Media Localization Buyers on Outsourcing, Automation, and Last-Minute Schedule Changes

Media Localization Panel at SlatorCon London 2019

Representatives from the senior ranks of three major media organizations took the stage alongside Slator Co-founder Andrew Smart at SlatorCon London on May 16, 2019. During the media loc panel moderated by Smart, they discussed their experiences in localization management and procurement.

Amanda Smith of Discovery Networks, Justin Walton of ITV Global Entertainment, and Jan-Hendrik Hein of A+E Networks UK shared insights from years spent overseeing hundreds of thousands of hours of dubbing and subtitling. How do media buyers manage localization demand and which outsourcing strategies come into play?

In her capacity as Discovery’s Director of Language Strategy and Content Business Operations, EMEA, Smith spends much of her time focused on procurement tasks, such as running RFPs, selecting vendors, negotiating commercial terms, and managing vendors on an ongoing basis. According to Smith, Discovery localizes “over 100,000 hours of content per annum in EMEA alone. We use 55-plus different third-party vendors who are based in territory.”

For Discovery’s factual entertainment programs, Smith said, “All subtitling and dubbing is outsourced to third-party vendors. But we do have in-house language editors who are obviously  based in territory in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Russia. And their role is to manage the editorial quality of the dubbing.” In addition, they “allocate the series to the studios based on the studios’ abilities; cast the voices and do some QC spot-checking on the translation, particularly on the key promotables.”

Discovery localizes “over 100,000 hours of content per annum in EMEA alone. We use 55-plus different third-party vendors who are based in territory” — Amanda Smith, Director of Language Strategy and Content Business Operations, Discovery Networks

Smith’s remit at Discovery is not limited to localization. She said, “Some of the content is produced locally and for promos. US-produced ones are either reversioned by a third party, or a promo team in the local offices will produce promos. In that case, it’s not about localizing the content; we’re producing local content.” Smith also heads up access services, which include hard-of-hearing subtitling and audio description.

Outsourcing Dubbing & Subbing

Meanwhile, A+E’s Director of Media Operations Hein said, “We localize into 20 languages and create around 1,500 new language tracks every month.” He told the SlatorCon London audience that he is responsible for the content supply chain, which includes content sourcing, regulatory compliance, and distribution across EMEA, as well as localization.

“We localize into 20 languages and create around 1,500 new language tracks every month” — Jan-Hendrik Hein, Director of Media Operations, A+E Networks UK

In terms of localization strategy at A+E Networks UK, “all of the dubbing and subtitling is done by language service providers although we have an in-house team of Language Supervisors — all qualified linguists — who manage those relationships, specific guidelines, and run the RFPs,” Hein said.

At ITV Global Entertainment (ITV GE), Walton, who is Global Content Operations Manager, said they “localized about 800 hours of dubbed content last year, so a more modest volume.” The content to be localized mainly comprises “very high-end drama, some non-scripted, and a whole range of outlets for that. ITV GE produced about 8,500 hours of programming last year and that comes out of about 12 different local centers as well, so we’re fairly global.”

“ITV GE produced about 8,500 hours of programming last year and that comes out of about 12 different local centers as well, so we’re fairly global” — Justin Walton, Global Content Operations Manager, ITV

As for their outsourcing strategy, Walton said, “We outsource all the dubbing and subbing. My team in London do most of the coordination.”

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Walton also explained his approach to localization outsourcing, saying they use a mix of very large suppliers “for bigger projects and big OTT. For the more single language commissions, we do a lot of just single languages in EMEA especially. That’s kind of a one-to-one relationship using a range of vendors that we’ve onboarded and that we have a good relationship with. Some might just work better for one title than another. Some might be more price attractive that week. But we like a bit of variety to keep our options open.”

Linear Programming and Last-Minute Changes

Discovery is predominantly focused on linear, where programs are broadcast according to a specific schedule. Although the tide has begun to change toward non-linear methods, that is streaming, Smith said. “We’re driven by schedules, which are released two months out. So we’ve got to work on all the premieres and get them localized,” he added.

“Schedules are normally published two months out but by no means finalized” — Jan-Hendrik Hein, Director of Media Operations, A+E Networks UK

While schedules for linear programming are published months in advance, they are subject to change, as Hein pointed out. “Schedules are normally published two months out but by no means finalized,” he said.

Changes, according to Hein, may arise at very short notice. “If we notice that a competitor channel has a successful show at 9 o’clock, maybe we move our key shows to 8 o’clock or to 10 o’clock. Or we move them to a different day of the week, which will then impact delivery deadlines for localization,” Hein said.

And what of the potential impact if localized versions are not ready in time for broadcast? “Things rarely go wrong, and we do try to avoid something not airing at all cost. But it depends on the feed,” Smith said.

Elaborating on two different scenarios, Smith described the dedicated territory feeds that Discovery has in places such as Italy, Poland, and Spain, adding that “if something went wrong then we would probably have to make a schedule change and replace the program with an existing program that is already in Polish, Italian or Spanish.”

Smith also explained that in other territories, Discovery operates “a lot of pan-European feeds that go into a wide variety of territories and they can be in up to 17 different languages. So if one language isn’t ready, then we wouldn’t pull the program. That territory with the missing language would just get it in English. But that is, fortunately, quite a rare occurrence and we do everything in our power to avoid that.”

Localization Strategy and Complexity

Asked how Discovery determines which languages content is localized into, Smith said that in the case of linear programming, the languages are decided by “commercial agreement with the platform,” and it’s “usually for a 100% languaging, unless we’re in launch phase.”

L-R: Andrew Smart, Slator; Amanda Smith, Discovery Networks; Jan-Hendrik Hein, A+E Networks UK; Justin Walton, ITV.

By contrast, for digital, “you would agree with the platform for a certain volume to be languaged upfront, and then what the refresh rate is. But it’s always a commercial decision. There’s always a careful cost analysis of the costs versus the revenue to make sure that it’s cost effective,” she said.

“There’s always a careful cost analysis of the costs versus the revenue to make sure that it’s cost effective”— Amanda Smith, Director of Language Strategy and Content Business Operations, Discovery Networks

Over at ITV GE, Walton sees added localization complexity in the form of multilingual shows: “We’ve even had a rise, especially in the Nordics, of some shows where you’ve got a mixture of languages as well. So not only are we dubbing it into multiple languages, the original version is in multiple languages,” Walton said.

ITV has also recently acquired a French studio called Tetra, and Walton said that along with the acquisition, ITV has gained a large catalog of French content. He said, “Trying to bring that into the business is bringing some challenges because you’ve got the whole inconsistency of archive materials. We don’t necessarily have the right scripts or the right subtitles, etc.”

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Archive materials are playing an increasingly important role role in media localization, Walton said. Where previously content producers, such as ITV GE, would not tend to revisit old content after a program has been sold to a range of clients, content owners are now beginning to see the commercial value of reselling archive material.

A problem arises when archive materials are badly organized or the language versions are irretrievable since this can lead to duplication of localization work for archive content to be resold. So now, Walton said, “We bring in a really high quality version that becomes our archive copy.” The team uses technology and quality controls to make sure that “we never have to visit that version in that language ever again.”

New Horizons: Automation, AI, and the Cloud

Hein has recently overseen the implementation of a new channel management system, which A+E Networks UK uses to plan all of their linear and non-linear schedules from a localization standpoint. The new system has replaced a manual workflow, which relied on Excel spreadsheets to manage premiere dates and suppliers. Hein pointed out, “There was a lot of room for human error if schedules changed.”

The new system allows the team to have a closer hold on the workflow and to streamline its collaboration with the company’s biggest supplier for localization, SDI Media. Now, SDI receives an automated trigger from the system once the schedule has been finalized and published, and is sent data relating to the show name, asset ID, channel, target languages, and the premiere date,” Hein said. The system also triggers notifications if updates are made and allows SDI to send status updates back to A+E. “It’s very easy via the system interfaces to track or to know where assets are in the workflow,” he noted.

“It’s very easy via the system interfaces to track or to know where assets are in the workflow” — Jan-Hendrik Hein, Director of Media Operations, A+E Networks UK

Discovery, similarly, now has a “bespoke software called Palm that interfaces with the scheduling system that, like Jan (Hein), we use to replace Excel spreadsheets for tracking,” Smith said. She added that “vendors usually get two to three weeks — four if they’re lucky,” to deliver the localized language assets.

One would expect that all the audio and video files media companies handle would be a heavy burden on their file storage systems. Yet, according to Hein, “bandwidth is not such a huge factor for us. For localization, a lot of the files that move around are proxy video files, so low-res files. The scripts, audio, and subtitle files take up no space and we’re migrating more and more of our media workflows to the cloud.”

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Cloud-based infrastructure has become more of a staple in the media localization space. Companies are beginning to explore using the cloud not only for storage but also for services such as cloud dubbing, which allows voice artists to record audio from their own facilities, directors to conference remotely, and engineers to post-process audio recordings in a separate location.

Walton, for his part, said that cloud-based dubbing is not a big priority for ITV GE right now given that high-end drama makes up a lot of ITV’s localization needs. Generally, he believes that “there’s a lot of value in still doing very high-quality dubbing in a very good studio with a dubbing director there and all the facilities” — although he does recognize that the technology could be useful under certain circumstances.

“There’s a lot of value in still doing very high-quality dubbing in a very good studio with a dubbing director there and all the facilities” — Justin Walton, Global Content Operations Manager, ITV

“Technology is getting much better at mimicking [high-quality studio dubbing]. If you’re in your bedroom and if you’re doing a voice-over or certain niche-type work that’s of a certain budget, absolutely it’s going to be a solution,” he said. Walton did not rule out looking at cheaper, cloud-based solutions “if we do more non-scripted content.”

Probing a little deeper into technology and AI-enabled workflows, Slator’s Andrew Smart, asked Smith, Walton, and Hein about their views on the likely adoption of emerging technologies among media localization buyers.

Discovery’s Smith said they use text-to-speech for audio description “in all of the languages, even English,” pointing out that “sighted people tend to forget that the visually impaired are very used to synthetic voices.” Smith praised its quality and told the SlatorCon London audience that she “can’t always tell the difference between the automated voice and a real voice.” Discovery has “had very little feedback and it’s been successful in the market,” she said.

“Sighted people tend to forget that the visually impaired are very used to synthetic voices” — Amanda Smith, Director of Language Strategy and Content Business Operations, Discovery Networks

Responding to a question on AI lip-sync solutions (proposed by the likes of recently funded startup Synthesia, for instance), Hein said he has “mixed feelings.” On the one hand, he thinks that AI has “potential for lip-sync because it would make the lip-sync process a lot easier since you don’t have to align the translation with the original lip movement any more.”

Yet he raised the question as to “what that means for fake news” and cautioned that “some Hollywood actors might not like their lips moved artificially because a lot of acting is in your facial expression.”

“Some Hollywood actors might not like their lips moved artificially because a lot of acting is in your facial expression” — Jan-Hendrik Hein, Director of Media Operations, A+E Networks UK

Walton concluded the session by summarizing his view on the nature of translation for media localization: “It’s not just a translation, it’s adaptation. It’s catching all those nuances. It’s making the lip-sync work for French dubbing. It’s the translation that makes the most enjoyable experience for the French viewer watching that show.”