How to Guide: VOD Scheduling
Like trying to guess the number of sweets in a jar I was looking at Channel 4's 4oD service earlier this week and wondering how many programmes it has available, on-demand, at any given time. Five hundred? Eight hundred? For the sake of argument, let's say it's an even thousand. Multiply that by the number of platforms 4oD appears on - web, tablets, smartphones, connected TVs, games consoles, set-top boxes - and we're talking about tens of thousands of individual assets that the guys at Channel 4 have to keep track of. For each video, C4 has to schedule when it appears, on what platform, on what device, for how long and in which geographical territories. An accompanying metadata file containing things like a description of the video, original broadcast dates, cast and crew details, duration and categories also needs to be attached to each asset. You can see how this could be a complex job.
So how do they do it? How is VOD scheduling done? I've spoken to the British terrestrial broadcasters, Channel 4 and Channel 5 on the record (as well as one off it - you'll see why below) and the vendors BeBanjo, ODG (On Demand Group), Red Bee Media and Xstream to learn a little more. If you're publishing video content to multiple platforms here are your four main options with some pros and cons.
#1. Use Excel Spreadsheets
Low-tech but cheap, using Excel spreadsheets - or even simple databases like Access - is a tried and trusted way to organise and manage your video assets. Paul Thornton-Jones, Head of Digital Media at Channel 5, told me that his team used Excel spreadsheets until just three years ago. They waited as long as they could before the size, stability and scalability of their operational needs meant that they decided to buy in a specialist piece of scheduling software from BeBanjo (see below).
One big European broadcaster told me, off the record, that even just a year ago their VOD schedule was run by students who administered the whole thing using post-it notes
At its simplest, your spreadsheets could include fields like name of video, description, platform the asset should appear on, start date, end date, duration and any special instructions. And if you think that using Excel still sounds like too much work take heart: one big European broadcaster told me, off the record, that even just a year ago their VOD schedule was run by students who administered the whole thing using post-it notes!
- Lack of scalability, audit trails and version control
- Depending on the number of assets and platforms can quickly become unmanageable
- Needs a lot of human intervention: Paul Thornton-Jones said that if Channel 5 was still using Excel they'd probably need a team of twenty VOD schedulers by now.
#2. Build your own VOD Scheduling system
When Channel 4's video-on-demand service, 4oD, launched in 2006, "there wasn't really an off-the-shelf VOD scheduling package that did quite what we wanted it to do", according to the company's Chief Architect, Orpheus Warr.
"We already had systems in place for our broadcast management chain like a DAM (digital asset management), CMS and rights management function so we decided to build a parallel chain for our VOD service".
Six years later, and now serving up to fifteen platforms including web, tablets, connected TV, smartphones and games consoles, it's still in use at C4 so I asked Warr about some of the advantages and disadvantages of this method and whether the company would ever consider using third-party software.
"I think it would be irresponsible not to look at the market periodically and check, whether in terms of operational efficiency or competitive advantage, there's an opportunity to move to an off the shelf package. What we've found over time however is that the scale and complexity of what we do is such that - and it's the same with several aspects of broadcast management - the gap between the products available and the customisation we'd need to do is quite large.
Because of the degree of integration that our system has with our existing broadcast management systems we don't need a certain percentage of the functionality that a third party system might be able to offer - for example managing distribution rights or linking up with a series of encoders. There are parts of it that we would simply never use.
It is of course a matter of opinion, but in my view there is not a simple relationship between cost, agility and bespoke build. Whilst the up-front cost of developing a system yourself is likely to be higher than using an off-the-shelf solution, the on-going enhancement costs can be managed to suit your own specific requirements, meaning that you are able to prioritise the features that matter most to you over those that may be more generally requested from the industry as a whole. As such, bespoke development not only allows for tight control over areas of product investment, but often also enables us to move faster than if we were subject the a third party supplier's enhancement roadmap."
- Bespoke so should be totally fit for purpose
- Deep integration possible with other legacy systems
- Can be evolved to cater for unique requirements
- Potentially expensive in terms of manpower, resourcing and effort
- Third-party systems may be able to supply most equivalent functionality more cheaply
- As with all legacy projects, may not be able to keep up with rapid pace of change
- The usual risks involved in any bespoke development project including scope creep, late delivery, budget overspend etc.
#3. Use Specialist Software
Whilst it's entirely possible to build your own VOD scheduling system, Orpheus Warr of Channel 4 also made a good case for buying third-party software to handle the job:
"If we were coming into the market today without any legacy around VOD or online publication then your first logical port of call would have to be an off the shelf system. Even if you're operating on a fairly low scale I'd absolutely consider doing that long before worrying about tactical approaches to using Excel spreadsheets because they bring with them fairly basic features like audit trails and version control. Things can very quickly get out of hand when you're using just spreadsheets whereas a specialist system does a lot of the housekeeping for you."
Paul Thornton-Jones of Channel 5 agrees. Despite running a small unit ("We have a VOD Ops team of just three people"), C5's achievements are impressive. 'Demand 5' was the first video-on-demand service on the Xbox and Sony Bravia platforms, is now available on Sky and YouView and, almost uniquely at this stage in the product development cycle, manages to make a profit.
"Up until three years ago we were using Excel spreadsheets to administer our VOD services," Thornton-Jones told me "but we now have over 10,000 assets on twelve platforms and we report, quarterly, to over 200 rights owners so we hired a company called BeBanjo to handle our VOD scheduling and workflow. We were their first 'Movida' customer three years ago ['Movida is the name of BeBanjo's VOD Management solution software] and, over time, we've helped define their products with our requirements."
BeBanjo is one of only a handful of specialists operating in this space (the other big one is Pilat Media) and, its client list includes Sky, BT Vision, Telefonica and AMC Networks. One of BeBanjo's founders, Bastian Manintveld, explained some of the advantages of using its products:
"The first thing is that BeBanjo is platform-agnostic. We supply the tools you need to manage content rights, scheduling, metadata and workflow across platforms, regardless of the technology you use elsewhere in your chain. We integrate through open APIs with third-party vendors such as OVPs (online video platforms), set-top box networks and asset management systems. This provides you with continuity of service even if you decide to change technology partners. All our products work through a web browser, making deployment and support easy. Added to that, everyone in your team is always working from the same information; there are no duplicates in different silos. There's less probability for errors, and departments can instantly find out what other teams are doing, whether they're in-house or sub-contracted. No other system gives you that visibility across the entire workflow."
And what about the disadvantages?
"Investing in something like BeBanjo only makes sense if you have a certain amount of scale in terms of number of video assets and platforms. If you don't have the volume I can see how an investment could seem fairly expensive".
- Flexible, scalable, team and platform independent
- API integration possible with linear scheduling, rights and workflow systems
- Specialist products evolve with the needs of the market without you having to keep track of industry development
- Potential cost if you don't have the volume of assets
- Relative inability to shape product compared to in-house solutions
- Natural disruption if you're moving from legacy to third-party service
#4. Use Media Management Services from Existing Partners
If you run a video-on-demand service you may already use one or more technology partners to help ingest, encode or deliver your content. Do any of these companies provide satisfactory (if not specialized) scheduling services? The short answer is yes.
The Danish OVP, Xstream, for example, includes a scheduling module within its MediaMaker system from which you can administer VOD programming in different territories and different platforms. Brightcove's Video Cloud also contains similar functionality. Red Bee Media handles content management for ITV amongst others and ODG (On Demand Group) offers a range of services from managing metadata to media processing, royalty and business insight reporting. It also services 6,000+ hours of content to 240 formats for 30 customers every week.
The take-out is that it may be worth having a conversation with existing suppliers. While their solutions may not be as focused as building your own dedicated system or buying something off the shelf and customising it they may be able to give you a perfectly adequate and usable product.
- You may already have a relationship and / or be using other services from the supplier
- Potentially little new integration needed
- May serve as a useful stop-gap between low-tech and specialist scheduling solutions
- Won't be as bespoke as internally developed / customised software
- May not be scalable
- May not serve non-web platforms (e.g. set-top boxes, operator services)
What do you think? Are there any VOD scheduling / workflow methods missing or any advantages / disadvantages you'd like to talk about? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments box below.