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Digital asset management
Too disorganized for digital era? DAM it!

Originally published in Current, Nov. 17, 2003
By Steve Behrens

None too soon, the rational ideal of DAM is taking shape for public broadcasters in the mist above Boston’s fens.

WGBH this month opened a lab in its headquarters where stations and other media companies can kick the tires of a digital asset management system developed with Sun Microsystems and other vendors. The DAM thing can keep track of every useful bit of digital video, audio, web code and other material that comes in and goes out of the station.

CPB, meanwhile, is preparing to ask for comments on a proposed dictionary of terms called PB Core that pubcasters can use in their databases for easy exchange of digital material they create.

David Fanning, senior executive producer of WGBH’s Frontline, testifies to the value of all this behind-the-scenes orderliness, though his documentary team only recently began to use the new DAM system.

“All I know is, I look at this and that’s a tool I’d like to have,” Fanning says in an interview.

Even without DAM, having a rich archive of material about Osama Bin Laden from previous broadcasts made a great difference in how Frontline responded to 9/11. To make a string of fast-turnound Frontlines on terrorism, Fanning’s unit called for 1,500 items from the WGBH archives in two months, occupying 625 hours of archivists’ time, according to Amy Rantanen, director of information technology and asset management systems.

Now that Frontline has adopted DAM, its producers in the future will be able to retrieve 2003 materials much more quickly and cheaply.

“I can imagine going back into interviews with [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz, [defense expert Richard] Perle and others, if all those interviews are accessible,” he says.

Fanning wishes his team had access to outtakes from past reporting. “We were dying to go back deeper into that stuff,” he says. “A lot of those outtakes never made it into any kind of archive.” Reviewing material from the past often inspires work on a new project, he says.

Benefits of DAM would spread to other departments as well, since a piece of audio or video—digitized, tagged with metadata, and stored on a networked server—could be used simultaneously by TV and radio editors, publicists, promo producers, web and book publishers, and closed-caption writers. Once digitized, the material could be spat out in multiple file formats and resolutions that broadcasting, the Internet and other media use.

Making it happen

With all its complexity, WGBH has big needs for a big DAM system, but the Bostonians’ work has helped smaller stations as well, says David Felland, engineering chief at Milwaukee PTV. The two-channel Milwaukee complex has spent about $200,000 so far on DAM, including hardware from Sun and software from Sun’s key partner, Artesia Technologies.

Felland applauds WGBH for maintaining an open standards, open systems approach that encourages various manufacturers to cooperate in creating a comprehensive system from production through distribution—and into archives and repurposing.

Though Sun admittedly wants to make some sales, its iForce Solution Center at WGBH will put together a DAM system for a client even if the client wants to bring in equipment that competes with Sun’s, according to Sun marketing exec Pallavi Shah.

Sun has only a handful of major iForce centers in the country where it gives DAM demos, and the lab at WGBH is the only one not located in a Sun facility, she says. She says Sun chose WGBH as a site because broadcasters have stringent needs for DAM and because “nobody has as many distribution channels as WGBH has.”

Sun is fighting a multifront war with IBM for DAM-related sales. IBM also offers packages of various sizes with partners including Stellent Inc., a Twin Cities company that specializes in DAM. Stellent plans a telemarketing campaign to sell a limited Windows-based bundle including storage capacity for under $100,000, says Vice President Jeff Stromberg, whose media- server company, Ancept, was acquired by Stellent this year.

WGBH contributed years of staff time to its DAM effort, but by volunteering as Sun’s development partner it acquired donated equipment worth more than $1 million.

At the center of Sun’s offering is its DAM Reference Architecture.

“The reference architecture is a cookbook that talks about how all the pieces of gear can be linked together so they can talk to each other,” says David Liroff, WGBH’s chief technology officer.

The reference architecture is available without charge to companies that sign nondisclosure agreements. It documents where material comes from and goes to, what kinds of hardware and software are needed, and (in a “sizing guide”) how organizations of different sizes can choose configurations that fit, says Shah.

To create a comprehensive system, Sun and WGBH worked with vendors including Artesia, Sony, Apple, Harris Automation Solutions, Thomson Grass Valley, Virage and Telestream to develop protocols that let them work with each other.

WGBH wanted to built a stationwide DAM system that allows content to be tagged and moved easily through its life cycle and many afterlives. Completed programs will carry metadata describing them for newspapers’ program listings as well as the electronic program guides used by digital TV receivers and TiVo machines.

The transition requires more work with people than with computer code. WGBH spent many staff hours getting departments’ agreement on their metadata needs and finding ways to translate data kept in more than 300 older databases they developed over the years.

For now, WGBH is likely to put newly produced material into the DAM system but ingest older material only when someone calls it out of the archives, says David MacCarn, chief technologist. This will be cheaper than trying to digitize and catalog 300,000 hours of old material, he says. “Going forward is tough,” MacCarn says. “Going backward is tougher.”

Users will be able to search for material through a Web-like interface. The metadata will often be stored in a database separate from the media files, MacCarn says, but users won’t know that. When someone selects a video segment, for example, the system will display a low-resolution “proxy” file on the screen. After production is complete, the program will be archived using a preservation format that archives the metadata and the media in a single file.

Still on WGBH’s “to do” list is rights management, says MacCarn. Though the DAM system includes data fields about copyright, it stops short of managing rights. In particular, it lacks mechanisms to help rights owners control usage of programs.

It seems sensible that DAM will save staff time and dollars, says Liroff, but WGBH still lacks figures to prove it. The best indication is that DAM has saved money for some ad agencies and movie studios, he says.

WNET completely supports the reference architecture developed at WGBH, says Ken Devine, technology chief at the New York station. Some day he expects to have a DAM system much like WGBH’s, but he says it’s still difficult to prove it will yield a good return on investment. “There is less appetite for it here for that reason,” he says.

A shared dictionary

While many DAM systems in public broadcasting won’t reach outside a building, the digital assets they manage have happy feet.

To ease the exchange of digital material, CPB last year launched an initiative to define a shared language for metadata. After many conference calls, meetings and field interviews, an expert panel whittled down a list of 249 terms to 58, including some borrowed from the internationally recognized Dublin Core standard.

The resulting PB Core dictionary [proposed text] has labels for such things as “Creator.Role” (for example, is it the composer or director?), Format.AudioDataRate (32 kilobits per second or 1.2 megabits or what?) and Type.Genre (Paranormal or Romance?).

Participants in the project imagined that metadata about content topics someday will help members of the public construct adult education courses for themselves from material on pubcasting servers, says Alison M. White, project director at CPB.

CPB spent $250,000 on travel and other costs for the consultations, and stations donated their earlier research and weeks of additional staff time, White says.

In coming weeks CPB will ask for comments on the proposed terms, aiming to wrap up discussion by summer, says White. The initiative also will consider a standard file format, such as Excel or FileMaker, for the metadata.
It’s possible with some effort to write tables that “map” or translate data from one dictionary to another, White says. If WGBH’s metadata system keeps a particular piece of information in field 10 of its database and BBC’s system keeps it in field 18, Liroff explains, the meaning can be mapped automatically from one format to the other.

But a common dictionary will ease the exchange of digital stuff of all kinds, and CPB is considering whether it should be required for all CPB-funded projects, according to White.
Advocates of PB Core eventually may seek the blessing of a national standard-setting body such as the Association of Moving Image Archivists, MacCarn says.

Web page posted Dec. 4, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.


Why metadata matters: It greases digital wheels, by Steven Vedro.

Frequently asked questions about DAM for those who don't know what it means, by Mary Jane McKinven.


WGBH's Digital Asset Management website.

PB Core metadata dicitionary, compiled in a CPB initiative.

Sun's page on DAM reference architectures.

Artesia Technologies' page on DAM for media organizations.

Stellent Inc., an IBM partner in content management.

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