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Warner Bros. eyes digital distribution

May 20, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Warner Bros. is breaking ground for a digital distribution system that could transform the way the entertainment giant delivers the vast majority of its material to customers.
Shipping CDs, sending videotapes and arranging satellite feeds to distribute content may become relics of the past, with such assets being disseminated digitally via broadband or satellite connections. This long-term endeavor should allow Warner Bros. to better control and manage the way its assets are dispersed inside and outside the company and to its corporate cousins.
“The first piece is getting our arms around the asset management piece and getting rights management inserted as part of that,” said Darcy Antonellis, senior VP of distribution technology and operations for Warner Bros.
To do that, the studio has begun implementing the first phase of an asset management solution devoted to the support and delivery of advertising and publicity material. The company is developing a database, a Web site and a “media repository,” made up of the servers that hold the digital assets. The first of this project’s four phases will be rolled out during the next 18 to 24 months.
Instead of receiving CD-ROMs, slides and prints, users will be able to access advertising and publicity material through a password-protected Web site. While allowing the media to access photos and materials online is nothing new, what’s unique about the Warner Bros. approach is that it is only the beginning of a new companywide distribution mechanism that will eventually include detailed rights information for each division’s content. “It’s a way of changing the way we manage [assets] internally so we can manage the distribution of them,” Ms. Antonellis said.
Rudimentary rights information-essentially whether or not a user can have the material-will be part of the initial rollout. Future iterations will contain detailed contractual information such as licensing windows. For instance, a movie could be encoded for video-on-demand with contractual data specific to the licensee and then delivered digitally to that licensee.
“We hope to do a lot more shipping via file transfer,” Ms. Antonellis said. “The long-term goal of content providers is to get to a point of fulfillment operations via digital distribution.”
The system will be rolled out for other divisions in the order of the size of their files, with divisions with the largest files being last. The company’s many businesses include television, film and home video. Ms. Antonellis would like the system to enable cross-access with sister companies such as HBO and Turner.
To allow for the most efficient distribution, the data needs to be attached to the asset. The logical way to do that is to embed metadata as close to the creation of the content as possible, such as when a show is being taped for the first time, she said.
Equipment makers are now devising cameras that allow a user to input metadata about the shoot at the initial point of acquisition. Panasonic’s D5 and DVCPro tape formats contain extra room to record ancillary data about the shoot in addition to the audio and video itself. The company is developing a camera that will allow the input of metadata onto the tape while the footage is shot.
“More important than being on the tape is that’s it’s on the file, so I keep the data linked to the file,” said Philip Livingston, VP, technical liaison, for Panasonic Broadcast. The metadata then travels with video throughout its life as a replacement for scraps of paper with notes inserted into tape boxes.
Some data will need to be input later since rights information is tied to the distribution of the video and differs depending on the use. The video file would need a placeholder for metadata on rights to be inserted down the line, Ms. Antonellis said.
Other studios and entertainment companies are evaluating plans for asset management implementations. The Walt Disney Co. recently created a media index-a database that details in a “common language” all of the assets the company has across its various business units and what’s available for repurposing, said Edrolfo Leones, director, global media asset strategies for the company. “Because we repurpose content, that’s how a large degree of our new revenue is made,” he said. “It saves cost over the long term building a media asset management system.”
CBS has been airing nostalgia programs during sweeps, such as “50 Years From Television City,” and retracing the rights information for some of those assets was challenging, said Barry Zegel, VP, West Coast technical and production operations. “We found some of our libraries were on 3-by-5 cards.”
However, incorporating the rights information as metadata into the assets themselves could be complicated because contracts can be complex. CBS has not settled on a definitive plan yet for asset management but is currently building a database detailing its assets.
Sony Pictures is assessing its asset management needs and whether the greatest return on investment will come from archives, distribution, digital dailies, encoding, ingest or rights management, said Doug Chey, VP and divisional chief information officer, motion pictures and television productions.
Issues include whether the cost to distribute tapes, for instance, is more or less than the cost to distribute the content via broadband, Mr. Chey said.
“I think it’s realistic to think you can get distribution of content in a different way and to think we can get the technology and the pipeline in place to feed DVD and VOD, for instance,” he said. “We believe that probably this sort of stuff can be done. We just want to make sure we can do it right.”#