Digital assets reassembled for better use
A few years back, CNN executives met to discuss the future of many thousands of hours of archived video footage capturing some of the most important events of the past 21 years, much of which was gathering dust in the companys storehouses. Although the business centers on breaking news, it was difficult to find appropriate archival images quickly enough to use them, and often the footage was warehoused in Washington, D.C., when it was wanted in Atlanta.
Even more importantly, CNN was missing opportunities to resell its footage to media affiliates or to nonmedia companies for use in education or marketing campaigns. Other companies had no way of browsing CNNs archives to know what was available, and CNN had only a slow and limited ability to search for footage of particular types of events, convert it to an appropriate format and ship it over.
The digital revolution in media has made it far easier and less costly to manage media assets than ever before, yet companies such as CNN are only now beginning to realize their value and are starting to implement systems to leverage them. Print assets still make up most of the asset management market, and many systems are designed with that market in mind. Still, systems that specialize in managing video or high-quality images assets are on the rise.
"People are quickly learning that an image is an asset, just as a factory is, or a copyrighted work," says John Bacon, CEO of MediaBin, a company that specializes in managing images for customers such as Ford Motor, Mattel and Microsoft. "Theyre extremely valuable and they have to be protected. Some of Fords value comes from the picture of the pickup truck. Its what defines the company and enables commerce."
Aware of new technology that could ease access to its valuable footage, CNN decided that the time was right to create an all-digital environment that would allow easy tracking and sharing of archived content across all of its businesses, and facilitate sales and exchanges with other companies.
So began one of the biggest digital conversion projects ever undertaken. The $20 million project under way today will take CNNs 120,000 hours of archived material, now growing at a rate of 30,000 hours per year, and convert it into an online digital library that can be searched, accessed and purchased from anywhere in the world.
Video servers and data tapes, indexed scene-by-scene for easy searching, will replace the clunky libraries of videocassettes. No longer will companies need to use whats locally available or call a production assistant to search for the required footage and ship it.
The archive, a joint project of IBM and Sony Electronics, should be online by early next year. Sony is providing project management and testing facilities and large, robotic, magnetic tape-based storage systems. All of the database and the media management applications surrounding the archive, as well as the middleware to connect the archive storage, production systems and file servers for daily material is being built by IBM. CNN will use satellites and its own closed network to move its material around at high data rates. The process of digitizing the footage began this spring.
Now, "if you want to get a story out quickly, you grab whats on your desk and use it," says Gordon Castle, CNNs senior vice president of strategic digital systems research and development. "You know theres better material, but you have to dig to find it. Whats going to happen early next year when [the archive] comes online is people will be able to find not only material on their desktop, but also material from 21 years ago. Suddenly, you start to think differently about how you might want to use content."
Managing video assets can be particularly challenging. It involves the storage and transport of extremely large files, integration with complex production and editing tools, and the ability to search and index video footage, which has a time axis. Even more important, companies want the ability to index video archives so that appropriate footage can be easily retrieved for internal use or for resale.
"The reason asset management has become such a hot topic is companies are realizing that they need to distribute their content not just through the Web, but through traditional channels as well," says Scott Bowen, president and chief operating officer of Artesia Technologies, a digital asset management firm. "With asset management, theres finally a recognition that there needs to be a common source. If you just have one storefront, one Web site, then you dont need a sophisticated asset management system like ours. But if you need to distribute in more than one way and more than one medium, you need it."
The initial momentum is coming from the entertainment industry, primarily broadcasters, says Carolyn Layne, vice president and general manager of media and Web business at Ascential Software, which developed the system CNN uses to manage its daily content. "The biggest advantage of a media asset management system is reuse, and that happens the most with news and sports," she says.
Layne says that CNN is a leader among U.S. media companies in implementing digital asset management. Overall, she says, broadcasters in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, are generating more business for Ascential than U.S. broadcasters, perhaps because European broadcasters are often government subsidized.
Another sector moving to digitize its video assets is brick-and-mortar companies with powerful brands, such as Ford and Boeing. Such companies accumulate large libraries of video for tasks such as customer service and support, employee training and development, security, sales and marketing.
"Every company that has a brand will look like an entertainment company in the 21st century," says Michael Moon, president of Gistics, a San Francisco-area market research and consulting firm focused on digital asset management. "This means theyll have all the digital asset management problems of a [Walt] Disney [Co.] or a Warner Brothers."
Public-sector organizations such as courts, prisons and law enforcement are also moving to digitize video warehouses. Such organizations produce hours of surveillance footage that must be indexed and easily accessible. Ascential says that law enforcement agencies are among its biggest customers.
Transforming a large video library into a digital environment can be a daunting process requiring long-term vision, time and resources. Typically, as in the case of CNN, it even requires rethinking the companys business model, and looking at the new branding and revenue opportunities that a digital library might provide, Moon says.
The most appropriate system for managing the media will depend on the role of media in the enterprise and the legacy systems already in place. Companies with large quantities of assets such as CNN will likely have to design custom systems to meet all their requirements. Such systems will necessarily handle other types of media, such as images and text, as well as video.
While many digital asset managements systems have some video management capability, leading companies with tools particularly appropriate for video include Artesia; Ascential, which is the part of Informix that was not purchased by IBM; The Bulldog Group; Convera; eMotion; IBM; North Plains Systems; and WebWare, to name a few. Some companies will also provide asset management as a service to smaller companies that are unable to afford to invest in systems of their own.
To make video searchable, media asset management companies typically use "logging" software that creates storyboards, or stills, corresponding to each scene in a video that are indexed by faces, captions or audio. Virages Videologger is a particularly popular product for this task. Asset management tools can then store the layers of metadata on relational databases that are easily searched.
Systems may also provide conversion engines that will translate a video file into a format for a given purpose, or digital rights management capabilities so companies can better control the reuse of their material.
CNNs system uses Ascentials software to manage its daily news content, taking in feeds and indexing them with metadata frame by frame. Once indexed, the material can be browsed over the Internet from locations around the world at whatever resolution is appropriate for the speed of the connection.
Among the ongoing challenges for companies thinking of implementing media asset management is the plethora of vendors emphasizing different tasks, but with a great deal of overlap. Also problematic is the difficulty of integrating asset management systems with other systems in the enterprise. Forrester Research analyst Eric Scheirer says that the industry is ripe for consolidation and integration with general content management applications and other enterprise systems.
But for now, companies may have to mix and match, like CNN. "Ascential does a great job on daily content, and IBM does great middleware," Castle says. "Id hate to pick one. Building a one-size-fits-all is a very hard thing to do, since you delay things you could benefit from sooner.
"Were rebuilding this digital system to replace a current analog system in a complex and fast-moving environment," he adds. "We cant stop it."