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How MTV keeps track of its videos

October 14, 1998
Web posted at 5:30 PM EDT

by Kristin Kueter


(IDG) -- Believe it or not, there's an entire generation that can't remember the days before MTV. Yet, until recently, the company that epitomizes today's youth used a video-procurement system that hadn't graduated into the 20th century. New York-based MTV Networks, a unit of Viacom, had a daunting task: It needed to convert its paper-based video-acquisitions process into a system that could track each stage of a video's journey -- from the mailbag to the viewers' television screens.

Ball of confusion

In 1996, MTV Networks had two channels: MTV and VH1. Each channel was responsible for the procurement of its own videos. These videos were hard to track using the old manual system.

"It was a nightmare in the making," says Tris Baer, director of applications development, at infoWorks, a New York Viacom technology service that supports MTV Networks, ShowTime Networks, and Viacom Corporate. According to Baer, "No one knew exactly where a video was, or what had happened to it. It could have been under someone's desk."

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In addition, music labels would send the same videos to both channels, and work was needlessly duplicated. Often, there were several versions of a video, and each of those needed to be tracked as well. To make matters worse, MTV Networks was expanding. When it launched a third channel, MTV2, in August of 1996, the number of video submissions quadrupled. The company needed more than a database; it needed a system that could track the history of every version of each tape, seamlessly integrating wildly varying needs.

Taking care of business

Two developers -- Rob Walker, manager of applications development, and David Frost, consultant for integrated design concepts -- joined Baer and Joe Leggio, vice president of applications development, bringing the total infoWorks team to four members.

Early on, the group decided to implement a scalable solution.

"The database was the core. That meant we had to do all the thinking up-front and plan for all types of contingencies," according to Frost.

Although this made the initial development more challenging, the end result was a system that could grow and respond to the rapidly changing needs of the company. MTV Networks has widespread offices and numerous channels, so the team had to develop an application that could support users across a WAN. By using Sybase's PowerBuilder to develop the application and Microsoft's SQL Server on Windows NT as a database management system, the group was able to rapidly prototype, implement, and roll out the application on PCs using any version of Windows.

Group members obtained further productivity gains by using Logic Work's ERwin to design and build their database, Sylvain Faust's SQL-Programmer for database development, and Visio to diagram the system and its processes. Because of the established dependability of these tools, the team could easily implement the system across several U.S. offices without issue.

Once the technical aspects of the system were set, the team fits its users' requests into the final design. This wasn't easy: On one end were artistic types; on the other were highly technical people. On the artistic side, decisions have to be made about whether a video should be aired. On the technical side, the people in the Network Operations Center need to know information such as reel and feed times.

"We had to understand the sum of the parts instead of just the parts ... and make sure that each screen was geared to a particular user's needs," Walker says. In February 1998, deep in the development cycle, a bomb dropped. The team learned that MTV Networks planned to expand to 10 channels by August 1998. This meant that it would need to have a different screen for each channel.

"We had to react quickly and make sure that the system we had previously designed would continue working," Leggio says.

At this point the decision to use standard tools and a scalable design paid off. Because of the system's scalability, it takes just a click of a button and a new screen appears, available immediately.

Future so bright, you gotta wear shades

The Music Video Acquisition System was launched in May 1998 and immediately went platinum with users. More than 70 people currently use the system, and that number is growing.

"When people first see it, they say they have to have it," Baer says. Key to this popularity was the team's strategy of gradually rolling out the application to one group at a time, and incorporating feedback through a series of rapid development cycles. By ensuring that the reports looked and felt the same as those generated under the manual system, the foursome could quickly teach users the new system.

The team built more than an acquisitions system, it developed a data warehouse that vastly improves users' efficiency. All steps of the process are now logged and audited, so it's easy to follow a video's history. The system eliminates errors and prevents duplication through a series of fail-safe measures. For example, the system prevents people from entering the same tape from multiple points of entry, unlimited levels of undo quickly rectify problems, and tiny nuisances that were once painful to fix, such as spelling errors, can be corrected with one change that will affect the entire database. In addition, the system accelerates tasks by forwarding a tape onto a new stage once it passes a clearance, without human intervention.

Now the Music Video Acquisition System is as cutting-edge as the videos it catalogues. You'd expect nothing less from MTV Networks.

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