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A picture is worth a thousand words

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Executives at General Motors Corp. didn’t set out to go into the media business. They just wanted to gain some control over their massive archives, which contain images of every car the company ever has produced–going back practically to the turn of the 20th century. Stored away somewhere, the world’s largest automaker has about 2,000 films, 10,000 videos, and as many as five million still pictures.

At a Glance

General Motors

The company: Flint, Mich.-based General Motors Corp. is the world’s largest corporation, with 388,000 employees and 1999 revenue of more than billion.

The problem: GM wanted to gain control over its enormous archives, which hold five million still images, as well as 2,000 films and 10,000 videos.

The solution: A digital asset management system based on software from Artesia Technologies Inc. and Virage Inc.

The IT infrastructure: GM’s digital asset management system runs on an eight-processor Sun Microsystems’ Enterprise 4500 running Sun Solaris. Attached to the server is a Sony Petasite robotic storage system, which can hold eight terabytes of data.

With that many images to take care of, it’s not surprising GM didn’t know what it had, or where they were located. To track all its media assets–whether in digital format, sitting on shelves, or laying in drawers–in December 1999 GM finished implementing a digital asset management system. The process began about six years ago, when the company gradually started going through its still images and digitizing the more important ones.

With its new-found control, GM has discovered that it is able to make its media assets available to others outside the company–and that there are plenty of people willing to pay for this privilege. The company now sells stock footage of GM cars to networks including A&E, Discovery, and the History Channel. So far, GM has sold footage from its archive more than 150 times, with average revenue of ,000 per sale, according to the Flint, Mich.-based automaker.

“Turning these [media] assets into something that can make revenue for the company is not something you would have expected from a car manufacturer,” says Jeremy Schwartz, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. “It makes you wonder what other companies could do with assets that are languishing on shelves somewhere.”

Spinning wheels

GM isn’t the only company struggling to gain control over its stores of rich media assets. Many firms, says Schwartz, are discovering that they “can’t find assets they know they have,” which forces them to re-create assets they already own. “There’s a lot of wheel-spinning around creating content,” Schwartz says, “because these assets are not organized or managed effectively.”

To get an idea of just how much wheel-spinning is going on, a study conducted in 1999 by Gistics Inc., a research firm in Larkspur, Calif., found the typical media professional spends an average of 2.9 minutes in each file lookup activity. Even more telling, 39% of the time they fail to find the file. Duplicate file names, inaccurately versioned files, and the primitive file management capabilities of many operating systems all contribute to file lookup time, according to Gistics.

And the problem only is likely to worsen as the number of rich media files that content producers have to deal with explodes. Gistics found that the average number of rich media files found on the desktops of employees involved in authoring Web pages jumped 323% between 1995 and 1999. Digital video files on individual desktops skyrocketed 519% during that same period, the researcher found.

Amount of media assets zooms
(4-year proliferation rate on individual desktops 1995-1999)

Source: Gistics Inc.

All this is causing the market for digital asset management systems to boom. The market is expected to grow to an estimated .3 billion by 2002 from .8 billion this year, says Gistics president Michael Moon. There are more than 100 vendors in the field, he notes. These include IBM Corp., of Armonk, N.Y.; Informix Corp., in Menlo Park, Calif.; Oracle Corp., of Redwood Shores, Calif.; and Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), in Mountain View, Calif.; as well as smaller firms.

A monumental task

Dave LeFevre, IT manager in GM’s Media Archives group

When GM began digitizing its still images in 1994, it stored them in a database from Image Concepts Inc. In May 1999, GM began replacing that system with TEAMS, a software program from Artesia Technologies Inc., in Rockville, Md. The system runs on an eight-CPU Sun Microsystems Inc. Enterprise 4500 with a Sony Electronics Inc. Petasite data storage system, which can hold up to eight terabytes of data. GM employees access the system through Microsoft Windows 95- or NT-based clients.

Working with the amount of data GM has is a big job. Converting the image database to TEAMS took eight months, says Dave LeFevre, IT manager in GM’s Media Archives group. GM wrapped up that project, which involved converting both the images’ file formats and the meta data used to index them, in December 1999.

Digitizing the images themselves is a large-scale project, too. So far, GM has digitized and indexed about 270,000 images, and is adding about 2,000 more to the archives each week, says LeFevre. To make the task more manageable, he says, GM doesn’t intend to scan all five million still images into the system, since many of them are duplicates or pictures of manuals or other material of little interest. But there’s no doubt about it, LeFevre says, “it’s a monumental task.”

Although GM started out by focusing on still images, one of the advantages of a digital asset management system is that it can handle a variety of different data types, says LeFevre. GM can store a print ad, for example, that has both text and image elements. “The indexing,” he says, “allows us to use just the image, or just the text, or treat the whole thing as one.”

GM is taking advantage of TEAMS’ ability to manage video data to sell footage of its cars to outsiders. Using San Mateo, Calif.-based Virage Inc.’s VideoLogger, GM is digitizing and indexing videotapes of its customer focus groups. The company shoots a thousand or more hours of video each year during these market research efforts, and converting the information into reports for GM’s design teams was a painfully labor-intensive process. Now the automaker’s product analysts can use the index to search for all references to a particular feature or GM car. They also easily can incorporate video footage of customers talking about what they like and don’t like into Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, which can be shown to the company’s automotive engineers.

With a digital asset management system already in place, GM is looking to tackle new projects. For example, says LeFevre, the company is beginning to digitize its television commercials. GM produces about 800 commercials each year, including variations created for particular geographic regions. At the moment, the company has no single place to store these spots, so if GM executives want to view a particular ad, they have to track down the ad agency that produced it and have it ship them a video. GM’s goal, says LeFevre, is to create a digital library to store all its commercials in one place.

The Web changes everything

Until recently, the topic of digital asset management was not something IT departments were terribly concerned with. That’s because IT traditionally has focused more on a company’s transaction data–the sort of data that gets stored in databases–than on unstructured data such as still pictures, video tape, Web pages, and sound recordings.

Digital asset management vendors

Artesia Technologies Inc.
Rockville, Md.

The Bulldog Group
Toronto, Canada

Canto Software Inc.
U.S. headquarters in San Francisco

Excalibur Technologies Corp.
Vienna, Va.

Virage Inc.
San Mateo, Calif.

WebWare Corp.
Sausalito, Calif.

The unstructured data in a corporation is likely to belong to such departments as marketing, advertising, training, or creative services. More often than not, these departments are running Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh systems on local area networks (LANs), and are responsible for managing and backing up their own data. Some of this rich data isn’t located inside the company at all, but lives at outside advertising or public relations agencies.

Then came the Web. At that point, it often was IT departments that “received the task of putting together a Web site,” says Lee Webster, a product manager who deals with digital asset management at R.R. Donnelley & Sons, in Downersgrove, Ill., the country’s largest printing firm. This task brings IT face to face with all the unstructured data in an organization. “There’s an exploding awareness of all this data that people in the data center had no knowledge of,” says Gistics’ Moon. “All that data existed before, it’s just that now e-commerce has forced IT to deal with this daunting, rich media creation and management process.”

Building an e-commerce Web site has made it clear to many companies that, regardless of who creates an image or video file, it has to be accessible to the whole organization. That’s because companies need to use the same graphic and text elements–corporate logos, photos of executives, and pictures and written descriptions of merchandise–for their Web sites as they do for print and broadcast media. “Whether it’s Web or print or silkscreen, whether it’s going up on a billboard or into a catalog, it’s still a matter of managing the assets,” says Webster. “Somebody creates them, but someone else has to be able to use them for output in whatever medium they’re using, whether it’s HTML or print or something else.”

Companies with both print catalogs and e-commerce operations have been among the first to realize they need to use the same files on the Web that they are using for print, says Webster. What companies have been doing, he says, is creating pages for the print catalog first. “Then they pay somebody to take all the text out so they can put it onto the Web. Everybody knows it’s stupid,” he says, but without a digital asset management system, there has been no way around it.

And even if it’s another department that’s pushing for a digital asset management system, IT frequently finds itself involved, says Forrester’s Schwartz. “It’s the IT folks who are the ones who are going to make the underlying stuff work,” he says. That’s especially true for digital asset management systems that grow beyond the workgroup level or ones connected to an extranet so a company’s outside ad agencies or printers can have access, Schwartz adds.

The Web is driving the move to digital asset management systems in another way as well, says Sebastian Holst, vice president of marketing at Artesia Technologies. Growing numbers of companies are turning to customer relationship management (CRM) software to create a personalized experience for visitors to their Web sites. But research is showing that “after you go to five or six sites that are personalized to you, they all quickly become very forgettable,” says Holst.

To really capture Web visitors’ hearts and minds, says Holst, it’s critical to meld CRM with a branding experience that is as rich as the one people get in broadcasting and print. That means using the same ads on the Web that customers see on television and in magazines. Digital asset management systems let companies quickly reposition a successful broadcast television ad for use on the Web, he says.

At a Glance

Cable News Network

The company: Atlanta-based CNN is a unit of Turner Broadcasting System Time Warner Inc., the billion a year media and entertainment cable broadcaster.

The problem: News feeds stored on traditional analog video tape meant CNN’s journalists competed with each other for access to video. What’s more, CNN, CNN Headline News, CNN International, and the company’s other divisions each had their own duplicate video production facilities.

The solution: CNN’s Mediasource digital asset management system digitizes and indexes CNN video feeds coming into the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

The IT infrastructure: Digitized video is stored on Hewlett-Packard Co. HP-UX servers; the index resides in an Informix database on the same machines. News feeds are digitized and indexed by Virage’s VideoLogger and stored in an SGI Origin 2000 server. Meta data describing the video resides in an Informix database running on two Hewlett-Packard eight-CPU N-class servers running HP-UX.

A revolution in the media business

While the Web has been the impetus for many digital asset management system purchases, there are other drivers. For media companies whose livelihood depends on moving images, for example, managing video digitally is revolutionizing the way business is conducted. Digital asset management “has turned our world upside down,” says Kevin Ivey, vice president for research and development at broadcaster Cable News Network (CNN), the Atlanta-based unit of Turner Broadcasting System Time Warner Inc.

Prior to 1998, says Ivey, CNN’s news staff worked from videotapes. When editors or writers wanted to prepare a story, they had to go to a circulation window, check out the tape–the same tape that would be shown later on the air–and watch it on a video viewer. Unless there was time to make copies, there was only one tape.

Not infrequently, a writer needed a tape that had been checked out by an editor. Just as often, different divisions within CNN all wanted the same tape. “On a day with breaking news,” recalls Ivey, “who got the source material first became a question of who screamed the loudest.”

In mid-1998 CNN’s newsroom systems IT group along with its research and development department installed a digital asset management system the company calls Mediasource. News feeds coming into Atlanta from the company’s 32 news bureaus around the world–more than 150 hours of video each day–automatically are “ingested,” or digitized and indexed, by Virage’s VideoLogger product and stored in a Silicon Graphics Inc. Origin 2000 server. The digitized meta data describing the video resides in an Informix Corp. database running on two Hewlett-Packard Co. eight-CPU N-class servers running HP-UX. CNN closely worked with Informix to create the meta data indexing system; the result now is available as an Informix product called Media360.

Now, says Ivey, journalists can look at the video on their own computers, and staffers at CNN, CNN Headline News, CNN International, and the company’s other divisions all have equal access to the content. Mediasource is installed on about 325 desktops in CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Typically, about 100 users are on the system at any given time. The system currently is accessible only to CNN staffers in Atlanta, but the news company hopes to extend it beyond the corporate intranet to bureaus around the world, Ivey says.

With multiple users able to view the same video feed simultaneously, the process of creating news stories has become much more efficient, says Ivey. The index also has sped up the process, he adds. Virage’s VideoLogger breaks each video into discrete segments by identifying visual scene changes, spoken words, names and faces of recognized speakers, topics discussed within each clip, and other information. Each segment has a thumbnail, so CNN’s editors and writers can go directly to that point in the video, without having to search through an entire tape. In addition, a search engine lets users search for particular characters or topics.

The more efficient editing process has meant a drop of almost 30% in CNN’s editing costs, which is the most expensive step in the story creating process, Ivey says. The company also has been able to cut its production assistance support by nearly 70%, because there is no need to manually search videotape libraries, he says.

Lessons learned about digital asset management

–The Web is forcing IT managers to confront the masses of unstructured data–images, audio, and video–that have accumulated in their organizations.

–Digital asset management systems hold the potential for unlocking new revenue streams for companies–even companies which don’t think of themselves as being in the media business, like General Motors.

–Companies are wasting huge amounts of time hunting for media assets they know they have, but can’t locate. Digital asset management systems mean less time spent searching for these assets, and less time spent re-creating them if they can’t be found.

–Companies are realizing that image, video, and other rich media files have to be accessible to the whole organization, regardless of which department created them. Managing these assets digitally lets companies use the same corporate logo, photos of executives, and pictures and written descriptions of merchandise on the Web, in print or television ads, on a billboard, or in a catalog.

Like GM, CNN envisions using its new abilities to manage video to create new business opportunities. Before Mediasource, says Ivey, each CNN division had its own team of employees who were responsible for managing video production. This made it expensive to launch a new network. The new system allows the company to centralize video handling, which means a new network–CNN-FN or CNN Sports Illustrated, for example–now can be created easily without having to build new video production facilities, he says.

With all video available on a server, CNN uses the material in other ways as well. One possibility the company is exploring is the Web, says Ivey. When the movie American Beauty swept this year’s Academy Awards, for example, CNN might have filmed a two-hour interview with the movie’s star, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, but only actually used 30 seconds of it on the air. “If you’re a real Kevin Spacey fan,” says Ivey, “or you really liked American Beauty, you might want to see the whole interview. We should have a way to provide the full two hours to our customers.” The Web, Ivey says, is the ideal place to do that.

That’s the sort of project that would have been difficult or impossible at CNN a year and a half ago. But now, says Ivey, CNN can create content once, and present it to consumers in lots of different ways. And that’s the sort of capability that is making lots of companies look at digital asset management systems. //

Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications. He can be reached at

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