Archive systems

Manage content carefully to enable future revenue opportunities.

Any bank will tell you that not losing its customer's money is its first responsibility, current conditions not withstanding. So why is it that for decades, broadcasters' strategy was to shelve copies in long-term storage with little plan for preservation, and often insufficient care to prevent loss of content of historical andeconomic value?

In a 1997 article called “The Loss of early video recordings: The Nixon-Khrushchev ‘Kitchen Debate’,” in “The Abbey Newsletter,” Jim Lindner wrote, “The total loss of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ‘visual assets’ seems inconceivable. From a business perspective alone, how could such a huge inventory of product that could be marketed for many years, creating a significant cash flow, be permanently lost?” Lindner was writing about the loss of original recordings of the Nixon-Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate.” Many other celebrated losses occurred, including NASA's critical tapes containing video footage of the Apollo 11 mission.

Both of these situations describe the loss of footage stored on tapes and put away in boxes on shelves without meticulous, accurate records kept in a long-term database. Every TV station can point to lapses in its management of the content it creates. (“I thought I hit play, not erase …”) But nothing is more fundamental than preserving and cataloging in a world where content is increasingly repurposed to maximize revenue in complicated business models.

The impediments are many. Often the price of a system designed to archive content is deemed too high to be affordable, though lost content and loss of opportunity for additional revenue is hard to quantify. Sometimes the cost of converting existing content to digital is too high due to the labor-intensive process of retreiving content and entering metadata that will make it searchable.

Strategies for backing up content

In the last decade, the cost of archiving has dropped significantly. While some software vendors of archive management systems charge an annual fee for the number of terabytes under managment, others only charge for the number of slots that are managed in the robotic tape drive. Tapes stored out of the robot but in the database do not incur the annual license cost. In addition, the growth in IT's use of archive systems and the implementation of other media archives, such as in prepress and other content reposititories, has helped drive the cost of archive systems for broadcast down to more manageable levels. An entry-level archive can now be acquired for about the same cost as a videotape recorder of 10 years ago.

One has to be careful when speaking about archives in a generic sense because many strategies abound. For example, the news department may archive all of the cut stories on videotape at the end of each news day. This article will focus on archives designed to preserve content automatically. The most common use of digital archives is in backing up interstitials and long-form content stored on a playout server, or automated archive workflow in a nonlinear news environment. However, the same system can be used to back up a library of promotions in another location and the content from the news department, making each library accessible to the originating department.

When a system becomes more complicated, it requires a more thoughtful set of business rules for archiving. At the time of implementation, the software vendor works with all departments to write the business procedures that will move content to the archive automatically. For example, a watch folder might be established in news to which all content that needs to be protected is copied at the end of each day.

Of course this requires two types of discipline. First, the operational procedure to move the files to the watch folder must be established and routinely performed. Missing a day complicates management of the content. Second, the procedure has to be carefully thought through to ensure that only the content needed in the long term is archived.

Few things are more dysfunctional than an archive loaded up with content that could have been deleted years ago. It's tempting to use the archive space, moving useless content from clogged hard drives to a system that seems limitless. As the saying goes, the size of the library goes up as the number of square feet of desk space assigned to producers goes up. An archive cannot fix poor management practices. Implementing an archive management system does, however, point to the problems in a current strategy, or lack thereof, and allow for an orderly and effective workflow to be put in place.

Let's assume you've decided to archive future content. What should you do with the content deteriorating on the shelves? If it has potential value, it should be converted to a digital format and archived while the players for the legacy content still exist. Millions of hours of helical scan recordings exist that can no longer be recovered due to the lack of working players. Similarly, the enormous libraries of quad videotape will be unplayable in a few years for the same reasons. Extremely valuable libraries of TV news film exist in many stations. However without film chains, it is unlikely anything will be done to preserve the potential value of the images.

Unless you have the means to play the media, the concept of conversion is expensive, including the likely need for an outside service to get involved. Think serious cost. Some manufacturers have tackled this problem, providing automated workflows to allow ingest of content that might otherwise be lost forever.

There is one last matter to understand. The preservation problem is not permanently solved by moving to a digital archive. At some point in the future, that content will need to be moved from the physical media it is on today to something newer. That might be in 10 years or 50 years, but it will happen. At each transition, the opportunity to lose content exists, but with a well planned archive strategy, you can prevent the loss of content from which your revenue is derived.

John Luff is a broadcast technology consultant.

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