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Red Bee addresses three screens

As broadcasting moves inexorably toward IP-distribution, Red Bee Media aims to be one of the premier gateways for digital content across Europe and beyond, writes Adrian Pennington.

As broadcasting moves inexorably toward IP-distribution, Red Bee Media aims to be one of the premier gateways for digital content across Europe and beyond, writes Adrian Pennington.

“We want to be one of the top digital content services companies in the world,” declares Brian Levy, Red Bee Media’s director and chief technology officer. “Red Bee has moved from a pure broadcast playout operation to a global media logistics business.”

To recap, Red Bee Media was created in 2005 following the £166m sale of BBC Broadcast, the Corporation’s transmission services wing, to Australian-based banking group Macquarie. The brand is still predominantly associated with supplying playout services for the BBC, Channel 4, Five and Virgin Media yet the business also handles 70% of broadcast VOD content consumed in the UK — including all ingest and file conversion for BBC iPlayer — and has ambitions to transition existing broadcaster clients and new media publishers toward a three screen digital distribution strategy.

“We already have a tremendous capacity to transcode and convert files. We are playing out live to air most of UK TV on a daily basis. How many others are doing that? There is a phenomenal opportunity for Red Bee to take that content and repurpose it,” says Levy.

In 2008-09 the business turned over £153 million and employed 1500 staff across its London headquarters and operations in Australia, France, Germany and Spain. A physical move into the US is not ruled out.

It has begun working with an [unannounced] US studio to perform versioning work on its content for the European market and is taking an active interest in the DRM initiatives DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) and its counterpart at Disney (Keychest) which Levy describes as “very interesting” for its future.

“As the content distribution market evolves from physical DVD to digital downloads you get to the point where any of the major studios might want to create a worldwide infrastructure to support it,” explains Levy. “It’s unlikely that they will want to own that infrastructure but instead outsource the management of digital content to wholesalers who in turn will supply a series of retailers ranging from supermarkets to mobile operators on a per-request basis from those wholesalers. As the value chain evolves companies like Red Bee can move into this potentially massive, new market space.”

With Cisco predicting that 90% of all internet traffic will be video by 2013, a knowledge of how IP, content and distribution to TV, PC and mobile networks will merge is critical to Red Bee’s business.

Fortunately Levy, who joined the company in January to spearhead the transition, brings with him experience of just these areas spanning four decades. He led the deployment of AT&T’s ATM and IP backbone infrastructure across Europe in the eighties and subsequently, at Qwest, he ran the operations of EUnet across Europe (which spread the ARPANET throughout the research community on the continent). He joined BT as group technology officer Service Strategy and Innovation, where he conceived and developed services content distribution network Aduronet and Storm Telecommunications. Prior to joining Red Bee, Levy was president and CTO for Hewlett Packard’s Global Communications and Media Solutions software business.

“Red Bee’s business is about getting the right media in the right format to the right place at the right time,” says Levy. “At its heart is a centralised store for all media and associated metadata from which material can be enhanced, by creating trails or promotions, adding subtitles or creating new versions.

“Platform-specific transformations are conducted just in time for presentation,” he explains. “Specialised technology is employed as close as possible to the point of delivery. This provides a scaleable architecture, with simple delivery systems re-using data from the store, reducing the unit cost and enabling rapid deployment of new delivery platforms with minimal custom development required.”

Rather than having separate platforms to provide tailored services for each of its clients, Red Bee wants to aggregate common steps in the media workflows where possible – in other words to implement a service oriented architecture (SOA) for media management and delivery.

“SOA offers us an approach to flexible and adaptable technology that can change with the needs of the business,” he explains. “In some cases, like playout, there are essential islands of technology that are tightly integrated for performance reasons, or because they use broadcasting-specific technology that doesn’t play nicely in a SOA architecture.

“Before SOA these processes were siloed, brittle, monolithic applications that were difficult to adapt or change over time. One benefit of adopting an SOA is the ability to align our technical capabilities to business functionality.”

Red Bee has organically built such an architecture with its single ingest and file-based approach to asset management but Levy intends to expand on this so that the same content can be rebranded, or recut for specific platforms.

“We are seeing post production and production merging together, with metadata linking all parts of the value chain,” he says. “What we used to call post really applied to TV and film but now where we have three screens (TV, PC, Mobile) that is all changing. Content doesn’t just need transcoding, it may need re-editing for specific platform; captioned or language reversioned per territory. Advertising can be dynamically inserted around on-demand content.”

Keen use of metadata, he says, can be used to serve suggestions to the viewer around that content such as additional VoD or related information pulled from the internet. “This is where content owners can begin to make additional revenue,” he says.