Such is the challenge confronting anyone hoping to run a multichannel broadband TV service that monetizes the surge in online multi-device video consumption without diluting legacy revenue streams. As described in March (p. 1), big networks like Disney ABC are gearing up for this much more ambitious use of the Internet to maximize consumer engagement, if they can surmount the immense operational hurdles of becoming what amounts to virtual MCVDs (multichannel video distributors) in their own right.
Fortunately, where the archive management challenge is concerned, it turns out there’s a new way to feed the multi-stream beast that could set the stage for a groundswell of new broadband TV initiatives. A video library management and workflow software platform developed by Denver-based Levels Beyond is providing some key unnamed players the tools to create and access a unified storage system containing every piece of content, all the metadata ever compiled in production and postproduction for that content and all the ads that are available for insertion into any stream for any specific device.
“People want to package assets and metadata together,” says Danny Gold, executive vice president for strategy and solutions at Levels Beyond. “They want to log in, access and pull down assets without worrying about files.”
Levels Beyond has built its business to address a multitude of customer applications that benefit from this kind of ready access to assets based on a sophisticated structuring of metadata to facilitate finding what’s needed. For example, one major unnamed customer is using the platform to manage a big volume of stored advertisements for access and placements across multiple channels of cable TV programming. Another, also unnamed, started out using the system to operate a large archive of promotional material and is now expanding usage to support digital ingestion and metadata tagging of massive amounts of TV episodes previously stored on tape.
Digitization of old files with the means to access and transfer content digitally is nothing new, of course. But even with the most up-to-date digital storage systems the file searches are restricted by modes of identification that are file- rather than metadata-based or, at best, rely on pre-packaged metadata from different sources that is hard to search and typically provides limited amounts of useful information.
The degree to which Levels Beyond has expanded what can be achieved with digital asset archiving and management is illustrated by what Zuffa, LLC, owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) brand, has been able to do with its distribution partners, including Fox, Fox Deportes, FX, Fuel TV, Speed, and all of Fox’s regional sports networks. All told they are drawing 350 hours of original-programming output from UFC this year, or nearly four times last year’s output.
Capturing, tagging and organizing 19 years’ worth of league content for access on the digital platform took a staff of more than 20 people nearly a full year, but it was well worth the effort, says Christy King, director of new media and technology at Zuffa. “Levels Beyond demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the production and distribution challenges we face in delivering the sport of MMA (mixed martial arts) to multiple distribution points in the U.S. and in 130 plus foreign territories,” she says.
The resulting operational environment for the league offers an illustration of what instant access to live fights and 30,000 hours of archived content can mean to a worldwide programming operation, notes Levels Beyond CEO and founder Art Raymond. Utilizing the advanced metadata system, users not only can capture metadata at the video level; they can relate and associate media, functions and facilities for content output from storage at the time-code level, allowing UFC to access live and archived content on the fly and push it to any partner or viewing device.
“It’s beyond just search and reuse,” Raymond says. “It’s a faster, simpler, better way to assemble video and prepare it for reuse and injection into projects.”
Levels Beyond’s approach to metadata creation and content tagging is unique in several ways, notes Danny Gold. For example, the process avoids the hit-or-miss nature of keyword searching by including categorization of information by types within the metadata fields. If a UFC director wants to show a segment from an old fight but can’t remember the fighter’s name, he or she can search by entering “fighters” and find the name from the list in the metadata field.
“Another thing we do is to relate metadata from the specific to the whole, so what’s happening in 15 seconds of a piece is related to the entire piece,” Gold says. For example, any live sports event typically will have four cameras feeding video, which, if properly tagged, can be searched from archive for just the right clip to reference a past event during a live broadcast.
Another important function has to do with what Gold calls “metadata inheritance,” which is the preservation of metadata that typically is created during production but dropped in the final metadata formatting process in postproduction. By pulling this information into the algorithmic categorization and tagging process the system provides a far richer foundation for utilizing stored assets, he says.
Integration of the Reach Engine platform with multiple vendors’ editing, transcoding and delivery solutions enables production workflow access to the digital library, Gold adds. Through the Reach Engine Production interface, users can ingest media, create clips from raw materials, send those clips to NLEs (non-linear editing systems) such as Avid, FCP, Premiere and XML, import and modify rough cut timelines and export final outputs using Telestream’s Episode Engine, he explains. As for metadata migration, the Reach Engine utility can be used to extract all of the metadata from Final Cut Server, CatDV or other previously used open production asset management systems.
In a new development on the production side Levels Beyond has developed an extension of its content management system for the Adobe Premiere Pro editing software, enabling Adobe Premiere Pro users access and control of library content directly from the editor. This plug-in, called the Reach Engine Access, is compatible with Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 and the upcoming release of Adobe Premiere Pro CS6, Gold says.
“With the Reach Engine Access panel, editors have access to entire video libraries and archives, locally or remotely, directly inside Adobe Premiere Pro,” he explains. Editors can drag and drop content onto their desktops as well as use the search, archive and annotation tools for Reach Engine, without having to leave Adobe Premiere Pro.
So far, the Levels Beyond platform has been leveraged to streamline operations in the traditional spaces associated with TV production and distribution. Producers gain much faster access and use of pre-existing material. Live sports operations with the need to associate something happening in a match or game with a clip or data snippet from the past are freed from reliance on a pre-set compilation of files.
But there’s a much more transformative role to be played by such a platform when it comes to fulfilling the broadband TV vision, which is how at least one major provider of multiple broadcast and cable programming networks is engaging with Levels Beyond. The basic concept entails enabling fast search and instantaneous access to an episodic library of every aired show, including shows coming fresh out of production, Gold says.
These capabilities allow the network company’s newly expanded online TV team to orchestrate how all assets are distributed directly to end users and to over-the-top partners on a 24-hour basis. At the direct-to-user level there will be virtual channels of niche versions of known brand networks going out live and on-demand over adaptive rate streams to all types of connected devices. At the same time, various content elements will be packaged in fulfillment of specific contracts for distribution to the OTT partners.
How all this unfolds publicly remains to be seen, but it won’t happen all at once, sources say. A critical component to getting things off the ground is rights management, which requires tagging of content with information that tells the people at the distribution console where and when each program can be fed.
In this fashion, highly compelling virtual niche channels can be populated with the most compelling content available while avoiding any conflicts with premium content dedicated for subscription TV distribution. At the same time, the platform will be able to execute a comprehensive network-controlled version of TV Everywhere distribution to authenticated subscribers of its affiliated MCVDs.
This unnamed company is farthest along in use of the Levels Beyond Reach Engine to execute on this type of strategy, Gold says. But other network providers are looking at doing the same thing. In fact, he adds, the vision that the TV business would shift to this type of broadband-focused distribution model has reshaped the development and marketing strategy for the years ahead at Levels Beyond.
“This is our new five-year business plan,” Gold says. “It’s where we’re laser focused.”