As Pervasive as E

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-02-01 Print this article Print

The media giant's publishing arm broke all its books into thousands of digital assets. But was it too late to win over the rest of the company?

As Pervasive as E-mail?

For media companies, breaking apart books, movies, TV programs, magazines and the like into every identifiable clump of digits that can possibly be of benefit in a different context is quickly becoming routine. It will gain importance with the further development of Internet markets where electronic products are shown, bought and sold.

Projects are under way at media companies such as Walt Disney and at other major book publishers such as Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. That's not surprising, since the book business is increasingly bottom-line oriented, as demonstrated by the January sacking of Random House Editor Ann Godoff, who failed to meet the financial expectations of German parent Bertelsmann.

The Book Group, although it released a record 39 bestsellers in 2001, is subject to the same economics. Plus, the unit lost its most prominent supporter at AOL Time Warner when former chairman Gerald Levin resigned last year. As AOL Time Warner seeks to divest itself of sports teams, cable interests and other assets, jettisoning the low-growth Book Group is seen as a quick step to placate creditors.

With an estimated operating margin of 10% in 2002, the Book Group is a solid but not spectacular performer; corporate owners hope for book publishers to approach margins of 20%. In any case, revenue has slipped in the trade-book industry for the last two years. Without the emergence of hot new categories of product, the business will be sluggish.

Perhaps the Book Group would be less expendable if the electronic book market that DAM was supposed to serve had developed as planned. But that anticipated bang was a bust, and the first new products at big media companies still aim small. At Disney's ABC unit, video clips are on sale from its news Web site. CNN resells its digitized footage to local stations. The Discovery Store unit of the Discovery Channel—the TV venture co-owned by Advance/Newhouse Communications, Cox Communications and Liberty Media—can resell still images of TV fare like bald eagles and baby giraffes.

Other early users include corporate giants with well-known brands such as Coke and GM. They are organizing and reusing huge archives of advertising and marketing material. But they also spy chances to boost licensing revenue by making images and designs—Coke's polar bears or a red Corvette—more accessible to toy makers, clothing companies and others. Manufacturing companies such as chipmaker National Semiconductor are turning complex schematics into digital assets that can be shared easily with customers (see "All Over the DAM Place").

Brett MacIntyre, vice president of content management at IBM (Related link: "Shaky Financials Hurt Content Managers"), calls digital asset management "the next evolution of data management." Why? He contends it will make all forms of media and documents available for wide use within a company in the same way that earlier databases created by IBM, Oracle, Sybase and others made it possible to analyze, repackage and reuse employee, product and transaction information.

Almost unknown a couple of years ago, digital asset management is on its way to becoming a pervasive tool in large businesses. "It is as fundamental as e-mail," says Debra Polishook, a partner in Accenture's media and entertainment group.

Creating accessible, reusable digital assets means conquering a huge and untamed category of information known as unstructured data. This includes such things as images, videos and documents that aren't composed of numbers and formats recognizable by standard databases. At CNN, an internally developed digital-asset management system bolts onto an IBM content management platform to help manage 120,000 hours of news footage archived on videotape. It's a huge undertaking, involving about four petabytes of data— 4 million-billion bytes.

With a typical digital-asset management system, a company's digital assets are processed by filtering software and assigned "tags." These tags tell the system exactly what the asset is—a chapter of a new novel, for instance. That allows each asset to be linked to other assets, for efficient retrieval and use in new ways. The system tracks changes to the assets, documents those changes and monitors the flow of assets through an organization's business processes. The primary purpose is to allow all types of media and documents to be reused—for new purposes, in different formats or embedded in a new piece of work.

Besides the amount of data to be dealt with, companies face other challenges in getting digital assets under control:

  • Most assets are haphazardly stored in file cabinets, desk drawers and, if digital, in scattered servers and desktop computers. "Never underestimate the task of feeding the system," Madans says.
  • The systems for managing such assets are still relatively immature, leaving buyers to customize software packages for their specific uses.
  • The job of "tagging" digital assets is a long, laborious process that requires an enormous amount of detail.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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