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Is television versioning about to go IMF?

By Andy Wilson

If you’ve worked in the post production industry for the last 20 years, you’ll have seen the exponential growth of feature film versioning. What was once a language track dub, subtitled version or country specific compliance edit has grown into a versioning industry that has to feed a voracious number of territories, devices, platforms and formats — from airplane entertainment systems to iTunes deliveries.

Of course, this rise in movie versioning has been helped by the shift over the last 10 years to digital cinema and file-based working. In 2013, SMPTE ratified ST 2067-2, which created the Interoperable Master Format (IMF). IMF was designed to help manage the complexity of storing high-quality master rushes inside a file structure that allowed the flexibility to generate multiple variants of films through constraining what was included in the output and in the desired output formats.

Like any workflow and format change, IMF has taken time to be adopted, but it is now becoming the preferred way to share high-quality file masters between media organizations. These masters are all delivered in the J2K codec to support cinema resolutions and playback technologies.

Technologists in the broadcast community have been monitoring the growth in popularity and flexibility of IMF, with its distinctive solution to the challenge of multiple versioning. Most broadcasters have moved away from tape-based playout and are instead using air-ready playout files. These are medium-sized files (50-100Mb/s), derived from high quality rushes that can be used on playout servers to create broadcast streams. The most widespread of these includes the native XDCAM file format, but it is fast being overtaken by the AS-11 format. This format has proved very popular in the United Kingdom, where all major broadcasters made a switch to AS-11 UK DPP in 2014. AS-11 is currently rolling out in the US via the AS-11 X8 and X9 variants. However, these remain air-ready playout files, output from the 600+Mb/s ProRes and RAW files used in high-end productions. AS-11 brings some uniformity, but it doesn’t solve the versioning challenge.

Versioning is rapidly becoming as big an issue for high-end broadcast content as for feature films. Broadcasters are now seeing the sales lifecycle of some of their programs running for more than 10 years. The BBC’s Planet Earth is a great example of this, with dozens of versions being made over several years. So the need to keep high-quality files for re-versioning for new broadcast and online deliveries has become increasingly important. It is crucial for long-tail sales revenue, and productions are starting to invest in higher-resolution recordings for exactly this reason.

So, as the international high-end television market continues to grow, producers are having to look at ways that they can share much higher quality assets than air-ready files. This is where IMF offers significant opportunity for efficiencies in the broadcast and wider media market and why it is something that has the attention of producers, such as the BBC and Sky. Major broadcasters such as these have been working with global partners through the Digital Production Partnership (DPP) to help develop a new specification of IMF, specifically designed for television and online mastering.

The DPP, in partnership with the North American Broadcasters Association (NABA) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), have been exploring what the business requirements are for a mastering format for broadcasting. The outcome of this work was published in June 2017, and can be downloaded here.

The work explored three different user requirements: Program Acquisitions (incoming), Program Sales (outgoing) and Archive. The sales and acquisition of content can be significantly transformed with the ability to build new versions on the fly, via the Composition Playlist (CPL) and an Output Profile List (OPL). The ability to archive master rushes in a suitably high-quality package will be extremely valuable to broadcast archives. The addition of the ability to store ProRes as part of an IMF is also being welcomed, as many broadcaster archives are already full of ProRes material.

The EBU-QC group has already started to look at how to manage program quality from a broadcast IMF package, and how technical assessments can be carried out during the outputting of materials, as well as on the component assets. This work paves the way for some innovative solutions to future QC checks, whether carried out locally in the post suite or in the cloud.

The DPP will be working with SMPTE and its partners to fast track a constrained version of IMF ready for use in the broadcast and online delivery market in the first half of 2018.

As OTT video services rely heavily on the ability to output multiple different versions of the source content, this new variant of IMF could play a particularly important role in automatic content versioning and automated processes for file creation and delivery to distribution platforms — not to mention in advertising, where commercials are often re-versioned for multiple territories and states.

The DPP’s work will include the ability to add ProRes- and H.264-derived materials into the IMF package, as well as the inclusion of delivery specific metadata. The DPP are working to deliver some proof-of-concept presentations for IBC 2017 and will host manufacturer and supplier briefing days and plugfests as the work progresses on the draft version of the IMF specification. It is hoped that the work will be completed in time to have the IMF specification for broadcast and online integrated into products by NAB 2018.

It’s exciting to think about how IMF and Internet-enabled production and distribution tools will work together as part of the architecture of the future content supply chain. This supply chain will enable media companies to respond more quickly and effectively to the ever-growing and changing demands of the consumer. The DPP sees this shift to more responsive operational design as the key to success for media suppliers in the years ahead.


Andy Wilson is head of business development at DPP.

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