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Discovery finds its footing in digital world

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When Discovery Channel viewers watched “Inside the Space Station” last year, they probably had no idea the show had been created in a radically different way than shows past. The special and several other Discovery productions were produced as part of the company’s pilot project to introduce digital asset management technology into its production process. The use of such technology should yield huge production efficiencies-and in some cases could shave 15 percent off the time it takes to produce a show.
The use of digital-asset-management systems allows an organization to get its arms around its content by making it better organized, more searchable and instantly accessible across the corporation, allowing for immediate collaboration. It can also eliminate the need to ship tapes around the country or the world, since footage can be accessed electronically.
Discovery has been a front-runner in introducing such technologies, a process that began six years ago with its implementation of Cinebase software to digitize and manage its archives. However, the technology was more difficult to implement than expected, said Peter McKelvy, vice president for the content management group at Discovery Communications. In addition, the networks needed a way to collaborate more efficiently on their current productions rather than their archives.
“Our real pain area is the here and now,” said Mr. McKelvy. “The international networks were having a hard time exploiting the here and now so everyone could have a collaborative and shared environment.”
As a result, the company decided to implement a pilot project in early 2000 to test the basics of digital asset management technology on some of its so-called super specials, such as “Eco-Challenge,” (which has since gone to USA Networks), “When Dinosaurs Roamed America,” which ran in July of this year, and “Inside the Space Station,” which was telecast in December 2000.
The networks relied on Convera Screening Room software for the digitizing and archiving of the footage. With Screening Room, each time a scene changes, the software captures and creates a thumbnail image of the scene and extracts metadata about it, such as the time code, the spoken portion of the audio track or closed captioning, said Dan Agan, vice president of corporate market development with Convera in Vienna, Va. “It creates a visual summary,” he said.
The search capability of the software is Web-based so that geographically distributed people and departments can search and preview video clips using a Web browser, he said. “It now becomes a rich asset because it’s been enhanced with additional information. Now it’s available to all the workers involved in the workflow,” he said. The newly digitized footage and the corresponding metadata are then stored on servers.
On “Inside the Space Station,” for instance, 80 hours of camera rolls were encoded and annotated using Screening Room as they arrived from the field. The writer was then able to view all the B-roll and select good scenes, photos and interviews more quickly, said Andrea Kalas, the director of Discovery’s Virtual Studio. The software also allowed for collaboration between the field and the home office in Bethesda, Md. The director of the show worked in a post-production facility in Los Angeles, while the international networks had instantaneous access to the footage from their location in London.
“[The international networks] need to build a production that is slightly different [for their audience],” Mr. McKelvy explained. The fast access to the B-roll allowed them to do that while eliminating the need to contact the Bethesda production team regularly and request that tapes be sent overseas.
“The footage is not on several different tapes in eight different locations,” he said. In addition, the software also allows other departments to have access to the material they need to create marketing products, promotional material and press releases, he added.
Discovery is in the process of expanding the pilot to roll out an enterprisewide media management system with a single repository for video from B-roll to archives to rough cuts using Artesia’s digital management software known as TEAMS. This software takes the logged video and incorporates it into a central repository of digital content, including not only video but also text, music and still photos. The software is then used to create rough cuts of shows.
About 300 users participated in the pilot, a number that should expand over the next two years to a few thousand users, including third-party producers and field producers, said Ms. Kalas. The next iteration should include better integration between the system and different editing tools, and it should allow scripts and productions notes to be linked with video so they can reside together on the system. The beta test will take place in October, with full production use by mid-December.
While it is difficult to place a specific dollar savings on the use of such tools, there are efficiencies to be gained when production teams and support staff across the company have access to the content. Money is saved when tapes no longer need to be shipped around the world, and time is gained when teams can access footage immediately. The production team on “Living Pulse,” slated to run internationally on Discovery Health later this year, used database software to manage its rough cuts, which had been transported digitally across the system. The use of such technology trimmed 15 percent off the time it would have taken to finish the project, said Ms. Kalas.
Discovery is one of the early adopters and visionaries in the digital-asset-management space, said Scott Bowen, president and CEO of Artesia in Rockville, Md. “What Discovery is doing is putting digital asset management at the core of their broadcast operations. It’s not about one program but the content assets that comprise the programming,” he said.
According to a March 2001 report by Bear Stearns, every company will at some point need some type of digital-asset-management tools. Benefits include lower cost per project, faster delivery time and reduced labor costs, said Bear Stearns.