Thirteen/WNET to restore public TV classics

Once it gets the necessary funding, Thirteen/WNET New York, a major program provider for public television stations across the country, will undertake an extensive video restoration project to digitally restore and re-master aging videotapes from its archive of more than 30,000 titles. The goal is to create a national archive that would be shared among PBS stations, and with the public.

The TV show "An American Family" is just one of many shows slated to be restored by PBS.

“We are always doing some type of restoration, as funds allow,” said Ken Devine, vice president and chief technology officer for Thirteen/WNET New York. “It’s just that now, the one- and two-inch Quad tape reels have begun to show signs of irreparable damage, so the project was moved higher on the priority scale.”

Devine said some of the series and programs slated for preservation — most of which are more than 30 years old and “losing . . . viability to be rescued,” – will be transferred onto Digital Betacam format masters. The transfer process will be outsourced because it requires a specialized expertise. Among the number of companies that offer mastering services, Thirteen uses Digital in New York.

“The idea initially is to make a good quality copy on digital tape,” Devine said. “We can’t wait while this material ages and gets worse. Even if it means transferring it from one oxide tape to a metal oxide tape, that gives us another 20 or 30 years.”

For each program, digitized master files will also be created that will eventually be placed on a large server (or DVD library), as part of a national public television archival system connected to other PBS headquarters in Alexandria, VA, and member stations, like WGBH in Boston, which will share the material. In fact, the two stations that account for the majority of original programming production seen on PBS stations across the country are now deciding on a universal preservation format that all member stations will use as a template for future handling of content.

Establishing that standard file format is the challenge ahead. Devine predicts that in the next year or two the broadcast industry as a whole will settle on a “standard” file format that will be used for the preservation of video and audio material with historic and economic value. The Material Exchange Format, MXF, which carries program material and metadata in a single wrapper, has been gaining support from a wide range of broadcast equipment vendors.

“[Any standard] will have to be interoperable with a lot of different platforms and software programs,” he said, “which is the biggest hurdle right now.” Devine also said that the long-term goal of the restoration project is to make the material accessible on-demand to researchers, educators and historians. “What we’re doing is saving this valuable content from extinction.”

Thirteen reaches millions of viewers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metro areas each week. In many ways, the station is at the forefront of media asset management, creating Web sites, enhanced television programs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, educational software and other media products.

PBS productions selected for initial preservation, and originally aired in the 1970s, include: “The Adams Chronicles: 1750-1900,” “The Great American Dream Machine,” “An American Family,” “The 51st State,” and “Skyline.”

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