Many industry observers also anticipate a push towards greater supply chain ‘harmonisation’ as content creators place more emphasis on performance and consistency. So what will supply chains look like in five years’ time?
The pandemic has heralded an unprecedented cluster of challenges for broadcasters battling to maintain normal operations – or as ‘close to normal’ as it’s possible to get right now. But amidst the disruption there has also been an impetus to take stock and consider not only whether media supply chains are fit for purpose now – but also how they might have to evolve to meet the challenges of five or even ten years’ hence.
In this context it’s likely that the events of the last 12 months will prove hugely influential on what comes next. Steve Sharman, founder of AI-oriented media consultancy Hackthorn Innovation, says that “in lots of ways people have been required to accelerate changes more quickly than they were expecting to do due to the circumstances – genuine remote production of sport being one obvious example.”
In particular, Covid-19 has reinforced the value of a flexible supply chain that can be altered easily to accommodate new requirements – hence it was no surprise to find that terms such as ‘agility’ and ‘elasticity’ were mentioned repeatedly during interviews for this article. There is also discussion of specific enabling technologies in the predictions that follow, including continued migration to the cloud and increased use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) – although opinions on the speed and extent of implementation remain the subject of variation.
Geoff Stedman, chief marketing officer of media supply chain management innovator SDVI, is not alone in highlighting the increasing requirement of media companies “to quickly spin up new revenue sources – such as new channels and VOD promotions – to capitalise on consumer demand for new content. Supporting this kind of agility will be consumption-based cloud-native supply chains, where resources can be instantly put into service when needed and shut down when not required.”
Moreover, it will be those organisations willing to use the cloud to reimagine every stage “from ingest to distribution” who will ultimately be most efficient and profitable, hints Stedman: “True embrace of cloud-based media supply chains means looking beyond individual siloes and workflows to create efficiencies across the organisation, using real-time and projected cost and performance data, and employing auto-scaling and auto-provisioning of resources needed to meet new requirements – thereby genuinely optimising the entire supply chain.”
Dan Goman, CEO of video supply chain company Ownzones, also thinks that a more joined-up approach to cloud migration will take precedence. “The industry is looking at broad platforms that can drive their entire supply chain,” he says. “A highly fragmented supply chain with many niche solutions is inefficient and difficult to manage. This is likely to lead to industry consolidation with a smaller number of ‘go to’ platforms.”
The cloud-centric nature of most five-year forecasts gives rise to one key question in particular: what requirement is there likely to be for localised, on-premise capacity a few years down the line?
Goman anticipates an ongoing on-prem demand as part of a “phased approach” to cloud migration. “The ‘downstream’ parts of the supply chains are easier to shift to the cloud, while upstream functions – production-related – will need some work and optimisation before they are fully cloud-enabled,” he says.
“A highly fragmented supply chain with many niche solutions is inefficient and difficult to manage. This is likely to lead to industry consolidation with a smaller number of ‘go to’ platforms,” Dan Goman, Ownzones
Rich Welsh, SVP innovation at Deluxe Media and co-founder of Sundog Media Toolkit which was recently acquired by Deluxe, predicts that on-premise infrastructure will continue to be needed for “very high-bandwidth requirement content – such as that in 8K, HDR and HFR. Even with a very good connection you are going to struggle to get that content in front of a colourist or sound mixer in real-time/low latency.” So localised capacity is likely to be required for “at least a few more years yet – especially during this period where content formats are galloping ahead of the infrastructure in terms of connectivity.”
The pandemic-related shift towards home-based working has underlined the importance of having sufficient bandwidth, so it’s hardly surprising that “network economics” are perceived as a determining factor here. “The network as a limiting factor is well-established,” confirms Steve Russell, head of OTT and media management at Red Bee Media.
“Demands for low-latency, secure exchange of uncompressed content will maintain the role for localised capacity for the foreseeable future in activities such as production, post-production and high-end playout. However, the trend-line is well-established with the cloud as the centre of gravity for all services.”
‘Boring but important
In the same period as the cloud promises to optimise supply chains, there is another development with the potential to deliver major efficiencies – AI/ML. Opinions vary on how prevalent it will be in five years’ time, but there is a consensus view that, right now, the industry is at a relatively formative stage of adoption.
“When one aspect of your supply chain breaks you have to go and find an alternative way of getting that work done, and over the last year the industry has definitely seen that some of these things can be fragile,” Rich Welsh, Deluxe
“Currently we are in the middle of the ‘hype cycle’ for AI within media,” says Sharman. “There have been some well-publicised cases of applying AI to live broadcast streams – for example, to do celebrity tagging at the Royal Wedding [in 2018] – but I think that a lot of the real business impact will come in the ‘boring but important’ areas.”
Examples cited by Sharman include the generation of more complex metadata for content archiving as well as deployment in hitherto “human-centric operations” such as compliance and the removal of potentially offensive content. A human review stage will still be required during the process but automation will “potentially reduce the amount of human work quite dramatically,” he believes.
Welsh points to Deluxe’s recent acquisition of mastering and versioning services business Sundog – which has its own highly automated, cloud-based platform – as an indication of how enmeshed AI/ML are likely to become in the media supply chain. As well as their potential to take the strain out of routine tasks such as captioning, he believes that automation technologies will prove to be instrumental in the creation of the “self-healing supply chain”.
“When one aspect of your supply chain breaks you have to go and find an alternative way of getting that work done, and over the last year the industry has definitely seen that some of these things can be fragile,” says Welsh. “More and more I think we are going to be shifting towards a programmatic marketplace in which a supply chain engine chooses a particular service based on quality or type of delivery. If a normal ‘first preference’ service is not available, the system then make an alternative choice – and this will all be done without any need for human intervention.”
As much as the technologies underpinning media supply chains will continue to evolve, we should also be prepared for further shifts in the ecosystem of service providers. In Russell’s opinion, “a massive benefit of public cloud is that it has levelled the playing field for new entrants and innovative approaches”.
Companies who can bring “real discipline” into supply chain optimisation – possibly through the rigorous application of business efficiency concepts such as Lean and Six Sigma – are likely to be best-placed in the future, concludes Russell: “The organisations that master this change will ‘win’ through lower marginal cost of delivery, and more importantly by being able to offer a ‘product’ (content) that is more responsive and adjustable according to the needs and wants of the audience – collectively and individually.”
- Read more: Themed week: Media Supply Chain