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01 November 2011

UK broadcasters say they'd like digital files rather than tape to be their preferred delivery format by 2014. David Wood asks if this is likely or just wishful thinking

The irony of file-based production is that while over the last couple of years a huge amount of television has moved from tape formats to file-based production there is one area where tape is very much alive and well. It remains the preferred delivery format for broadcasters, meaning that the pipe-dream of a true end-to-end file based workflow from acquisition to post production and delivery still falls down at the final hurdle.

The failure of the industry to adopt a complete file-based workflow has led to the setting up of The Digital Production Partnership (DPP), an initiative between ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC to encourage producers and post houses to adopt completely tapeless workflows.

The initiative has already thrown up some positives – notably agreeing common technical and metadata standards for file-based delivery of TV programmes to all major UK broadcasters.

As The Farm’s Dave Klafkowski, who was a member of the DPP’s advisory panel says: “What the DPP has managed to achieve is a unified file format for HD and SD delivery, plus a standard metadata schema – both of which are incredibly important.”

In fact, you’d have to search long and hard to find anybody to disagree that the DPP’s progress on common standards was anything other than a major step forward. There was less common ground, however, over the second part of the DPP initiative, a report from industry analysts MediaSmiths International entitled The Reluctant Revolution – Breaking Down Barriers to Digital Production in TV.

The report said that while the move to end-to-end digital production was inevitable, the pace of change was slow, limited by the lack of standardised ways of working and solutions to the problem of digital media delivery. Some have taken issue with the report’s downbeat assessment of the range of digital delivery systems on offer and the potential of cloud-based storage as a way out of the industry’s digital delivery problems.

Object Matrix co-founder Nick Pearce-Tomenius argues that the report falls some way short of being completely representative, its findings the result of a survey of just 15 production companies out of a total of around 500. “It’s no silver bullet but then it is clearly not meant to be. It basically outlines the problems that need to be fixed as garnered from production companies and end users but disappointingly it doesn’t hint at a wider selection of the solutions already on offer. Intentionally or not, it throws up far more questions that it answers.”

Aframe head of marketing Simon Gannon adds: “I don’t think the report went deeply enough into the supply side of the industry. It was disappointing that the cloud was mentioned briefly and dismissed.”

Gannon takes particular issue with the report’s cost comparison of cloud based storage and the popular storage format LTO tape, with MediaSmiths pointing to the cloud’s high per GB storage costs (£1.19 per GB compared to £0.12 per GB for LTO).

“I don’t really go along with that as it’s not a like for like comparison. What the analysis didn’t take into account is the man hours it takes to upload, download and find anything again on LTO. When you add in the time it takes to find your content, things look a bit different.”

Whatever the attractions of using expensive dedicated fibre networks or cloud-based storage as a means of digital delivery, the reality is that broadcasters, post houses and indies have been happy to stick to tape based delivery – usually on HDCAM SR – because it’s a cost-effective, highly stable format guaranteed to last a very long time.

Of course things are about to change. The DPP stated that broadcasters would begin accepting digital delivery of programmes from 2012, with a gradual move over to digital delivery as the preferred system by 2014.

The key reason that file-based production has made such rapid inroads into the TV production is not down to the enthusiasm amongst programme makers for file based media, but rather that they don’t have much choice. Most manufacturers are offering file-based cameras these days. To go the final mile and deliver the programme digitally, producers would need access to high bandwidth secure fibre connections with an initial start up cost of around £20k.

That’s something that The Farm Group’s Dave Klafkowski knows all about, having invested heavily in The Farm’s own online approvals and delivery service Fred, used on shows such as The X Factor, Tracey Beaker and Total Wipeout. “It could be used for content delivery and we are already in discussion with a few indies about using our system, which is more secure than cloud-based applications such as Vimeo.”

While developing dedicated systems of this kind might be appropriate for some producers, the issue for many is that they would only require a high capacity delivery network intermittently. For smaller indies a pay-as-you-go delivery network is needed, which is where many perceive the big opportunity exists.

Aframe’s Simon Gannon insists that the onus shouldn’t be on production companies to solve the problems of digital delivery. “They should focus on producing great content not the technical delivery and transport of it.”

So far at least a TV equivalent to Adstream – the commercials industry’s standardised content management and delivery tool – has failed to emerge, the reason being that the business models are very different.

The Farm’s Klafkowski explains: “There are two reasons that an Adstream for the TV industry hasn’t emerged. One is that the file sizes for TV are so comparatively large. The second is that the broadcast model is one to one – one producer sending an episode to one broadcaster. Adstream works because having somebody managing the process of sending a 30 second spot to 50 different places makes sense. But if I’m delivering The X Factor all I have to do is get it to Technicolor to play out – why bother sending it to somebody else to send it there when I might just as well send it there myself.”

Digital delivery is more common over satellite in places such as Australia or the USA where distances are greater and sending drives or tapes via courier is less practical. There remain quite a few additional issues to iron out when it comes to digital delivery, adds Klafkowski, particularly at the broadcast end of the network.

“If lots of people are trying to deliver to a broadcaster at the same time it’s not like a despatch desk, where certain media can easily be prioritised. The data will just sit there – and the system needs a way to prioritise it. And if it doesn’t arrive on time, because your 100MB connection is contended over the last mile, who is to blame?”

Also with data you have the issue of proliferation, he adds. “If I send you a copy of my file, I have replicated it. Then you replicate it again inside your system, so who has the master?” Despite the report’s downbeat assessment of cloud-based systems, their importance in the delivery of content is likely to become more and more significant.

Many see the future of digital delivery to be all about secure, cloud-based systems provided by content owners which broadcasters go to to download the media they require. Mentorn, for instance, now distributes its America’s Cup coverage to broadcasters via its online cloud service America’s Cup Engine.

The bad news is that it’s likely to be another cost which producers will have to absorb into their bottom lines. But at least they won’t be spending thousands of pounds each year on couriers dropping off tapes.


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