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A Programmer's View Of Multiscreen

2/07/2011 10:08 AM

In doing the research for this week’s Wonder Women profile of HBO executive Diane Tryneski (see Special Section), I stumbled upon a piece of data that astounded me: Since 2006, the number of video assets HBO creates every month went from 500 to 60,000. That’s two orders of magnitude, plus some.

I’ve been trying to put it in context. My sister makes high-end, handmade ladies hats. Say she makes 500 hats a year. To sew 60,000 a year by 2016, she’ll need a lot more attic space, sewing machines, fabric and people. About 120 times more.

What the heck is going on? Let’s start with the term “video asset.” An “asset” used to be the electronic version of a title, including metadata and poster art. The digital version of Pan’s Labryinth, to use a 2006 release, is an example of a video asset.

What happened since then, of course, is the proliferation of “pads, pods and tabs,” or screens that aren’t at all TVs, but display video just fine.

Suddenly, “content creation” is all about how to automate the workflows around packaging and distributing content so it gets to those new screens - because, of course, the makers of those screens don’t exactly get to get together to discuss which encoding formats will attract the most viewers.

Let’s take it from a different point of view. Let’s say that you are a digital video asset. You were created digitally and ingested into a video server in a “mezzanine” format - the highest possible quality (technically speaking, 45 Megabits per second).

What happens next is a testament to how many types of devices want to display you.

There’s an SD and HD version of you, of course. And within each of those, you’ll be julienned into eight or more different “adaptive bit rates.” This means slivering you into different-size chunks, so that if your transmission path bogs down during playout, you can downshift to a slower speed - or vice versa, in a bandwidth glut.

You need to exist in multiple language versions and with closed captioning. You need (Adobe) Flash, (Google) WebM and HTML5 versions, to run on devices powered by (Apple) iOS, (Google) Android and emerging tablets. And don’t forget your game-console version.

For program networks, it’s a fairly major retooling, and HBO isn’t alone. It’s a transition from being all about satellite uplinks to being all about fiber backbones; from server clusters to data centers.

Tryneski describes it as “creating content in a more elemental way … so that if you’re editing, packaging or distributing, it’s almost pick and pack, I need this, this and this.” Can’t help but think she’s making it sound easier than it really is.
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