The expression “content factory” has been around for a while and in a number of contexts. Is this a realistic concept? Can we – producers, facilities, broadcasters – embrace the idea of process in the manufacturing sense, or is making content for television and the new digital platforms too different to making biscuits or cars?
We are naturally resistant to changing the way we work, and the way we design our technology platforms. How can we adapt to new principles? What are the benefits of taking this new approach?
There are a number of reasons why we have to adapt and change. The move to digital broadcasting, with its huge increase in channel capacity, changed the economics of broadcasting forever. Add to that the financial turmoil, which we saw in the last two years, and its subsequent impact on advertising revenues and it is clear that we have to do more with less. We have to work smarter, making the best possible use of the resources available to us.
One way to do this is by automating the dull and repetitive, thereby ensuring that staff spend as much time as possible on the creative and the productive. Provided we can develop reliable and secure automated processes which can be relied upon, this should have the side benefit that staff will be more fulfilled and thus accepting of change. However, it will be a change, and we need to plan carefully how best to achieve it. We have to look at the tools we have at our disposal and how they can be most productively used, and we have to consider where we need to invest. In short, we need to take a holistic view of what we are trying to achieve.
This is a big change from the traditional procurement strategy in the broadcasting industry. Not too long ago, broadcasters, post houses and production companies had chief engineers whose procurement word was law. They made all the purchasing decisions. In larger organisations there would be specialists for each product group.
Specifications were analysed and best-of-breed products selected. This process was openly described as “building islands of excellence”. Systems integration was, of course, simpler in those not so far off days: plug a BNC output into a BNC input, or XLR to XLR, and it would almost certainly work perfectly first time.
Today, we have to worry about codecs and metadata, and establishing how best to progress tasks. Specialists, such as Three Media Associates (TMA), talk about “workflow process, resource and cost optimisation”. Does that mean that we have to throw out everything we have and start again with a new, file-based, runtime decision making, process controlled system?
Clearly, that is not an economically viable proposition. Every plan today has to take as its starting point the legacy equipment and working practices that already exist, and see what it takes to develop new workflows from there. In other words, understand where you are and where you are going too and then one can chart a course between the two.
How do you start to develop the new structures? It requires systematic analysis. At TMA, we have a four level model that defines the overall structure of a media company: business processes, which for example are rights, scheduling, advertising sales; operational services, which include complex tasks such as ingest, transcode and editing; metadata and data flows; and technology and broadcast operations.
An efficient system will be integrated along each layer, but also have clear points of communication, if not integration, up and down. It is getting this vertical integration to work efficiently and effectively that is critical.
To achieve that you need to map vendor products, in-house systems and their workflows onto the four layer structure. Once you understand how integrated products work along the layers and bridge these layers you can begin to see where the gaps are and how to achieve good system level integration.
Some new products – ForeTV from MSA Focus is a good example – actually exist on all four levels, giving a top-level business oriented view of the enterprise and driving the transcoders and translating technical metadata at the same time. As another example, storage vendors are now integrating archiving and asset management, so they are moving up from layer four.
Which brings us back to the legacy equipment already installed and working. If you analyse your current infrastructure and map it onto the four layer model, you may be surprised to discover that you have fewer holes in the future system than you thought.
You may have bought a product to do one task, but do not use other parts of its functionality. If you open up to that possibility then you may find that, with overlap from other products, you already have the technological platform for a completely new approach. Or maybe you need just a couple of simple tools to fill gaps, making it a much more acceptable investment.
How do you analyse your current infrastructure and your future requirements? How do you populate the four layer model?
From manufacturing industry, we can learn about computer simulations of plant and workflow: the system dynamics-modelling tool. This is a proven concept. Complex manufacturing has used system dynamics-modelling for years to determine the effect of changes in production processes and identify risk points. Anyone who has bought a new car in the last couple of decades has seen the ultimate output of system dynamics-modelling.
When you consider broadcast or production workflows as the interaction between technology and human resources to achieve commercial ends, it looks very much like a complex manufacturing process. Yet no-one has applied dynamic modelling to the media industry, so TMA have developed a toolkit of their own, “mediasim”.
This is tailored to the specific needs of the media industry, but otherwise it applies the same fundamental processes. It encourages you to enter masses of apparently disparate data about the business and its infrastructure, and then allows you to draw clear and reliable conclusions on the way that the plant and processes interact. Once you have built your model you can bend it to see what happens.
There are runtime plugins that allow you to explore the data to see where strengths and opportunities lie. You can use the model to plan for system growth, and to see if what is on offer from potential vendors will best meet your requirements.
On a recent project for a pan-European playout and distribution operator, we used it to tackle two core questions. First was the decision on when an additional $750k would be needed to update the existing archive storage. Four months out, mediasim predicted the date that the current system would run out of capacity, accurate to within two days. That gave the Finance Director confidence that capital was being employed at the right time and the CTO & Operations Director confidence that the model would accurately predict further bottlenecks, capacity or human resource constraints.
The second question concerned $600k of investment, which was earmarked for a new product offering, extending the existing infrastructure. mediasim modelled and highlighted that the existing hardware and infrastructure could be reconfigured to deliver the new service as well, and the whole of the $600k could stay in the bank. Again, a very significant result and a powerful statement.
mediasim will help you to manage all aspects of your technology and business. There is no doubt that moving towards a more process-driven approach will be a cultural shift, and some may find that uncomfortable.
Managing change successfully will depend on demonstrating that this new approach allows you to use the hardware better, releasing staff to do more and concentrate on the tasks that actively demands their skills and creativity. We all have to find ways of embracing change, because the days of best-of-breed staff driving best-of-breed equipment in splendid isolation have gone: that can no longer be afforded.
You may find yourself re-deploying equipment in new combinations that will deliver the required functionality even if it is not a best-of-breed solution. Nevertheless, you will have saved a significant amount of capital investment, which can be ploughed into new service offerings and better productions.
Achieving that goal depends on a careful analytical approach and embracing a different methodology using a toolset such as mediasim. It will help define your processes to give you confidence in the change before you embark on it – the content factory definition – and will ensure that precisely the right processes, technology, resources and finance are in the right place at the right time. The result will make certain you deliver a controlled and justifiable investment programme, obtaining the best use of your legacy equipment and resource, and thereby securing a productive and creative future.