Archiving: A revenue earner

Digitization has brought huge changes in the practicality of archiving media.
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Supporting shared storage and asset management systems must be standards-based and offer well-documented media and metadata access points for third-party applications. An example of such a system is the Avid Unity MediaNetwork.

The proliferation of new channels, the Web, information-laden mobile phones and other new forms of distribution is causing content owners to focus sharply on the potential value of their archived media. This is a fundamental change in the position of archiving in broadcasting, starkly illustrated by the fact that not too many years ago, several major broadcasters would routinely bulk-erase their recorded programming to save on purchasing new tape stock. As a result, many programs that might now be seen as part of television's cultural history have been lost forever, or at the very least are only available as poor quality copies.

Now, instead of being driven by short-term cost savings due to high tape stock costs, the ever decreasing cost of storage and ever increasing opportunity to repurpose or resell existing content are the engines of change. These factors are further amplified through far better accessibility to archived media made possible by careful integration with nonlinear production technology.

Ever since film recording gave way to the videotape recorder, television archivists have been storing away tape reels on often dusty shelves in nearly forgotten warehouses. Future generations will no doubt thank them for that. But as one videotape format superseded another, maintaining these archives became ever more problematic. One issue was finding the VTRs to replay them. Then there was the significant amount of storage space needed and the difficulty of knowing exactly what was available in the archive. In addition, as the older tape formulations started to show deterioration, the costly and time-consuming process of re-recording had to be considered. But the reality today is that technological innovation not only addresses these problems, but also in many ways redefines the concept of the archive.

Digitalization has resulted in huge changes in the practicality of archiving media. Allied factors at work have been compression technology, enabling a reduction in the physical size of the storage media on a per hour basis and continuing to offer increasing storage efficiencies; the ever increasing aerial density of physical storage media; and the conversion of upstream production and distribution tasks to integrated nonlinear processes. The problem of the eventual deterioration of the media remains, but even this can be resolved with the combination of software tools and robotics. However, there's more to it.

Once the production and storage chain is in the digital domain, content can migrate to storage devices that are best suited and most economical to each stage of the media lifecycle. This is referred to as hierarchical storage. In a newsroom, for example, immediate access by several journalists to today's major stories may be required simultaneously to repurpose for the different bulletins and perhaps even the station's Web site. Within a week's time, most of that content will no longer be news and is ready to be either deleted or relegated to a deeper archive. Fast, hard disk-based systems are best suited for real-time, online storage where simultaneous and frequent access is demanded.

But under the control of archive management software, material can migrate to a robotic tape library as it ages. In this way, immediate, simultaneous access is traded against the lower per/GB cost of archival storage. And further hierarchies are possible with intermediate, near-line storage devices such as slower network-attached storage based on hard disk or DVD, and even deeper “shelf-based” offline archives.

Perhaps the most important benefit of intelligent archive systems is the ability to link them with nonlinear workflow. Descriptive information, or metadata, that is captured in the camera or that is automatically or manually added in the production process allows us to search through the archives and better locate the clip or material that we are looking for. It's this close linkage of metadata to the program material, or essence, that is transforming the usage of our archives. The rapid acceptance of the Media eXchange Format (MXF), which tightly binds the essence and metadata together for the exchange of program material, is an example of how important transportable metadata has become, and workflows that embrace MXF will be significantly more important in the future.

Clearly, your archives are only of use to you if you know what's in them, and the easier material is to find, the greater its usage and utility. So, an electronically related catalog, or media asset management system, is vital for search and retrieval. This can vary from a simple, manually input, descriptive database to an automated logging tool that generates low-resolution clips at each scene change or even converts voice to text. All good catalogs are thorough and consistent right from the start, and properly designed systems will achieve this through transparent linkage with acquisition, editing and archival systems.

Much development work has been and will continue to be put into this area to ensure that advances are made in automating what is potentially a labor-intensive and time-consuming yet critical element of the total process. The use of a hierarchical archive, searchable by the use of metadata tags, is fundamentally changing our relationship with previously shot material, not just for news but also in all production genres.

The simple concept of allowing an editor in a collaborative environment to search a digital archive from the desktop involves a complex interplay of different software and hardware applications. Access to the archive must be made as seamless as possible and an integral part of the workflow. Shared storage and asset management systems must be standards-based and offer well-documented media and metadata access points for third-party applications.

So, far from being the seeming burden on resources as archives were once seen, they now form a central part of the broadcaster's assets which are helping to reduce the costs of production, increase the competitiveness of the channel's programming and even act as a additional source of revenue. Putting in a digital library system can offer real returns if it is planned carefully, and that means a tight integration into the workflow. In that way, not just the content has a secure future, but the broadcast station as well.

Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Avid Technology.

James Frantzreb is a senior product marketing manager for Avid Technology.