The medium is not the message

That's not to say I disagree with Marshall McLuhan; I'm using the word medium out of context. In the world of broadcast technology, media can also refer
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That's not to say I disagree with Marshall McLuhan; I'm using the word medium out of context. In the world of broadcast technology, media can also refer to the storage substrate for content assets. With a spool of 35mm film, the filmstrip and the content are one and the same. It's a concept we all feel comfortable with. We can hold a piece of film up to the light and see what is on it.

Tape is a little different. A magnetic viewer will show the tracks, but that is all. Even so, we associate the content with a specific tape cassette — the master or a clone.

As broadcast migrates to file-based production, this comfortable association between medium and the message (the content) no longer holds. In principle, digital assets can be abstracted from the storage medium. A file can be downloaded from reusable memory in the camera and never touch tape from ingest to transmission. Also, it is perfectly possible to construct data tape archives that can automatically migrate files from an old tape format to the new — albeit at a cost.

The great attraction of film is that the gauge has been stable for more than 70 years. But it is still not everlasting, especially the color dyes. Video and data tape formats evolve at a rate that frightens archivists.

One answer is for content owners to come to terms with their assets being stored as files. We all feel comfortable with written works existing as words on a page, any page. Each copy of a print run is considered as a clone; we can recover the original absolutely.

In the days of analog television, the original media had great value because copying introduced artifacts. Even digital videotape uses error concealment to permit real-time operation. Data tape copying is different. It is not real-time, so copying can be checked and corrected, with the result being a clone of the original.

This might sound logical in principle, but try to persuade a producer that an AAF file of resource locators represents his 100 hours of shooting. There is a feeling of comfort looking at that shelf full of cassettes. In time, files could be treated with the same comfort, but that comes from experience. Look how fast we have dropped the floppy disk and moved to the USB key. It's because it offers real advantages in convenience and storage capacity.

This issue of the medium has come more to the fore with HD. SD was always considered transient. If a production was of value, it was shot on film. With HD and electronic cinematography, the link is broken between high-resolution content and film as the only storage medium. Should HD programs be stored on videotape, when the playback decks will inevitably become obsolete within a decade? Data files have to offer an alternative to film. What has yet to be resolved is the custom and practice for archiving files. Standard wrappers like MXF go some way to defining file structures.

In 10 years, will we still have this same attachment to film?

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