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2004 might not seem like it was all that long ago, but in the digital video world, it's a really long time ago.
I was hired at ABC.com simply as an Avid editor, and my only job was to cut the occasional "behind the scenes" piece, promo clips or sneak peeks of what was coming. We had a VHS deck capturing Jimmy Kimmel at night, and I'd come in the next day hoping that the timer had worked correctly. We were even ingesting episodes of "Lost" from DVD. At most, we were making maybe 10 videos a week, transcoding them to 50-100 files, tops, and putting them up at ABC.com.
Fast-forward to today: we're creating hundreds of videos weekly made up of short-form and episodes, and creating 200,000 transcoded files a month, mostly from 1080p/23.98 sources -- and not just for ABC.com anymore. (Thankfully I had a few more skills up my sleeve beyond Avid editing.) Now we represent ABC Primetime, ABC Late Night, ABC Daytime, ABC Family, SOAPnet, Oscar. com and ABC episodes for the ABC Player iPad app, too. We also deliver content to Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Playstation, YouTube, AT&T, QuickPlay , Verizon and MobiTV, so that they can further transcode before posting the files on their own sites or devices. We are accountable for making sure that those several hundred thousand files successfully arrive, and are error free.
It's a far cry from 2004.
We built the architecture at the time to be scalable to grow with the business, but to be honest, we could never have anticipated everything that was coming. We didn't know that we were making groundbreaking decisions that would sustain us through today.
FINAL CUT PRO
The first big decision for us was getting off of Avid and going to Final Cut Pro. We outfitted two bays with Final Cut Pro, a couple of Macs and Apple Xsan storage at a relatively small cost. Not only was it a smart financial decision, but also less constrained in terms of video formats, frame dimensions and so on.
Honestly, I haven't looked at Avid since then. Media Composer can probably do all the same things now, but at the time, Final Cut made it far easier to adopt a digital workflow. Today we have more than 10 FCP edit bays.
The second big decision was using software for Mac called Compression Master, a desktop transcoder that could handle every format in and out natively, made by a Swedish company called Popwire. Popwire also had a program called Compression Engine, which let us submit jobs to a cluster of Apple Xserves.
Telestream has since acquired Popwire and combined these software applications under the name "Episode."
We didn't have a big cluster at the time -- just three Apple G5 Xserves -- but now those two edit bays were dropping QuickTime files into watch folders, and the watch folders were kicking off jobs to the Xserves.
As the business has grown and we've added more jobs to do, we've simply added more servers. Today we have 40 nodes of Telestream Episode, all running on Intel-based Apple Xserves.
Our verification of the transcoded files before we deliver them has been and is still rather basic. We spot check a couple of them just to make sure that they don't have any glaring, obvious errors -- like no audio or no video! We have found that those are almost always user file creation errors or something that got corrupted in the workflow, rather than transcoding errors.
VERIZON MEDIA PLATFORM
In early 2006, we were still only feeding videos to ABC.com
, and a handful of mobile partners. We used an Excel spreadsheet to manually track the entire workflow. "If you do a 'Lost' sneak peek, send it to ABC, GoTV, and Helio, but don't send it here, here or here. Start it on this date, end it on this one."
The spreadsheet also described transcoding rules. "If it goes here, it has to be Windows 9 at 320x240. If it goes there, it has to be 640x480 H.264," and so on. It also contained the rules for FTP, including who got emailed when the job was complete.
Seeing how much time we were spending managing this with just three or four partners and hand-writing much of the metadata, we quickly realized that we were going to have to hire a new person or two for every new partner we took on, in order to shepherd all the transcoded files through the processes outlined in the Excel spreadsheet, send the media, metadata, and alert the partners.
That's when we made our third big decision, to use a program made by Verizon Business called the Media Platform. It automates much of what we do, and tracks all of it. As part of delivering 200,000 files every month, we can have hundreds of different ways to deliver the program metadata ALONE! Not the files -- just the metadata. Once you add in the different video formats for each and every partner, you can have thousands of different combinations.
Media Platform shows us everything, using a simple software dashboard. There's a big green check that says, for example, "I know for a fact that I successfully delivered 5 JPEGs, 4 AIFF tracks and an MPEG 2 file, and I sent the XML. I'm good." We also see any failures. If someone's FTP servers go down and they can't accept our delivery, we get a red X telling us to check what's wrong.
It doesn't get much simpler than that.
Episodes for ABC's Wipeout as seen from the iPad app.
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