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How to Build a Multiscreen Online Video Workflow
It's important to think ahead when preparing content for different screens in different environments. Read on for best practices from experts.
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Around the time of my first job, Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People was all the rage, from the corporate boardroom to the military war room. As a Department of Defense contractor, I was one of tens of thousands shuffled through day-long Seven Habits seminars, yet today I can remember only one of his then-hallowed habits: Begin with the end in mind.

Still, Covey’s adage about pre-planning is highly pertinent to crafting a multiscreen workflow strategy, from acquisition to delivery. This article doesn’t follow a set step-by-step formula for each of the workflow segments, but we hope the overall advice is solid for producers and content owners alike.

As I planned this article, I hoped to generate an updated version of basic advice that Netflix gave on its blog back in 2008.

At the time, the company was only streaming content in standard definition but was experimenting with high-definition delivery. As such, the post noted that Netflix preferred to receive HD versions of content, even if its initial distribution was to only be shown in SD.

“Our best sources are electronically delivered mezzanine files, or high quality D5 tapes,” wrote Neil Hunt, Netflix chief product officer, “and the highest bitrate encodes of these sources really look as good or better than DVDs. ... We get HD sources for many titles, even if we only have the rights to stream SD. The HD sources permit a better SD encode than working from SD sources.”

How times have changed. Today, much of Hunt’s advice has been superseded by advances in technology: Netflix now streams the majority of its content in HD, and has a few tests of Ultra HD -- the consumer version of 4K -- in the wings. In addition, the company’s original content is also produced at 4K or higher resolutions.

But what if you’re an indie producer who has aspirations of getting content on to Netflix (and, by extension, just about any over-the-top video service)? How do you go about getting the content ready via a best-practices workflow?

Set Your Presets

Netflix these days assumes that content will pass muster in terms of quality, and while it hasn’t yet publicly provided an update to the 2008 blog post, a spokesperson played down the issues surrounding encoding requirements as a major hurdle for its multiscreen workflow.

“We are pretty flexible around the formats we accept,” says a Netflix spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, “and we do all our own adaptive bitrate encoding, so there is no need for studios to provide multiple bitrates or encodings that are especially adapted to our system.”

One area the company has pushed into is a move to partner with companies that offer transcoding solutions, in hopes of simplifying the overall process for large studios and well-heeled content owners.

“We’re thrilled to be collaborating with Digital Rapids,” Christopher Fetner, director of content partner operations at Netflix, said in an April 2013 press release, “to provide presets to simplify the transformation process for users delivering content assets to Netflix.”

Fetner made a similar comment regarding Harmonic, another company that partnered with Netflix to provide presets in its transcoding solutions.

I asked Mike Nann, director of marketing and communications at Digital Rapids, to share some insights into the workflow issues faced by a large studio -- or even an independent production house -- looking to distribute its content on a platform like Netflix.

Nann first noted that Digital Rapids’ agreements meant he couldn’t “disclose the mezzanine/contribution specifications of Netflix or any other particular distributor, as they make the requirements available to their content partners.”

However, Nann pointed out that the presets save both Netflix and the content owner a significant amount of trial-and-error or just sheer frustration when it comes to a multiscreen delivery approach.

“If Netflix or other content distributors did not have a spec,” Nann says, “content owners might try to submit content in dozens of different formats with all sorts of quality variations and nuances.

“As you probably already assumed, the type of content owners/partners that we’ve been involved with have been the Hollywood movie studios, high-end television production, etc., so their acquisition and post-production practices were already well-defined and fully adequate for the subsequent distribution transformations.”

Nann went on to say that, beyond just preparing content for Netflix, the requirements for content preparation can vary considerably among the target content distributors.

“The fundamental key here is that, when providing content in a B2B partnership relationship between a content owner and distributor, the content is typically NOT provided in a format intended for direct consumer consumption,” Nann says. “The deliverable is a mezzanine ‘master’ format that will be subsequently transformed into whatever outputs are required for consumer delivery currently or in the future.”

Your Workflow Is All About Data

Another consideration in preparing content for a multiscreen strategy is the complexity of metadata. It turns out this is one of the key issues facing anyone who looks to distribute multiscreen content, much more so than the acquisition or mezzanine video formats.

When asked about issues that have come up around the idea of complexity in getting content prepared for Netflix viewing, the spokesperson reiterated what had been stated during last year’s Streaming Forum session on the digital supply chain.

“I believe the complexity is more related to getting everything in order, with respect to different episodes, audio tracks, subtitles, metadata, artwork etc.,” the spokesperson says. “A lot of people don’t yet have great systems for managing that complexity.”

In other words, anyone preparing content for Netflix or other online video delivery platforms will find much of their workflow deals with the issues surrounding metadata.

This level of complexity is also important for those who are preparing for live multiscreen delivery, be it corporate, entertainment, houses of worship, or even education.

“I put all the information into the program for that Sunday the morning of our first service,” says Chris Chapman of CoMEDIAn Enterprises, which runs live streaming services for a house of worship in the Charlotte, NC, area, as well as live streaming support for several Southern Gospel singing groups.

The multiscreen workflow begins at the point of capture, which for CoMEDIAn Enterprises’ Chris Chapman is a NewTek TriCaster, into which he enters metadata that might not be seen by the audience but is crucial for keeping track of assets as they move through the workflow. 

When Chapman says that he enters information into his live streaming tool, a NewTek TriCaster, he’s talking about much more than just the basic name and title details.

“I use the local house of worship’s order of service,” says Chapman, “to add song titles, singers’ names, message titles, outline points, and church information for the location where we’re doing the live stream. This can include metadata for the stream that won’t be seen by the local audience, including a church’s email, website, address, and contact phone number.”

Entering that kind of metadata for each video file is crucial in ensuring the content moves smoothly through the workflow.

Mapping the Soundscape

Another area that Nann points out as a potential pitfall is the proper positioning of audio content.

“As if acquisition formats and encoding parameters aren’t challenging enough,” Nann says, “problems can easily occur with other factors such as audio track mapping to speaker positions and multiple languages.”

For a big studio, which distributes a movie in all its surround-sound splendor into a variety of move theaters, the idea of audio mapping the soundscape might not be a huge hurdle, but it turns out that both studios and independent producers need to think about audio mapping for a variety of products that range from summed mono -- older mobile phones -- to full surround sound and even the pseudo-surround tools used in a variety of today’s tablets, smartphones, and newer smart TVs.

The Biggest Screen in the Room

Sometimes, though, delivery to the set-top box or living room television isn’t the biggest screen you’ll need to plan for.

In this day of doing double-duty with video mixing equipment, there’s a tendency to think that viewing patterns in the 20-foot-distance to a giant projection screen in a venue should be the same patterns as the 20-inch distance from the smartphone on which a portion of your audience may be watching the same event stream.

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