Under Mark Harrison, the U.K.-based Digital Production Partnership has been instrumental in extending the use of SMPTE’s Interoperable Master Format (IMF) standard for broadcast and online applications and focusing vendors’ attention on cyber security. He talks about how his group is helping broadcasters keep up with consumers’ ever-changing content demands. “We are, in effect, democratizing IMF.”
As managing director of the U.K.-based Digital Production Partnership, Mark Harrison is on the forefront of the nitty-gritty standards work necessary to help broadcasters around the world transition to IP technology.
The not-for-profit, membership-based DPP, founded in 2015 by British broadcasters the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, brings together networks, vendors, production companies, post-production houses and the rest of the “media supply chain” to help develop technical specifications that ensure interoperability between devices and streamline workflows for applications such as file-based program delivery.
Under Harrison, the DPP has been instrumental in extending the use of SMPTE’s Interoperable Master Format (IMF) standard for broadcast and online applications and focusing vendors’ attention on cyber security.
TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Glen Dickson recently checked in with Harrison to discuss how the DPP is helping broadcasters keep pace with consumers’ ever-changing content demands.
An edited transcript:
Could you tell me briefly about your background and what brought you to the DPP, and, very broadly, what it is and what it does?
I was a producer and director for a long time, around 20 years. I made films and was an executive producer, then I ran a small production company, and then I ran some production departments at the BBC. But all the time I was a program maker, I was very interested in innovation and how it could give me a creative edge.
I have never actually been very comfortable with technology. So, I have always had this personal challenge of being interested in what technology can do for me, but I was not somebody who could take it for granted or found it easily understandable.
When I was at the BBC, that led me to interact quite a lot between my more technical colleagues and the creatives, and then to occupy a role in defining our production services and ways of working for production teams. This was about eight years ago, about the time that people were getting very aware of the fact that consumers were working in an end-to-end digital world, but people in professional media really weren’t.
And I was asked to kind of go out, talk to others and look at what we could do to accelerate end-to-end digital working in media. And that’s what led to me starting initially an informal body, which we called the Digital Production Partnership, to deal with that problem. That led to us getting videotape out of broadcasting in the U.K., by defining a single common file delivery specification for delivering programs to broadcasters.
And it went very well, and people were kind of impressed [with] the way we managed to get the whole industry to work together on that. That led to the DPP becoming a formal body in 2015 and, building on this ability, to network the industry, to help it to mobilize and change.
While it was founded by the three major U.K. broadcasters, you now have a lot of other companies as members, correct?
The founding members were BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and they were the ones that were behind the initial work we did as an informal body. So, they became the shareholders of the DPP as a commercial entity, but to their credit, they immediately supported us becoming an international organization and also spreading our agreement beyond broadcast into all forms of video.
So today the DPP has got around 400 member companies from all over the world, with a huge number from North America. It includes Apple and Google and Amazon and Microsoft as well as many of the North American networks. Actually, the typical new member company now for the DPP is non-U.K.-based and one that is digitally native. Companies that are strong in Web content or Web services are now joining us.
The way we talk about ourselves is that we bring customers and suppliers together to solve problems and to identify business opportunities. That is what we do, and we do that in three ways.
One is technical work, really anything that we feel will promote interoperability in the global exchange of content. We do a lot of insight and research, trends analysis.
Our trends reporting at CES is particularly well known because I think we are the only people who have created a 10-year “heat map” picture of CES. We actually can really track in detail the trends that are happening there rather than just getting fixated on the latest piece of hype.
And then also we do a lot of networking of our members. We find that companies see us as a business development opportunity, because they get to be in the room with other companies that are very committed to change.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments to date and what you are currently working on?
On the technical work, the really big piece was file delivery in the U.K., but that specification was then defined in a variant for North America as well. We have defined a common specification for ultra-high-definition program delivery, particularly designed for online distribution, and that is just now beginning to be adopted by the BBC and we are also getting interest in that from major North American networks.
We have been the leaders in taking the SMPTE IMF mastering standard and turning it into a specification that makes it usable for broadcast and online as well. So, we are, in effect, democratizing IMF. That’s our really big current piece and hugely significant because versioning is becoming both a big challenge and a big commercial opportunity now for content owners around the world.
We do other work in specifications around things like IP feeds and contributions, and the use of metadata in news. The other major piece in the slightly more technical realm is what we have done around security, and establishing a program for common best practices in security in the media sector.
When you look at the overall transition to IP, what do you see as the biggest new technology opportunity for broadcasters, whether that is a particular system or an application?
It’s delivery to mobile platforms, and there is absolutely no question about that. The challenge for broadcasters is to what extent are they able to become content distributors in the full sense of the word. Pretty much every broadcaster now has a video-on-demand offering of some kind, but how well-tailored is it to the world of mobile video consumption? Because when you look at consumer behaviors, those are the ones that dominate.
I have done trends analysis looking back over the last 10 years, and what I have found is this separation between what the professional media industry tends to talk about as really important trends and then actually what consumers are doing.
The professional industry gets very transfixed by whatever is the latest thing to come along — second screen, 3D, interactive, DVR, Google Glass. Whatever the latest thing is, everyone gets overexcited.
But if you look at what’s been happening amongst consumers, it is a really steady set of trends which are all related to streaming video one way or another — you know, binge viewing or changing the aspect ratio to portrait, which is then fed back into the way that suppliers of content, particularly news content, have to deliver their video to consumers.
It is these completely unplanned responses to the availability of online video that are actually driving change in the industry. So, when people talk about what is happening in IP, obviously it is really important to be looking at things like live IP from major events like sports, and the big technical challenges that are presented there, or linear playout from the cloud. All these things are really very, very important.
But more content in total, around the globe, is actually impacted by much simpler, lower-tech considerations around how you get content to mobile devices. And in that respect, questions like quality of service, quality of connectivity and quality of user experience are at least as important factors in the way the industry moves to IP as some of those highly technical questions around common IP transport specifications and so forth.
What is the biggest technical challenge or roadblock that broadcasters are still wrestling with in transitioning their infrastructure and operations to IP?
The single hardest thing is achieving sufficient technical agility because they are having to blend legacy systems with new systems. Many of them now are trying to combined their linear and online propositions into a single infrastructure, which is clearly the way to go, but those are big technical and operational challenges.
It’s easier to build a brand-new house from scratch than it is to try and renovate a listed, historical property, and broadcasters find themselves in the renovation business while their competitors are building brand new. So that’s the single biggest challenge.
But beyond that, the next one you hear a lot about is data. It’s business intelligence, having huge numbers of historic systems that are difficult to integrate, and therefore it is very difficult to create a flow of intelligible, meaningful data. And nowadays, if you can’t understand your business through data, you can’t understand your audience through data, then you’re just not competitive.
Obviously, when you have all this data, you also need to protect it. Can you talk about the work DPP has done focusing on security in broadcast environments with its Committed to Security program?
The initial stimulus for the DPP and its work around security came from conversations that we facilitated between people in production and suppliers and broadcasters. It’s particularly the conversations between production and suppliers that struck us.
In essence, what the suppliers were saying is: “Why are you guys not buying our connected services? They are so well suited to your needs.”
And the producers were saying: “Well, because we don’t trust you. What we keep hearing is that the minute we are connected, we are vulnerable to cyberattacks, and also we don’t know who you are. You are a company with a funny name. You are not our local post facility with people we have known for years. You are these IT guys, and you don’t know anything about our business. So why should we trust you to look after our stuff?”
And that led us to get a lot of our members together, with expertise around security from across the supply chain, and we asked the question: “What would one need to do to create some kind of mark or identifier, that could tell people at a glance that they were working with a company that understood the basics of security?”
Because, if you are in production, you are just not going to know about exactly how ISO 27001 or MPAA or CDSA or any of these big heavyweight security standards work, and how they apply to your immediate need.
And if you are a broadcaster and you are going through a procurement process, you are going to have information security as part of that process, but actually the vast majority of the questions are going to be “basic hygiene” questions that you keep asking companies again and again and again. There must be some kind of signifier which means this company knows all that stuff, it covers all that basic practice. So now we could just focus on one or two specific things that relate to this particular procurement that we are doing.
That was the genesis for seeing whether we could create a relatively simple, “entry-level” best practice program, and that is what Committed to Security is all about. It’s just 20 or so controls, that you can self-assess against but which are audited, and one set relates to a production environment and one set relates to a broadcast environment.
Did some of the recent high-profile hacks, like what happened at Sony Pictures, help goose this initiative along?
The whole industry has woken up to the challenge over the last two or three years. The Sony hack is only one of a number of sort of major incidents that obviously have really drawn attention to it. But you know what, I think actually just as significant are the more prosaic challenges that everybody experiences everyday like phishing attacks.
The fact that every company, every organization, never mind how big or small, almost certainly has somebody in their staff click on a link they shouldn’t have clicked on simply because of the impatience of it.
So, I think those low-level, kind of everyday experiences that people have in their personal lives as well as in their work lives have been very influential in everyone is taking it seriously. I think the growing value of content, the need to protect your copyright or to protect a release, those things are very influential now for people who work in production.
And I think also this general question of trust is still a huge thing. I think people are just starting to ask themselves a bit more now about how can I replicate the relationship-based world that production has always been historically, in a connected digital environment?
And for a while, people in production particularly, just didn’t want to engage with that. I think their way of dealing with it was to try and avoid online, but now they know they can’t. There are too many things they need that are in that space. So, they are beginning to think a bit more about what it would take.
When you look at current projects the DPP is working on, what is most exciting to you?
The IMF work [for broadcast and online] is the most exciting and the most significant, because it’s the first time we have had a new mastering format across the whole industry, potentially, for decades.
It’s a fundamental reworking of workflows and it has the potential to apply a lot of the innovation of recent years — working in the cloud, IP, automation, AI and all these things — to a new business tool that is designed to enable content makers and providers to supply global markets.
So, it is not really an overstatement, I think, to say that IMF overall, in its movie and broadcast and online forms, is the enabler that is going to open up the global market for competition on a level playing field.
If you’ve got great content, then you can have the technological ability to get it out globally to different territories in relevant formats. It is going to take quite a while before we can say that; it could take a decade. But it is what it’s enabling, and then we will see. We will see who will really emerge strongly out of that.