Attention doc-makers and distributors: SmartJog wants to simplify the way you sell your wares in Europe and, eventually, in Asia and Australia, too. The company, which has offices in Paris, France, and Los Angeles, U.S., has combined satellite and Internet technologies to create a digital delivery system that allows suppliers to send broadcast-quality programs to buyers within hours.
‘Today you spend a lot of time and money duplicating and copying material,’ says Thomas Bremond, SmartJog’s L.A.-based senior VP of business development. ‘With our system, once it’s a digital file, you can send it as many times as you want, without the quality being altered.’
Continues Bremond, ‘We’re trying to build a community of buyers and sellers, and bring them closer together by facilitating exchanges. North American producers who want exposure in Europe and Asia – this will be a perfect tool for them.’
SmartJog grew out of a research project at GlobeCast, the broadcast division of France Telecom, and spun off as an independent venture in January 2002. Last summer, the company raised US$10 million in funding from institutional investors.
SmartJog’s founding, Bremond says, was driven mainly by European broadcasters, many of which were demanding a more efficient method for transmitting programs of all kinds to their digital control rooms. For regular, ongoing programs, such as soap operas and sitcoms, the traditional tape-shipping method had become a nuisance. ‘Europe has been getting equipped with digital technology a lot faster [than North America],’ Bremond says. ‘Instead of playing out from a tape, broadcasters play out from a digital server.’
So far, SmartJog is connected to 80 channels in the U.K., France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, including BSkyB, Channel 4 and TF1. Bremond says the company plans to have 150 channels hooked up by the end of this month.
Each broadcaster is equipped with a satellite receiver that is linked to SmartJog’s file-storage server. Using the SmartJog website, a broadcaster can request a screening version of a program or a ready-to-air format, both of which are stored by SmartJog. Screening material is sent in MPEG-1 or Windows Media 9 format. Broadcast-ready programs are formatted in MPEG-2 and can be transferred directly to the master control room. The system can also accommodate other formats, such as high definition. For low-res screening programs, SmartJog tracks the date and time of viewing, as well as other information of use to sellers who want to follow up on leads.
SmartJog operates a massive digital storage library in Paris that can hold 40,000 hours of content. Bremond estimates that the library currently contains 1,000 hours of programming, ranging from feature films to dramatic series to soap operas, and about 100 hours of factual. Its documentary offerings include The Passion of Havana Cigar, a 1996 hour-long release from Paris, France-based Omnitem Communication, and Palestine Is Still the Issue, a 60-minute production from Carlton International in the U.K.
Last fall, SmartJog set up a Los Angeles office to woo American producers, most notably the big Hollywood studios, whose products are in high demand among European broadcasters. The L.A. hub will store material in ntsc and serve as the input point for content produced on its side of the pond. Programs in the Paris storehouse are formatted in PAL.
For content distributors, the cost of using SmartJog depends on the length of a program and the quality of its encoding, which basically translates to its size as a digital file. Bremond estimates that to encode and send a ready-to-air 50-minute documentary as an MPEG-2 file to a single broadcaster in Paris costs anywhere from $150 to $200. (A file of that size takes about 50 minutes to download.) For programs that are sent to multiple broadcasters at the same time, the base price is discounted 30% to 50%, depending on the number of broadcasters, Bremond says. Broadcasters pay a rental fee that ranges from $500 to $1,500 per month.
While SmartJog hopes to fill out its offerings with American-made programs, it has no plans to offer its services to U.S. and Canadian broadcasters. The reason, says Bremond, is that there are few potential buyers in the North American market. ‘The syndication model in the U.S. doesn’t involve very much screening. Stations rely on the ratings and will buy what the network recommends. In Europe, every channel is different and buys independently, which is why there are a lot of potential buyers in Europe,’ he explains. By April, SmartJog’s satellite footprint will cover Asia, and it eventually plans to move into Australia.
SmartJog is in talks with news and documentary suppliers in the U.S., but has yet to storm the reality-program market in full force. Eventually, though, the company would like to attract more non-fiction distributors and producers. ‘What we’re hoping will happen is that our initial network consisting of the larger European channels will validate the technology,’ Bremond explains. ‘Then the content from Hollywood will attract the smaller channels. Having those channels will attract a lot of people selling docs, even production companies that only have one or two programs to sell in a year.’ He predicts that at the current rollout rate of two broadcasters per week, SmartJog’s network should have a broad reach in Europe by summer 2003.
For all its high-tech qualifications, SmartJog has a long way to go, especially in the factual market. None of the producers or distributors contacted for this article had heard of SmartJog, and some expressed doubt about its potential utility to doc-makers.
‘I think it’s a great service, but it’s [not] something that would be necessary for the kind of volume we bring to the marketplace,’ says Linda Ekizian, vice president of marketing at Washington, d.c.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises, whose doc catalog grows by 20 to 30 hours per year. ‘But, as the technology advances, it could be very interesting to us.’
Karen Carlson, the director of sales and marketing at New York’s Tapestry International, was less sanguine. ‘I can’t imagine that would work,’ she says. ‘Our buyers are bombarded from every direction. It takes six months to a year from the initial contact to them actually watching the program and making an offer. We have a lot of buyers who report not using the Internet at all to look for new product. They like to have the physical copy on their shelf with an index they can read through at a moment’s notice.’
SmartJog’s technology sounds useful, she adds, but it doesn’t address the realities of the doc market. ‘It would make our lives easier, but I don’t think it would help sell programs to our industry. For a company like Tapestry, the old-fashioned method of going on sales trips, sitting in people’s offices, calling them, screening for them – that’s how our programs get noticed and watched. I think our stuff would get lost.’