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Perfecting the Digital Supply Chain: It's Not Sexy, But It's Important

30 Jun, 2014 By: Mark Fisher, Entertainment Merchants Association

Mentioning “supply chain” to most people in the industry is a sure way to end a conversation. It’s not that people don’t recognize its importance, it’s just not a sexy topic. We’d rather talk content or technology or business models — anything but supply chain!

But getting content from the suppliers through retail/distribution and, ultimately, to consumers efficiently and without quality issues is essential. In the digital environment, supply chain challenges are enormous. Getting a video online for consumers is much more complicated than getting DVDs or Blu-ray Discs in their hands. Content owners must ensure the online video plays seamlessly on a multitude of platforms and devices, that it is offered only in those territories in which it is authorized and that it is available only within the designated window, among a host of other issues.

And in this nascent industry with a multitude of start-ups, digital supply chain work processes were invented as they went along. Everybody was doing the same thing, but in different ways.

An example I often cite is the Content Availability Metadata, commonly called “avails.” These are the communications from content providers to retailers about when a video will be available online and in which territories, the title, language, run-time, HD or SD, EST or VOD, etc.

The avails were communicated in a variety of different formats, depending on the preferences of the content providers and the requirements of the retailers. Some were on spreadsheets, others in the bodies of emails, still others in PDFs, and I even heard about them being communicated via JPEGs.

As a result, this important data — which is necessary for licensing compliance as well as retailer workflows — had to be manually inputted into the retailers’ systems. This was incredibly time-consuming. One retailer told me it took them 50 person-hours to ingest 1,000 avails. And the system introduced the opportunity for error. Errors in transcribing avails can result in violations of licensing contracts if, as a result, a title is released early or not removed at the end of the license term.

A few years ago, online video retailers asked the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) for help promoting supply chain efficiencies in the digital marketplace. They recognized that common practices would ensure that more product could get to consumers quicker and with fewer technical glitches. They also saw there was no competitive advantage to be gained in insisting on proprietary methods in all aspects of the digital supply chain.

The first thing we facilitated was the development of a glossary for online video, as we found that different companies called things by different names.

When the glossary was completed, we identified five areas most in need of consistency: metadata, mezzanine files, image files, closed captions and avails. We put together working groups for each, and populated them with representatives from major online retailers, plus experts from content providers. Amazon, Google and Netflix were particularly active participants. The working groups have developed or are in the process of finalizing best practices, specifications and/or standards for each of these five supply chain areas.

We take the final work product and share it with a representative group of content providers and service and technology companies to ensure the process works for them as well.

Our first project was metadata standardization. Metadata is the information that identifies and describes the contents of a medium. This can include descriptive information such as title, artist, production company, seasonal/episodic description and original release date. It can also include technical information such as file types and codecs, as well as business-related information such as pricing and availability. Metadata for digital video distribution is too often communicated manually and in a variety of inconsistent structures and formats. Missing metadata or bad metadata that is translated to retailer sites can cause lost sales. In addition, delays entering the metadata into the retailer’s system can bottleneck the supply chain and impede product availability.

With DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, Entertainment ID Registry and MovieLabs, we created the Media Entertainment Core Metadata. The schema includes approximately 60 fields that provide the essential basic information about the content — such as title, run-time and cast — and information about the digital asset.

Another aspect of the digital supply chain that needed standardization was the mezzanine file. This online video master file is used to create manageable files for streaming or downloading. Content providers and post-houses are currently generating this film in numerous formats for various customers, which causes unnecessary costs and delays in the supply chain and constrains the flow of new content.

EMA’s “Mezzanine File Creation Specification and Best Practices” seeks to reduce duplicate work and provide optimal quality with a reasonable file size to enable rapid transmission. It addresses video preparation, video and audio encoding, and containers.

Image files have been a pain point in the supply chain because, at the request of retailers, content providers have been creating image files unique to each. Additionally, sometimes retailers will edit and adapt the image files they receive, which requires approval from the content provider. All this imposes costs and results in delays.

A working group developed image artwork best practices and specifications for both movie and TV properties. The spec establishes a set of consistent sizes, file formats, colors, naming and the like for image artwork. One retailer told me this spec will likely save them two person-years annually.

EMA’s closed captions working group is focused on ensuring compliance with the legal requirements for captioning online video. This group is finalizing best practices for identification of when closed captions are not legally required (and why), closed caption file formats and frame rates.

Finally, there is the avails group, which developed “Best Practices & Standards for the Delivery of Avails.” This consists of approximately 40 standardized fields that provide all the information a retailer needs to schedule an online video offering. The avails can be communicated in either Excel or XML, with the eventual goal of solely using XML.

And the retailer that required 50 person-hours to ingest 1,000 avails has implemented the EMA avails spec and can now ingest 1,000 titles in less than 30 minutes, with a 0% error rate!

EMA’s digital supply chain initiatives demonstrate how by working cooperatively to solve common problems it is possible to create efficiencies that improve the consumer experience and drive unnecessary costs out of the supply chain.

I encourage all participants in the online video market to take a look at these best practices, specifications and standards (available at DigitalEMA.org) and incorporate them into their workflows, where appropriate.

As I said, it may not be sexy, but it is essential.

About the Author: Mark Fisher

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