Controlling Content Chaos From Creation to Distribution

“There is, and always will be, chaos.”

Speaking at last week’s Content & Communications World, Harlan Neugeboren, CEO of Itsrelevant.com, opened a panel discussion on chaos in content acquisition and distribution formats with that simple declaration.

“There’s always going to be a new Droid,” he elaborated. “There’s always going to be a new set-top box. There’s always going to be a new acquisition device. And there’s a different process for everything.”

Content acquisition and distribution is inherently chaotic, not only because of the wide variety of acquisition devices on the market but because of the amount of material that needs to be processed and the vast number of distribution formats from which to choose.

Standardization may never be achieved, Neugeboren conceded. Determining best practices and transitioning to a file-based workflow that emphasizes native file format is the only way to control the chaos.

Best Practices Bring Best Results
Best practices at CBS and CW television networks include establishing program-delivery specifications that set quality standards and dictate which cameras can be used for content acquisition.

“We want to ensure that, since CBS is a content company, the content that we acquire and have invested our time and effort in has a long shelf life,” said Bob Seidel, VP of engineering and advanced technology, CBS Television Network, “so we want it captured in the highest possible quality.”

At CBS, all content must be acquired in 1920×1080 pixels, or 16:9 aspect ratio, with no subsampling or lower conversion permitted. After this content is distributed to the network’s more than 850 affiliates, those stations can choose to downconvert it to standard definition.

Seidel explained, “Preserving the value of your content in the highest possible form for archival usage so that you can always go down to a lower pixel count is key.”

Sharing Files and Methods
The aftereffects of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami earlier this year continue to be felt worldwide, even as far away as New York City. After Sony’s Sendai Technology Center in Tagaiyo was severely damaged in the March quake, the availability of products it exclusively manufactured dropped significantly, including HDCAM SR tape.

HBO, losing its preferred tape-based delivery format, was forced to transition to a file-based workflow much sooner than planned.

“We didn’t have everything in place in the way that we would have hoped, but we’ve been quite successful in the transition,” said Diane Tryneski, EVP, media and production operations, HBO. “The idea of best practices is so important because [during the transition] we found that we were accepting many different file specifications — always of the highest quality but no standardization. That’s what we’re working on now. We put together a best-practices file handbook that we continue to update on a quarterly basis.”

In order to confront the wide variety of devices and platforms, Tryneski stresses the need to both establish best practices within the company and share methods with others.

“One of the changes I’ve seen,” she observed, “is that vendors or manufacturers weren’t as willing to partner together as they are now. For any of us to be successful, we’re going to have to figure out how to put those parts and pieces together.”

From Creation to Distribution, Go Native
To maintain quality of content, Charlesworth Media President Roger Charlesworth advocates a file-based approach when creating and distributing content and not transcoding until absolutely necessary.

“If you can capture, for instance, in ProRes,” he suggested, “and edit in ProRes and [use] Apple’s delivery format, [which] is ProRes, so it stays in the same native file format, that’s inherently the highest quality that’s available.”

When the delivery format differs from the capture format, strict standards and heavy testing are necessary throughout the chain, stressed Jeff Drury, manager of technical operations for Whitehouse Post/Carbon VFX. Transcoding may be necessary, but the content that is delivered should, in theory, be the same as the content that was originally created.

Maintaining native file format for as long as possible is essential in creating and distributing content to mobile devices, which usually require at least one transcoding step.

“There’s quite a bit of time spent in between the acquisition and [distribution],” said Drury of his company’s role as the channel that transmits content. “[We] make sure that everything is processed and maintained and keep the metadata throughout, so that we can always return to the source. When we go to finish the project, everything’s brought back to that original camera source. Then, and only then, is it moved over to the distribution format.”

Preserving for Posterity and Value
Native file format ensures that the archived product is the best quality possible. CBS News operates a deep archive in SR tape but is working to digitize and monetize both it and an intermediate archive that can be accessed online.

“I think, for content creators or content owners, there’s been this growing sense of this being an important responsibility: having your content accessible and responsibly preserved,” said Charlesworth. “For sports leagues, including MLB and the NBA, this has a become a big part of what they do. They [use] hybrid nearline storage systems based on LTO but with proxies of the current season or last two seasons on spinning discs.”

Preserving content, he stressed, is an economic decision: if content is preserved in the highest quality possible, it carries the potential to be resold.

Chaos may be here to stay, but, with workflows based on best practices to maintain high quality from content creation through acquisition and distribution, it can be controlled.