Digital Watermarking & Security in the Cloud
This blog is one of a series of Media & Entertainment Cloud Ecosystem interviews.
Executive Interview with Ken Gerstein, VP of Sales at NAGRA
While in-person events have been curtailed by COVID-19, innovation continues to advance in both tech and media and entertainment. I’ve been sitting down (virtually) with leaders of some of the leading AWS Partner Network (APN) Technology Partners involved in the M&E ecosystem—and their insights can offer a lens into the future of the industry.
Ken Gerstein has been a sales and business development leader in the media and entertainment field for over 20 years. He thrives on establishing new brands and working on the cutting edge of technology. In his current role at NAGRA, a division of the Kudelski Group, he leads sales and strategic initiatives for the NexGuard forensic watermarking portfolio.
In this interview, Ken and I chat about security solutions, video watermarking, and what he sees for the future of the industry.
Q: First, tell me about the company and what you guys do, just to get people familiar with your role.
A: NAGRA has a long history in the media and entertainment industry. The reach of the company actually started with the NAGRA recorder, which was invented to streamline audio capture for film production. And then as that technology evolved over time, they became active in providing a wide range of security solutions for broadcast pay-TV—and the greater media and entertainment industry as a whole.
I’m part of the group of security solutions that focuses on protecting content from theft—protecting value. That includes NexGuard watermarking and anti-piracy solutions to monitor and investigate and enforce piracy. And that’s part of a broader set of NAGRA solutions that’s focused on protecting value anywhere in the content distribution chain, from content creation to distribution to the consumer.
Q: Yeah, it’s a huge issue. I’ve been around in the media and entertainment industry long enough to see some serious issues with content leaking out. I’m also in the TV Academy, so we get those screeners. It’s always a question of: how do people watermark that or provide security?
Really interesting, and I imagine it must be evolving even more with the cloud. How did you guys first get involved in the cloud space?
A: With a lot of our product lines, there was a need to not be so dependent on local data centers and a need to expand our processing capabilities. That drove us to shift from traditional software development and embedded software into a cloud environment.
If you look at the more traditional security that’s tied to a secure chip—more of a traditional set-top box world, more hardware-based—that side of the business still exists and is still an important piece. But as the world has become more portable—and not only portable with our mobile phones, but portable in the way engineering teams approach development—we really needed to decouple software from that hardware dependency.
And that drove us to experiment early on with a lot of our product lines. A lot of the fulfillment and deployment of those products for our customers needs to be in a cloud environment in order to scale. And that’s the big driver for us: that need for scalability.
Q: Yes, that definitely is a recurring theme. Are there any cloud technologies—other than yours, of course—that you’ve read about or you’ve heard about that you find especially interesting?
A: That’s a good question. The technologies we’re tracking—we’re really interested in how different companies are approaching collaboration and virtual production. So what has been interesting is a couple of trends. This started before COVID—and we can talk about what’s happened since—but if you look at the 6-12 months before COVID, what’s been interesting is the idea of virtual sets.
There’s a company in downtown L.A., Lux Machina, that does a lot of production for The Mandalorian and other productions. They actually married a game engine’s rendering capabilities with a five-wall set, where you have three walls around the camera, plus the floor and ceiling. And it enabled them to do a lot of incredible things with keeping actors in one space and then sending all of that rendered footage to remote collaborative workflows—whether it’s color mastering or the audio mastering and audio effects and so forth.
So that’s been an interesting development that’s starting to open up other remote production: virtual production tools that are hosted in different cloud environments. And a lot of it has been hosted by AWS, so that’s been very interesting for us.
We’re not directly involved in that, but what’s interesting for us, from a content protection side, is this: in these virtual and very portable environments—that are being shared by teams that could be anywhere in the world—is there sensitivity around security? Who is behind the other screen watching this very sensitive prerelease, pre-distribution content? That’s an area that we’re tracking. It’s still very new to the industry, but as you can imagine with the developments now, there’s a big need to do more of this.
Security issues will come back to it, but we’re interested because it’s just really cool and it seems to have a lot of value to the industry. It’s also reducing some of the location costs, some of the travel costs, some of the costs of building physical sets. So we can see a lot of development. And in the past, it looked very artificial when they tried to do it, so I think the processing power of the cloud and the ability to do really complicated rendering that you can turn around very quickly—that’s helping advance some of these technologies.
Q: Yes. I can imagine for The Mandalorian the savings in rocket fuel alone not to have to fly to location would be pretty significant!
A: Ha, absolutely! I mean in some cases, you can’t do without it, and they have to do some on-location for production value. But for complex shots that require a lot of VFX, it’s becoming a game-changer.
Q: Yes, I’d be curious how much of the lighting is actually virtual or not. But you mentioned the coronavirus, so let’s touch on that. What do you think the impact of the coronavirus on the media and enterprise industry will be over the next 12 months?
A: Well, that’s a question of where we think we’ll be. Let’s make an assumption that probably over the next 12 months, things don’t open up completely. Maybe they open up partially—no one can predict the future, but let’s assume that’s what happens in that 12-month period.
So let’s look at what’s happened now. Initially, when the coronavirus struck, it froze everything. In our industry, in our production industry, which includes live sports, TV, and film...
Q: Oh yes, we saw that even in the cloud, purely digital—all of the decisions stopped.
A: Yes, everything, because no one knew what to do. There was that fear and also an aversion to risk—like all the studios are still not going back to their offices for the time being, as far as the office employees are concerned. But now six months later and the clock is ticking, we’re in the middle of it, and the media and entertainment industry had to find a way to move forward.
The first place to move forward is that they were able to get their teams working remotely in a collaborative way. That lends itself to being more open to cloud tools. And the vendors have been forced to do that as well—especially the editing tools and so forth. And on the engineering side and the development side, they’ve been forced to do that too. Everyone has to work remotely, and I think the industry has adjusted to that fairly well.
But the big thing is that there’s more openness to using these tools. If you look at pre-COVID, a lot of companies had cloud initiatives that were moving along—but moving along at a snail’s pace, because there were still elements of fear in moving your prized jewels into an environment that you don’t have control of. And while there is still that sentiment, and there’s a hyper-consciousness about security, they needed to take that risk because they had no choice under COVID.
And there were some incidents here and there, but generally, it worked. There’s still that concern about leaks happening in the pre-release space—and we’re involved in different aspects of it—but what COVID has shown is they can work this way. And so I think, over the next 12 months, that’s going to continue because they have no choice.
What’s interesting, as things loosen up—all of the support teams and post teams that are involved with productions, do they continue working in that way? And I would say that, probably, some of them may. They may be getting more productivity out of people because you’re removing commuting times. In the case of L.A., a lot of people I know in the industry might have an hour commute each way. So if they can do that project in a quiet space in their home—it’d be hard in my home, but if you have an editing suite that you set up in your home—they might get some better efficiency going forward.
We’ll see what’ll happen post-COVID, but certainly, on the post side, I think the industry is adjusting to that. There are some greater security questions. There’s probably improvement in some of the tools—some of the response time and latency that you have in some of the collaboration tools. I think we’ll start to work those kinks out.
Same with QC—another area that they had to move into the cloud—because usually QC was reserved. Certain companies would do QC, and they would get a master over a period of time and they’d have to QC all the files, all the different versions of it. They’re having to do that remotely now, so it’s made it more difficult. But I think they’re overcoming it.
So that’s the one part. The other interesting part that’s happening with COVID is the ability to do production. At the beginning of COVID, they had a certain number of shows that were already either in post or done. They’ve just been working through them over this period of time, for the most part, trying to finish them and get them out to the public—because there’s still a huge demand for both episodic and filmed content. Although not in a theater, unfortunately.
What’s happened is now the studios finally have some agreements and they found a way. Even in the past month, in L.A. alone, there were about 27 productions that were ongoing, that covered both scripted and non-scripted TV, as well as a few film productions—and that’s just in L.A.
Q: Let’s go bigger. What do you think the impact of cloud will be on business over the next three years?
A: Well, it’s going to have a big impact on the streaming business. Due to the growth of streaming services and the unpredictability of how certain events or certain titles can affect demand—that scalability lends itself to the cloud. And the ability to design your services and systems to leverage that scalability has become more pressing now, I would say.
For our business, it affects the way we approach development. It pushes teams into a much more fluid development environment that’s able to adjust to requirements as they change and to plan for a demand that can spike up at different times—and you can’t necessarily predict those times.
The other side that cloud will help—and it’s still a little early for that in our industry—is the data side.
Q: Which aspect of the data?
A: Well, being able to have tools to really analyze the data and patterns to help you predict. Based on looking at past data, you could predict a demand where certain usage patterns are, so you can prepare how you roll out a particular title or particular services.
Q: And do you see that being cross-industry?
A: Yeah, definitely across industry, I would say. Well, I would say it would be across media and entertainment—but that’s also the intersection of the advertising space as well. That’s where we see it. Because the way you monetize a view of content is really going to change in the future.
Q: Yes, it’s interesting you called out videoconferencing as almost the gateway drug to cloud, in terms of creating openness. And certainly, my kids are at the dining room table Zooming in to school. So it’s interesting to see how much other industries, like education, have pivoted into the use cases that used to be the domain almost exclusively of media and entertainment.
A: Yes. And I think it’s going to create some other business opportunities, right?
I’ll give you an example since you have kids: I had to celebrate a kid’s birthday over the weekend. Unfortunately, a face-to-face party was not possible—hard to do with kids, right? But you have to make something work, and I did a search trying to figure out how I could do a viewing party, outside of Zoom.
And there were some options, but they weren’t necessarily user friendly. And especially with your child, they want to watch the movie that they want to watch with their friends, because it’s their favorite movie—so we were left with Zoom. It’s actually a common way kids do these viewing parties now—and the interface, the video conference format, and the sound quality is not the same as streaming from your Smart TV or mobile device, right?
So I think there are companies that are trying to address that market beyond media and entertainment. Another aspect of it is for crafts, education, supplementing kids’ remote schooling. When things were completely shut down with COVID, there was all this extra time that people had. There’s everything from cooking classes, exercise classes, all that kind of thing. It’s very fluid now. I think no one has quite perfected it, but there is an appetite for it. And so that’s kind of changing the business.
Q: Yes. I think I have yet to attend a networking event via videoconference that just wasn’t excruciatingly awkward. It just doesn’t lend itself well...
A: Yes, it’s tough. Some of the groups that would do this—some of the different post groups that I participate in—they would do a Friday happy hour on Zoom, and it was kind of awkward. Initially, it was about who had the best virtual background and everything. So it’s interesting that you say that, because post-COVID, I think you’re going to see more use of these virtual collaboration tools.
But at the same time, there’ll also be a thirst for people to have some face-to-face contact. Maybe they’ll figure out some hybrid approach, because there’s still nothing quite like getting in the room at times with a group and having that face-to-face. I think under COVID, people have gotten used to the virtual format.
Q: We’re certainly doing that here. We’re certainly making some lemonade!
If somebody wanted to get in touch with you or your team, what’s the best way to do it?
A: The best way to reach me is to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And then definitely feel free to go to the NAGRA website and you can see the wide range of solutions that we provide. We do get inquiries there, but if anyone has direct questions, they can reach out directly to me.