Content rights acquisition was an early obstacle to OTT video. Allowing movies and broadcast television over a new distribution network called for adjusting strategies and striking new deals. But rights were a gating issue long before TV Everywhere and other such initiatives. Rights acquisition is arguably the original broadcasting problem.
Who has the rights to which programs, over what media, at what level of quality, in which countries, for how long and at what cost? These types of questions have defined the media and entertainment industry for decades. They continue to shape the OTT industry. But content rights management—not to be confused with encryption-based digital rights management (DRM)—is perhaps the larger challenge today. Although contracts originate with acquisition and legal teams, they impact technical operations and therefore belong not at the periphery but rather fully integrated within digital content lifecycle workflows.
The OTT content lifecycle is complex and extensive. It traditionally involves content that has been manually or automatically ingested into a video provider’s platform. But the lifecycle starts much earlier. It starts when you first discuss acquiring content from a rights holder, whether a studio or sports rights holder or any other creative entity. It continues as you track each contract. Distinct rights windows, geo-restrictions, device restrictions or other constraints could apply to different content, even within the same contract. As an OTT provider, you must not only manage these from the start but also track every change, taking care to prevent changes that infringe upon the original contract and to ensure that all rights are reflected on your online offering.
Once the contracts are signed, content needs to be ingested. Every rights holder will have their own way of distributing content—some via FTP, others by disk—and with varying degrees of metadata.
The end of the lifecycle is even more critical. When a publishing window ends, the acquisition team needs to be notified in due time, and if the contracts are not renewed, the service needs to make absolutely sure that content outside the publishing window is unpublished and not available for any end user.
In the best case, these processes are automatic and not dependent on individuals. The situation for many OTT providers, however, is sub-optimal. A common workflow involves spreadsheets—whether residing locally or on a shared drive. Tied to an ingest application, a spreadsheet solution allows an OTT provider to filter for content, create a category if necessary, and push publishing information and a video file, while adding appropriate metadata. This is a workable approach, although the many components and manual steps in the chain pose real drawbacks. It also typically uses an asynchronous feed ingest, which cannot be updated without delays. Moreover, a large catalogue will involve multiple axes of rights, time, devices, geo-location, number of streams and devices, DRM, and other factors that can render this approach cumbersome, if not altogether unsustainable.
The answer to spreadsheet-based rights management lies with automation and integration tools that elevate content rights into a core operation of digital content management platforms. In an age when telecommunications operators are beginning to use virtualization and software abstraction to enable easy control and configuration—and automation—of complex processes that were once heavily manual and error-prone, it is not too much to hope for analogous efforts at the content layer. Indeed, the transition is already underway.
The technical elements are well in place. These include highly scalable cloud computing, REST APIs that drive interoperable web services, and standard http-based information exchange protocols, to name only a few. But even more important is the ability to combine those elements with the right domain knowledge and use cases.
Whether a reflection of OTT operators moving upstream or studios and other content creators becoming distributors—or perhaps both—effective content rights management now requires knowledge that draws upon both broadcast and OTT domains. Against the backdrop of wide-scale media disruption, use cases now reflect the need to increase efficiency. Anyone aspiring to be a broadcaster of tomorrow has a big agenda and should be spending as little time on processes that could otherwise be automated.
A key catalyst of efficiency, given today’s highly fragmented market, is a library of open APIs that enable either operators themselves, if they have the resources, or integrator partners to build unified, working solutions. Integrated within a flexible content management system (CMS) architecture, for instance, a comprehensive rights management tool should cover the entire chain, from contract signing, ingest, metadata enrichment, transcoding, publishing, un-publishing and all the way to content removal.
Within that kind of framework, one can find quick efficiency wins, especially for companies that lack a strong broadcasting suite and could benefit from optimized manual ingest flow.
Consider an OTT provider who has purchased 5 seasons of a show, each with 23 episodes. Using status-quo tools, this publisher would need to create an object for each of these 115 assets. A comprehensive rights management tool, on the other hand, allows the publisher to select and create all objects at once, and furthermore simplify the application of rights, licensing windows and download rights by collecting all selected items in one place.
At the front-end as well, when negotiating contracts, broadcasters and publishers could use this kind of tool to track which rights they have and which they are seeking. Once digital rights are acquired for any given content, the publisher then should be able to make the content available with the push of a button. It should likewise be possible to automate the fetching, validation and publication of enriched metadata.
The basic challenges facing OTT broadcasters are not new. When several of us who now work together at Vimond launched one of first successful OTT services in the Nordic region twenty years ago at TV2, we saw then that every other broadcaster would face many of these traditional problems and challenges.
What is relatively new is the scale at which today’s new video distributors can operate and the urgency of the transformational tasks they face. Not all content distributors will make it through the ongoing disruption. Those who do will have streamlined and automated their technical operations, including content rights management, to the greatest extent possible.