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From Tapes to Bits

From Tapes to Bits

The inability to track such assets efficiently often leads to wasted effort and higher costs. To solve the problem, some organizations are turning to digital asset management (DAM) systems, a combination of hardware and software that serves as a centralized catalogue for audio, video, text and images.

With a mix of promises, concessions and trade-offs, public broadcaster WGBH convinced a bevy of vendors to create a reference architecture for digital asset management

When terrorists demolished the twin towers on September 11, 2001, producers of the PBS documentary program Frontline needed to quickly create shows about al-Qaeda. They had footage of Osama bin Laden from previous broadcasts, but it was on videotapes and CDs stored in cardboard boxes on library shelves. As a result, archivists spent 625 hours over a period of two months fielding producers' requests for material, finding it and then reshelving it.

The same problem can plague other organizations where marketing departments struggle to keep track of logos, product photos, PowerPoint presentations, Webcasts and press releases. And the inability to track such assets efficiently often leads to wasted effort and higher costs. To solve the problem, some organizations are turning to digital asset management (DAM) systems, a combination of hardware and software that serves as a centralized catalogue for audio, video, text and images.

For 11 years, WGBH, the public television station in Boston where Frontline is produced, had struggled to create a DAM system that integrated with the rest of the organization's workflows and production technology. But when WGBH started the effort, standards for digitization were just emerging, according to David Yockelson, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner, who covers DAM. And hardware didn't have enough power to deal with the 2 terabytes of new content that broadcasters such as WGBH generate daily. All of this made for a Herculean task for the small broadcaster, which didn't have the IT staff or the funding for such an intensive undertaking. Even now, WGBH has just 22 IT workers and an IT budget of $4.2 million.

But WGBH is in a much different position today thanks to partnerships it forged in 2000 with companies such as Sun Microsystems, OpenText (a provider of collaboration and content management software that purchased DAM system provider Artesia in August 2004), and a variety of other vendors in the digital media and broadcasting space to create an open, standards-based reference architecture for DAM. The reference architecture serves as a manual not only for public broadcasters but for any organization with the need to manage rich media, including government and educational organizations, advertising agencies, Web and print publishers, retailers and manufacturers. The reference architecture is available for free to anyone who wants to view it, as long as he signs a nondisclosure agreement to protect Sun's intellectual property. The first version of the reference architecture was published in April 2003, and a second version that features more vendor partners, more storage connectivity, more support for different file types, and the ability to monitor and track contracts and rights came exactly two years later.

Because of this partnership, the public broadcaster has a DAM system that integrates with its editing, production, trafficking and broadcast systems, and that gives WGBH employees Web-based access to millions of content files. The DAM system enables WGBH to share its content internally and with other public TV stations and educational institutions, and to deliver its content via more distribution channels and in more customized ways to viewers and station members. At WGBH, the DAM system is capable of distributing data at a rate of 20MBps to 30MBps to individual PBS stations. IDC (US) did an extensive study of the implementation and predicts that WGBH may be able to improve production efficiency by as much as 40 percent.

This small organization that relies on public generosity and government funding to sustain itself convinced a group of vendors to share proprietary information and devote staff and equipment on its behalf to create this system by catering to vendors' bottom lines, playing them off their competition, getting buy-in from the vendor CEOs and by leveraging its expertise in broadcasting and its reputation as one of the most highly respected TV stations in the United States. Those are tactics most companies can exploit when negotiating with vendors, especially when, like WGBH, they want to be an early adopter of a leading-edge technology that will give them a competitive advantage. But the effort wasn't completely one-sided. WGBH had to make some dubious concessions too - trade-offs that may not have caused the TV station much pain, but ones that a public company would be hard-pressed to duplicate. In the end, WGBH got the DAM system it had been trying to build for years and, in the process, helped create an architecture that has already been adopted by New York public TV station WNET, Milwaukee Public Television, Comcast and Major League Baseball.

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