The pressure is on for today’s media companies and production studios.
The proliferation of streaming platforms, each of which is looking to create compelling productions that can grab the attention of potential subscribers, has created an unrelenting demand for more content that can be difficult for even the largest organisations to keep pace with.
“So much content is being requested,” says Andy Beach, industry chief technology officer for media and entertainment at Microsoft. “Studios are greenlighting more content than ever before as they look to attract customers with differentiated offerings. There’s also the fact that much more work is being done remotely than ever before. With so much going on, and with teams spread across far-flung places, you need to rethink production to help you keep up.”
Jean-Paul Bonjour, manager of studio user interface engineering at Netflix, describes today’s media landscape as a highly competitive environment that demands content providers have the capacity to grow quickly while still maintaining quality.
“Those who are able to scale rapidly and cost-effectively while still producing compelling content are going to win,” he says. “In order to do that, you have to focus on enabling creativity as well as rebuilding infrastructure.”
The compromise between rapid production time and compelling content is a difficult one to strike in the face of these demands, and Bonjour suggests that the balance may have shifted too far in recent years.
“I’m a big fan of Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, and he talks about the tension between ‘feeding the beast’ – creating more productions to drive more eyeballs to your platform – and the ‘ugly baby’, which is the need to take what are at first immature ideas and refine them for an audience,” he explains. “We can’t spend all our time feeding the beast and forgoing the ugly baby. If I’m being transparent, I feel that some of the bigger streaming services have become a little diluted because of the amount of content coming out. If we streamline and focus on the pre-production phase more closely, that will translate to fantastic content.”
Technologies that can streamline production and allow more time for creativity could therefore prove invaluable to media organisations in ensuring their overall success. Beach suggests that there are two main areas that they should be focusing on to achieve this.
“First, they should be using artificial intelligence processes to help streamline the work that’s being done,” he says. “With so much content being produced, machine learning helps you to be able to understand the context of content, make it more searchable, help with early cuts and identify the pieces that need to be stored and kept. Secondly, there’s the notion of being able to organise the production more effectively. By having a single collection of assets in the cloud that can be spun up or torn down, studios can more easily handle the strain of managing so many productions at the same time.”
Microsoft is helping deliver these capabilities to the media industry via Microsoft Azure, leveraging the power and scalability of the platform as well as its extensive library of third-party solutions.
“Our entire approach is ecosystem led,” says Beach. “That means we’re helping to make our partners successful on Azure, and in turn, they help make the various industries they work in, including media and communications, successful. Major partners like Avid, for example, are helping with content creation and moving editorial into a remote process. It’s a blend of first-party solutions that we bring to all industries and an ecosystem of independent service vendors that are critical for the media industry.”
Beach highlights other partners such as MediaKind, Evertz and Blackbird as examples of the value that Microsoft’s ecosystem can deliver. Another is Datazoom, whose video data platform gathers data from end points, such as a content delivery network or a video player, and sends it on to data lakes and analytics platforms.
"Datazoom has the ability to gather all of the data that goes into delivering content to the end user, aggregate it in faster than real time and align it by time stamps, so that you have a very accurate snapshot of what's going on with the content as it's delivered,” says Beach. “That's exactly the kind of solution that network operations and media operations teams need."
Beach also points to a collaboration with Cinnafilm, a company which provides video and image processing solutions for the media and communications industry, as an important development in Microsoft’s involvement in the field.
“We’re working with Cinnafilm to bring world class image processing functionality to Azure,” he says. “Cinnafilm takes video and turns it from 50 frames per second to 60 frames per second, for example, or provides upscaling to 4K that keeps the video incredibly crisp. It’s solutions like Cinnafilm’s that will help us keep the quality of content high as we move production directly into the cloud, so the company is a very important, critical player in the market.”
Azure has already powered some of the biggest media events in the world, with Microsoft working in partnership with the NBA to develop new ways of producing and delivering content. Microsoft and the NBA are innovating the sports fan experience with the launch of a new over-the-top (OTT) platform to deliver a personalised, localised offering of content in international markets.
“We’ve worked very closely with the NBA over the past two years,” says Beach. “The platform will be transformational, because it will give the league the tools to take their content out to international audiences. But that’s just the beginning of the relationship. We’re continually collaborating on bringing the next big ideas around how sports fans interact with their content to life.”
Beach sees live content such as the Olympics and the NBA as one of Microsoft’s major focuses for future development, standing alongside its data offering.
“Live content is starting to move into the cloud in a major way,” he says. “We are spending a lot of time focusing on the tooling around live productions in remote and hybrid scenarios. But we’re also focusing on helping connect all the various data estates our media partners have within their pipelines and operationalising their production in a more effective way, helping them to repurpose the content they already have. Those are the two big areas that I always come back to as vital for us being successful in this space.”
A variety of Microsoft partners also contributed to this feature: Netflix, MediaKind, Evertz, Datazoom, Avid, SMPTE, Cinnafilm, NBA and Blackbird. Read about how they are working with Microsoft technologies to help produce and deliver content.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.