Bridging the Gaps

Kicking Television

Photo credit: dhammza

There is intense focus at the moment on the potential of IP delivery of media. A slew of acronyms like VOD, OTT, and IPTV are being joined by terms such as, “second screen,” “orchestrated media,” “lean back,” and “lean forward,” viewing with more to come.

To date, the majority of effort in this area has managed to recreate the experience of watching television, but with a much less friendly user interface. VOD and catch up TV have eliminated the walk to the video store and the late fees that inevitably follow that walk, but have only managed to answer the question, “what’s the best way to watch TV on something shaped like a typewriter?”

The failure to create a compelling experience that is different than traditional television is not the fault of any individual or group. It is the fault of the two major gaps inherent in the flow from creation to delivery: a technological gap and a creative gap.

Technological Gap

There has been a remarkable transformation in the way television is produced. Cameras now capture images as digital files. Those files are transported around postproduction facilities over IP networks, both fixed and wireless. Editing is done on standard PCs that can handle multiple synchronised, metadata-rich video and audio streams without the need for dedicated outboard equipment. The industry has settled on H.264 as a standard video codec.

Simultaneously, there has been a remarkable transformation in the way that television is delivered. Video material is stored as digital files and transmitted to viewers over IP networks, both fixed and wireless. Viewing is done on standard PCs that can handle multiple synchronised, metadata-rich video and audio streams without the need for dedicated outboard equipment. The industry has settled on H.264 as a standard video codec.

It would seem natural that the connection between the creation and distribution of this material would be seamless, but unfortunately that is not the case. Before the media can get to the audience, it is first flattened into a single data stream and all the metadata is stripped away. It is then output to tape, transcoded to a different codec and then physically transported to a playout facility, where it is re-encoded as a file and a different, limited set of metadata is entered by hand. In some advanced facilities, tape has been eliminated, but the media is still flattened and the majority of metadata stripped away. All of those steps are in place to prepare the material for broadcast transmission via DVB-T, DVB-S, and DVB-C.

If the material is intended for distribution over IP networks in additional to standard transmission, the flattened media stream is then transcoded to H.264, the format that was used to capture it in the first place.

The situation gets even more complicated in the case of ancillary content such as Red Button, second screen, or orchestrated media. Often these auxiliary channels are used to provide access to alternate edits and related material captured during the production process. In order to create this material, the original rushes must be accessed again, re-edited, flattened, and re-encoded once again.

Creative Gap

The ultimate goal of the creation workflow is to pull a massive amount of audio and video material into a coherent package and turn it into a tape or a flattened file that is delivered to the right place at the right time. That process is antithetical to the creation of material that can be treated in the more flexible way that an interactive experience requires. This leads to the current situation where ancillary material is bolted on to the main programme, unfortunately usually in the form of a game.

As with the technology gap, this state of affairs is caused by the disconnection between the process of creation and the process of delivery. The only way to create a truly engaging experience is to begin at the beginning – write with the auxiliary channels in mind and make the creation of the additional material an integral part of the production and postproduction workflows.

The Bridge

We can bridge the technology gap by taking a new, holistic view of our distribution chains. Taking a “just in time” approach to distribution by treating a programme as a collection of media assets that are assembled into a coherent package at the appropriate time and on the appropriate device would give us tremendous flexibility. It would even be possible to deliver multiple assets along with an enhanced type of EDL that would do all the assembly on the viewer’s device. This would allow for both passive viewing and massively customisable presentation using the same package. Viewers could watch the “director’s cut” or make changes

of their own such as adding subtitles, dropping out sound effects and background music, or making creative changes if they are so inclined. We need to take this new approach into account beginning today. Projects aimed at replacing our playout infrastructure must be built with these new modes of delivery in mind. Post production systems must be directly integrated with these new systems to allow for greater flexibility and to avoid the reengineering that needs to be done every time we try to introduce new ways of interacting with our programmes.

In order to bridge the creative gap, we need to change our view of the entire production/distribution chain. If we look at the broadcast element of the chain as simply one part of a whole, as opposed to being the ultimate goal, we can begin to establish a way of working that encompasses all the ways our programmes can be experienced. The Connected Studio concept could be extended to encompass the creation of programmes, guiding the process from the point of initial inspiration.

What we do is all about telling stories. The inspiration for the story being told comes first, followed by the choice of the form. For the most part, that choice is binary: radio or television; we must develop a working discipline that considers the broad range of choices available to us.