DAM Champ: Dan Piro
DAM Champ Dan Piro is the director of the digital asset archive at the National Hockey League (NHL). He has 15 years of experience in production and archiving. Before he worked for NHL, Dan held positions at Turner Broadcasting, Madison Square Garden, and World Wrestling Entertainment.
DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a digital asset management system (DAM). There is a wide variety in DAM champions, who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.
What is your role in supporting or organizing a digital asset management (DAM) project?
I’ve been involved with a number of DAM implementations throughout my career and each has had their own set of unique circumstances. When I joined the National Hockey League (NHL) at the beginning of 2015, the existing DAM was no longer meeting the needs of the organization. Our two major initiatives were to deploy a new DAM by the beginning of the next hockey season and to digitize the entire media archive ahead of the NHL’s Centennial Celebration.
That gave us eight months to get the new DAM operational and about a year and a half to digitize and ingest a collection of over 250,000 hours of audio/visual content, a half-million still images, and over a million documents. From there we had to merge this legacy media with our existing archive of born-digital assets as well as new content that was being created on a daily basis.
On top of it all, midway through the first year, the organization struck a deal with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) to operate the NHL Network and digital businesses. This meant we had to create ways to distribute and receive content in an efficient manner with an offsite partner.
The ultimate goal is to work with our post-production team and broadcast partners to provide a system that makes content more accessible, applies as much metadata as possible to that content, and gives producers the tools to tell more compelling stories… especially for our 100th anniversary.
How long have you been doing DAM or been responsible for the DAM system?
I’ve been involved in archiving and production for 15 years. Prior to joining the NHL, I’ve held similar positions with Turner Broadcasting, Madison Square Garden, and World Wrestling Entertainment.
One of the cool things about my career path has been the diversity of how DAM falls into the corporate structure of a company. With it being a relatively new sector of the industry, I find that different organizations have had to apply it in different ways. As a result, I’ve spent time in departments as varied as production, marketing, programming, information technology, creative, and broadcast operations. I believe I’ve become very well-rounded because of this and can understand the perspectives of what people in each of these groups need to do every day to get their jobs done. With DAM often being an internal system for multiple business purposes, it has allowed me to better service those who depend on me.
Is your background in library science or is it more on the creative side?
My degree is in Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Mass Media and I had been trying to get into production. When I interviewed with WWE for a production assistant job, they ended up offering me an internship in their media library. At the time they were focused on curating content in preparation for launching a video-on-demand service which eventually morphed into the current WWE Network. For the first three months, my job was to log the wrestling shows from the 1980’s that I grew up watching on Saturday mornings, capturing metadata along the way. I basically fell into the archiving world after that and grew within the company rather quickly.
I’m a production guy with a ton of physical and digital archiving experience. I find that not having a library science background can actually work to your advantage because you’re not as confined by the rules. Let’s face it, as important as archive management is and as much as you want to do it perfectly, it’s not what drives the media industry. It’s a necessity and many times a cost center.
“You need to be flexible, resilient, and savvy to find ways to work with challenges like limited means and lack of support.”
Sometimes you need to be able to step away from the science of it and just find ways to get things done as efficiently as your workflows and coworkers allow. Within those confines, you strive to provide a tool that best allows your organization to present their main product.
How did you find out about DAM systems as a way to deal with digital assets?
Early in my career, I remember being told that we were going to make files of every tape and everyone would edit from their desks instead of big edit rooms loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. We had a good laugh after that. Fifteen years later, we’re finally getting there.
How do you interact with DAM and digital assets in your day to day?
I oversee a team of people that are uniquely qualified to handle the NHL’s media management needs. I say that it’s unique because in addition to having the technical proficiency to work in a post-production environment, they also need to be subject matter experts in the sport of hockey. It’s actually easier for me to teach someone the best practices of DAM than it would be to teach 100 years of detailed hockey history.
From ensuring our production workflows are optimized to determining our ingest strategies, my day to day can vary greatly depending on the project at hand. We always want to be sure we’re making the best use of our infrastructure and our human resources.
One thing that is constant for my team and will never truly be complete is the application of metadata to our assets and ensuring the integrity of that data.
“A DAM can be filled with millions of assets, but until you have quality data applied to them you really don’t have anything at all.”
By creating new metadata and tying our DAM together with the legacy information that exists in other NHL databases, our goal is to make our DAM as robust as possible. Not only will this allow us to locate the assets we’re looking for, but also discover new ones that can be used in conjunction with them. It’s like giving an artist more colors to paint a picture.
Beyond that, we also need to troubleshoot any technical issues that exist with our files and ensure we’re able to deliver quality, usable media to our production teams. This applies to both the archival content that we digitized and the daily feeds we receive from the arenas. When you factor in three feeds per game, pre-game, post-game and multiply it by up to 15 games per night, you could be receiving over 250 hours of content in a single night that has to write to LTO and generate proxy.
What would you say are the top one or two areas of responsibility and ownership that make you proud to be a DAM champ?
I would say that my greatest accomplishment since joining the NHL has been the digitization of the media archive. We had set a very aggressive deadline to complete a massive project. Again, we had 250,000 hours of video, audio and film. There were 500,000 images on slides, negatives and prints. We had over 1 million documents of official handwritten scorecards, statistical records, press releases, and more.
I don’t necessarily see myself as a champ because this is way too much work for any one person to be responsible for. Maybe I’m more like a general manager or coach of a team. It’s less about personal achievements and more about putting the right pieces in place and developing them so your team can win a championship together. In the end, we all learned a great deal and having had the opportunity to share any expertise I may have with a team of 15 was very rewarding because we all come out more skilled and knowledgeable in the end.
Why is DAM so important?
This is a tricky question because DAM serves different purposes in different places. It really comes down to what your organizational needs are and how you can apply DAM to help solve inefficiencies.
Some companies implement DAM with a clear plan for ROI. Others may use it more for preservation. In some organizations, the goal is to break down silos and reduce redundancies by sharing work. Elsewhere you could be using it as the backbone of an OTT network. It could be any combination of these things.
For the NHL, the immediate need was to centralize our assets ahead of our Centennial Celebration and to have a place to put all the content we were digitizing. In the long term, it allows us to serve our internal departments and broadcast partners, improves our licensing abilities, and ties assets together around games or events. In the past, some of the physical records were not even kept in the same country. The icing on the cake is that it also creates a prudent strategy to preserve our history.
What’s the best thing about DAM — your DAM or any DAM? What’s the thing you think of when you talk with somebody who doesn’t know DAM, what’s the best thing about it?
The best thing about our DAM is that it’s a hockey fan’s paradise.
“If hockey is your passion, you’d be able to get lost in it for months at a time digging up classic clips, amazing photos, historical content, and all sorts of hidden gems. It’s like a museum on your desktop.”
The best thing about DAM, in general, is the ease of access it creates, while also giving you the power to limit that access if necessary. When I started out in the business I remember getting a team of five people to scatter around the WWE TV Studio to sweep the building for missing tapes. That’s a poor use of anybody’s time and DAM has helped eliminate inefficiencies like it.
What’s your biggest challenge as a DAM champ?
The biggest challenge I see facing our industry right now is the transition to 4k, 8k, HDR, and high frame rate content. The three aspects to making these formats viable consumer models are the ability to produce, distribute, and archive. Production capabilities have lead the way, but until the tools are available to widely distribute and archive these files with the proper bandwidth and storage mechanisms, the formats are not going to be widely adopted.
On the flipside, if the demand is strong enough and viewers want these features it will drive the technology. I’m excited to see what develops out of this and how the changes associated with it will trickle down through the DAM industry.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to get a DAM system in their organization, or if they have one, increase adoption?
The absolute most important thing that anyone trying to deploy a DAM needs to do is to understand their users and cater to their needs. You need to determine how DAM can not only help the group implementing it, but how it could benefit everyone that will interact with the system in different ways.
The last thing anyone wants to do is have to perform additional steps with their current workload. If you’re going to give your coworkers another system to learn and more tasks, you had better show them the benefit first. Learn their pain points and show how DAM can troubleshoot them. If you target your pitch to focus on how it can help someone individually, they will be more likely to buy in. Then once you’ve got them, you tell them how you need them to contribute.
Finally, remember where your company makes its money. I often hear DAM professionals gripe about a lack of resources and support. That’s a fact of life. I understand that the NHL is not in the business of Dan Piro, Dan Piro is in the business of the NHL. I need to figure out what I can do to enhance the organization’s ability to engage customers. Whether that’s getting them to buy a ticket, buy team merchandise, watch a game on TV, or come to our website. We need to provide our people with the resources to get a fan engaged and feel like they get their money’s worth when they invest in our brand. You need to figure out what you can do to help your organization reach and provide value to their consumers.