The 1-2-3s of syndication

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Say you’re a basic-cable network, settling into a digital rhythm. These days, a big part of the beat is distributing syndicated video to everywhere it wants to be, beyond the TV: To mobile phones, computer screens, portable players.

Also big: Getting digital video to Web-based video destination sites — iTunes,, Netflix, Amazon, Fancast.

This week’s translation examines what it takes to publish video nonlinearly — from the perspective of a fictitious, half-hour TV episode. Let’s call it Big Stella. (I happen to know a big dog named Stella.)

Let’s say the latest episode of Big Stella is already digitized when it arrives at the broadcast operations center of the Canine Channel. It gets “ingested,” into storage, like every other incoming title. Copies are made to preserve the master file.

One of the Big Stella
copies is called a “distribution intermediate.” It’s typically sized similarly to a standard-definition broadcast stream. It has one job: To be the frame-accurate proxy for transcoding the episode into all the different sizes and shapes it needs to become.

How many different sizes are needed? Fancast might want the episode in Flash and in Windows Media, at a specified bit rate. Hulu might want it at another bit rate. And so on. This is the norm.

(Some programmers transcode internally. Others outsource it. The money changes hands on the basis of how much digital video gets moved, stored and transcoded.)

Big Stella also needs identifying metadata: Title, description, closed-caption information, expiration. That data gets tagged to each 15-minute chunk of the Big Stella file. Note: Metadata gets tagged once, but usually needs to be fed into different destination sites in different ways. (Seeing a pattern here? “Write once, run everywhere” isn’t as easy as it sounds.)

Which brings us to scheduling. This is where it all comes together forBig Stella’s journey to the Web. A schedule gets created, one for each destination. Each schedule covers the nuances of each destination: File type, bit rate, presentation of metadata.

In the old days of video distribution for the Web — two years ago — this all happened with spreadsheets and removable hard drives. These days, headcount alone for media-asset management is in the high double digits for some networks.

That’s the short version of how programmers get syndicated video to places other than the TV. Next time, a deeper dive on what it takes to launch DOCSIS 3.0.

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