Content creators in the digital age have lots of balls to juggle. While in the past, the focus for producers has been to create compelling linear content that can move audiences and win ratings (among other things), in today’s marketplace they have to do that and then some! In an environment where audiences are consuming content “whenever they want it” and “wherever they want it”, content creators have to ensure that their content is available in the technical formats that best suit the growing number of distribution platforms. WAIT! Don’t stop reading, we know what you’re thinking, “we are CREATIVE people” not technical – we will leave that to the “techies”… WRONG.
As a producer whose goal is to ensure your content is distributed as widely as possible, you must ensure and plan for digital media distribution. Not as an afterthought, but as a front-and-centre priority. It’s true that currently TV broadcasters are not all asking for digital distribution elements, mostly because they are doing the encoding themselves in order to meet their own requirements. However, some territories, Europe in particular, are starting to inquire about HD and other digital formats so it’s just a matter of time before producers will have to provide all digital elements.
But don’t worry – help is on the way. Keep reading for some insight into some of the things that you can do right now that will help you jumpstart your digital media distribution planning.
A Key Point to Ponder: Traffic Tracking and Analysis
One of the most important things you can do to ensure that your interactive content can be marketed and exploited like your linear content is to ensure you track and catalogue interactive online games/activities in the same way as you do your linear content. The best way to organize and manage interactive assets is to produce them in a modular fashion in the first place so they are all stand alone pieces. From a distribution point of view this is a more logical and flexible way to sell and most buyers don’t want an entire website anymore. A proper database (very much like any linear content rights management database) should be set up to manage the distribution of these assets. It is interesting to note that in general, distribution companies will agree to make the licences of interactive content non-exclusive. This is an advantage for content producers as it allows for interactive content to cast a wider net and therefore provide more exposure (and more potential for sales) for the property. In addition, with a proper tracking system one could extract meaningful analysis on the effectiveness of each distribution platform.
Other things you can do to help you ensure better digital distribution opportunities include:
Consider encoding your original production in a Mezzanine file format.
This term refers to a very high quality master digital file from which all other delivery formats are derived.
The encoding process involves playing a production tape master from an industry standard VTR (Digital Betacam, HDCamSr, etc.) and feeding the signal to an encoder system. The encoder samples the input signal and creates a master digital file in a format chosen by the user such as MPG2. Some encoders can create multiple formats in one encoding pass.
Once the high quality mezzanine file is created, it is used as a transcoding source for the multitude of delivery formats that exist, such as WMV, Quicktime, H264, FLV, etc. The mezzanine file is also archived for long term storage to permit transcoding to new delivery formats as they emerge.
Sounds easy right? Okay like everything in the real world, there are challenges.
Invest in High Definition Masters and Encoding
In the last few years, some of the biggest challenges for producers as they prepare their assets for the marketplace have been:
How much they could afford to invest in producing their content in High Definition (HD), determining file sizes and the correct format for online download or streaming purposes, and of course, the never-ending cost issue – i.e the overall costs of encoding.
Although the prices of HD editing and encoding equipment have come down significantly, these costs are still the sole responsibility of the producer, with no increases in revenue to offset them.
So, what’s a producer to do? Here are some helpful hints:
For most production companies, who generally outsource their post activities, the key is to negotiate upfront with the post house to get the best possible rate that includes encoding costs and incorporate these costs into the production budget. Post-production facilities are rather competitive these days so negotiation is definitely an option.
For producers that are starting to build their libraries and have products that are in demand in the digital market place (shorts, lifestyle segments, children’s as examples) investing in encoding equipment can be beneficial. A decent set-up with HD capability should run around C$35K (vs. double that a year or so ago).
Soul Search First
So you are pumped! You want to do the digital dance. You’re ready to invest in digitization and you are excited about all the potential opportunities that might come with having your content ready for multiple platforms.
But wait. Just before taking that next step, i.e re-mortgaging the house, maxing your credit card, giving up your yoga classes so that you can actually finance all this – there are a few things you will have to consider. A few big things. For example, is your content really suitable for other platforms? In the traditional TV model, half-hour or one hour programs have been the norm and these content lengths don’t always translate well to other platforms. Depending on the screen size of the devices, some of this “long form” content is just not playable, so producers need to consider that before investing resources to migrate their content to other platforms. For example, unedited car chase scenes, or any fast moving sequences with big sound will not work on most mobile screens. On the contrary, comedy sketches work extremely well on a small screen.
Flexible Content for Multi-Platform Distribution
It is difficult to produce content at the onset of such diverse delivery systems, but some advanced thinking benefits hugely down the road. Also, a good editing professional, who understands these devices, is invaluable in enhancing the user experience.
Most producers are too constrained financially to think about additional content during production. However, one can be strategic in the production process (even at the scripting stage) by making sure the content is as flexible as possible for multi-platform distribution. For content creators, the objective is still the same – audience engagement. It does require non-linear thinking and an understanding of basic marketing principles to be successful at creating engaging and flexible multi-platform content. Some examples:
Script: Highlight short segments and/or alternative endings shot but make them only available online or on DVD.
Shooting: Take advantage of other camera angles for “another perspective” to engage the audience with the characters
Editing: Take advantage of mash-up tools, video blogs and strategically placing passive content for online or on-air promotion opportunities
Website: Modular production so pieces of your content can live anywhere, even as downloadable content
A Final Word to the Web Wise – Rights Management and Broadcaster Relationships
So you’ve done all this work, spent all this money to digitize your content and then your broadcaster wants to benefit without putting some skin in the game. You know the drill, many TV producers are complaining about broadcasters taking too many rights. As seen in many US models, broadcasters currently own the majority of the eyeballs on professionally produced content and are aggressive in making sure it stays that way in order to remain the most effective way of promoting a property. The trouble is, for all the rights broadcasters are acquiring only a fraction of them are being exploited, making them essentially “rights squatters”. In many producers’ view this severely limits the potential exposure of the property in other platforms. The truth is that most broadcasters are interested in two things: increasing their brand equity and making money. That’s funny. That’s what content producers are interested in doing too. So that being the case, consider working with your broadcaster to put an equitable deal together so that digital platform rights do not go to waste.