raw video and audio footage, interviews, promos, commercials and entire programmes – easier to move around and store but, in some respects, it makes keeping track of them more difficult. In the digital realm a file can sit among thousands of others of the same format. Unless it is clearly ‘labelled’, it can disappear amid the shear mass of files held on the 1 or 2TB storage servers being used by broadcasters today.

“In an increasingly data-based and tapeless broadcast world, broadcasters and other media companies are finding asset management plays a critical role not only in tracking newly produced or acquired content, but also in making archived content available for new productions, repurposing and distribution or sale to partners, clients, and consumers,” says Isabelle Sost Michoux, field marketing manager at radio and TV automation/networking manufacturer Netia.

David Phillips, managing director of systems integrator TSL, points out that file-based production chains and asset management systems are moving ever closer together because, ultimately, there cannot be one without the other. “Which means asset management is being rapidly adopted everywhere,” he says. Another factor in the development of asset management is, Phillips observes, the rapid rise in the number of places where material will be supplied from and the equivalent range of delivery platforms, from conventional broadcast TV and radio to mobile devices and the internet. “Thinking of audio alone,” Phillips says, “at one time you would have either a tape or a studio. Now material may be coming in from telephone lines, Skype, web services, emailed MP3 files and more. All this content has to be logged as it comes in, so that you can find it again when you need it. On the delivery side, you are likely to need surround, stereo and perhaps even mono outputs, at different sampling rates and in different wrappers. Setting up or down mixes and transcoding manually is an impractical waste of labour but automating these tasks depends upon good metadata in the asset management system.”

A TLA for your AMS

Like most areas of new technology, asset management – and associated fields – has its own jargon and acronyms. DAM (digital asset management) is in common usage around the industry but MAM (media asset management) has become the preferred term, largely because it covers all bases, from TV and radio to the internet and associated mobile and wireless delivery methods. Red Bee Media provides play-out, production and on-air branding services to many leading broadcasters, including the BBC, Channel 4, ESPN and Canal+. Director of technology and innovation Steve Plunkett sees MAM as “an essential part of a modern broadcast facility”. In this context, he says, it assists in the organisation of media and any related tasks: “The DAM will index and make more accessible media assets and also streamline the process of moving content into and out of the media storage area. The key challenge is deciding what the DAM should be used for. DAM systems now offer a wide range of features that go beyond core services such as asset management. These include workflow management, orchestration of external systems and so on.”

In the view of Graham Day, managing director of integration company ATG Broadcasting, MAM is vitally important and “becoming more so with every passing year as the equipment needed to replay legacy analogue and digital video tape formats gets more expensive to maintain”. There are, Day adds, three issues to bear in mind when instituting a MAM system: ergonomics, “The system must be easier, faster and more reliable to operate than the old-style manual delivery of discrete media from library shelf to playout studio”; expandability, “to accommodate extra playout channels, new transmission and content-packaging standards, and an ever growing archive”; and cost-efficiency, because “enterprise-class computer power and storage costs are becoming increasingly attractive” in modern broadcasting. There is increasingly a crossover between broadcast engineering and IT these days but MAM embodies the ever-growing relationship more than most disciplines.

Raoul Cospen, director of marketing at Dalet, which produces automation systems for both TV and radio, says openness is a key factor, which means connecting to general business systems as well as other parts of the broadcast chain. “This guarantees metadata consistency and makes for workflow collaborations within multiple systems,” he says. “There is also the aspect of scalability and resiliency with the need to deploy a large number of workstations in multiple sites, often to produce in multiple languages.”

Flout what you’ve got

Cospen highlights a practical truth behind broadcast MAM; the systems are now as important for exploiting material for redistribution in different versions as they are for the everyday business of broadcasting. “People now need to get the maximum potential out of their assets,” he explains, “and so need them to be searchable so they can be found and used. Then the content has to be easily accessible so it can be shared with anyone. The final priority is to monetise the assets by publishing them on multiple platforms such as podcasts, the web and mobile – all with associated metadata.”

Metadata is the key to making sure that everything is properly identified and filed away. In essence it is “data about data”, giving details on what is in a file, the format, the rights owner and who worked on it. Although metadata has been part of MAM since the beginning, there are still heated discussions about how it should be used and what formats/systems will produce the best results.

Tony Taylor, chairman and chief executive of TMD (TransMedia Dynamics), manufacturer of the Mediaflex suite of media management products, acknowledges this by saying “there is an awful amount of noise in the industry about metadata”. He observes that while some organisations want a “totally customisable data model”, others ask for a system that conforms to a specific standard. “Certainly the amount of metadata that can be made available is generally far more than most organisations can currently cope with. The only way to achieve a compromise is to implement a solution which has a foundation data model that supports the generally accepted broadcast-related technical, intellectual and descriptive metadata fields whilst providing additional functionality to add and configure new metadata schema. Equally importantly it is essential for the MAM system to present the metadata in the clearest format for all users.”

David Phillips at TSL says that while there are metadata standards, most are “all-encompassing, with hundreds of elements. It is up to the individual designers to come up with the metadata scheme that suits the application,” he says. Graham Day of ATG adds: “A practical installation must be capable of working within today’s standards while retaining the flexibility to incorporate advances in metadata capabilities as the latter evolve. That essentially means giving the underlying asset-management control database sufficient capacity to accommodate future metadata components as they are introduced.”

According to Steve Plunkett at Red Bee Media, “Metadata is critical to the performance and usefulness of a DAM. The challenge the industry faces today is not whether the metadata is advanced enough but is around compatibility and inter-operability. As file-based operations roll out within and between broadcasters there needs to be very clearly defined metadata schemas to ensure that the various systems exchange media correctly. Media owners should carefully consider and then set clear rules on the metadata schemas within their enterprises and follow industry standards and best practice on metadata used for media exchange with external partners.”

Through the airwaves

Radio embraced IT-based systems long before TV, with the first computer-controlled automation systems – as we think of the technology today – appearing during the 1980s. While technology has brought the fundamental nature of the systems used in both areas closer together – with manufacturers such as Dalet, Netia and TMD now producing products for both TV and radio – there are still specific requirements for the individual disciplines. ”For television, the workflow process is now reasonably well advanced due to the necessity of completing labour-intensive tasks such as adding audio languages or subtitling to an asset more efficiently,” comments Tony Taylor at TMD.

“For radio, workflow processes are increasing with the need to record and track assets for licensing purposes and organise the playout of promos and other interstitials. Radio is also developing its visual presence on the media landscape, converging with television playout for such high-profile events as The Glastonbury Festival or Comic Relief. The need for more sophisticated, scalable and customisable asset management for radio is growing.”

Although audio is increasingly embedded with the video streams when it is moved around broadcast centres, as well as being part of completed programme in the archive, there still has to be specific consideration for sound when setting up a MAM. “An asset management system needs to be capable of managing audio components independently from the video content,” comments Mark Darlow, director of automation and asset management at Harris Corporation. “Selection of language from multiple language tracks is one of the complexities in dealing with audio. Audio rights also need to be considered separately. Portions of an audio track such as music and voice over can often have individual rights assigned.”

Solid State Logic is heavily involved with MAM through its video newsrooms systems division but also acknowledges its influence on pure audio. “MAM systems are making a good level of provision for audio and the metadata is definitely highly evolved enough to handle it,” comments SSL marketing manager Dan Duffell. “With SSL’s systems we are able to capture up to 16 channels of audio in a single ‘event’ which may or may not have video associated with it and obviously multiple events can be captured simultaneously. So there is capacity to capture the audio from a production along with the video in a tapeless environment. For more complex productions though, for example, we have clients who capture 50 or more channels of audio in a single live to tape take or live to air, it still seems more common to run a synchronised DAW recorder dedicated to audio capture.”

The issue of multiple channels for alternative languages, rather than surround sound, is a crucial but sometimes overlooked point. “Working with tracks in different languages, maintaining links – and sometimes synchronicity – with related video, and transcoding to the optimal bit rate for different distribution platforms all must be addressed by the asset management system along with the usual concerns for handling AV content effectively,” comments Isabelle Sost Michoux at Netia. “To handle audio appropriately, the MAM must be equipped to handle all variety of audio formats, as well as the metadata accompanying audio in those formats.”

Plunkett adds: “Where the primary asset is audio then the principles are similar to video with differences in workflow and metadata. Where the primary asset is video then audio track management becomes an important consideration. Multiple language versions of an audio track may exist on the asset at the point of ingest and additional audio tracks may subsequently be created (for language re-versioning or audio description) so all of these audio tracks needs to be correctly associated with the video within the DAM.” Automating key processes to make material fit for broadcast is a major benefit of MAMs.

As David Phillips of TSL observes, this has specific benefits for audio: “This might be amplitude equalisation and loudness conformance against the EBU standard. It might include up or down mixing to the house standard, or Dolby encoding. Because this is a file-based infrastructure, these tasks can be farmed out to dedicated processing devices, which could run very much faster than real time. Only when all the criteria are satisfied will the content be released for transmission.”

This sort of sophistication shows the level of maturity that MAM systems have reached today. As Phillips comments, it is not yet possible to automate every broadcast operation but that is something that might not happen anyway. “Most organisations would be reluctant to hand the delete button over to a piece of software, however well tailored,” says Phillips. “The fundamentals of asset management are now well established, although it still takes considerable experience and expertise to design a system that will deliver on the promise of efficiency.” While all those contacted consider MAM to be a mature technology, particularly from the audio standpoint, there is the view that future changes in technology – including 3DTV and new file formats – will make further demands on how broadcast systems are managed and built.