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Kentucky net assures digital future for video past

Originally published in Current, June 7, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

Kentucky Educational Television recently became the first public TV operation to commit itself to digitizing its entire video archive.

Pubcasters such as Georgia Public Broadcasting and Wisconsin PTV also are considering archive digitization or preservation projects.

The venerable leftie radio network Pacifica, meanwhile, has been working toward digitizing its extensive archive since 2002 (separate story).

Still, the cultural histories of communities across the nation are rotting away in video morgues, bit by magnetic bit. Some stations record new programs over those that are only a few weeks old.

Though many stations transferred programs from 2-inch videotape to newer formats years ago, video's 20-year shelf life means images captured on 1-inch and 3/4-inch tapes in the '80s and early '90s are at risk of fading away. Preservation advocates such as Sharon Blair say it's difficult to get the attention of stations that are grappling with the daily concerns of production and financial survival.

The state-owned Kentucky network began transferring its video archive to hard-drive storage in April, making backups on DVDs. It plans to digitize all of its 3/4-inch and 1-inch tapes — 6,549 tapes running 4,380 hours — by September 2005. Later it will do the same with newer footage stored on Beta SP tapes.

The idea began with Virginia Fox, who retired as KET executive director in 2002. Paul Stackhouse, the network's director of web and multimedia and the project's chief technical consultant, says Fox recognized that KET’s oldest videos were “potentially in peril.” Fortunately, an anonymous donor put up $300,000 toward preserving the archive. A matching grant from Louisville's James Graham Brown Foundation gave KET a $600,000 project budget.

Part of that sum was used to bring in Lisa Carter, an audio/video archivist at the University of Kentucky, as project manager in March 2003. While Carter is nationally known in archiving circles, she was less so among KET brass, who were attending a Boston conference when they learned about her. “We had to go to Massachusetts to get a referral for someone who worked across the street,” Stackhouse says.

In the project's planning phase, KET organized and assessed the condition of tapes and made decisions about format, storage media and vendors. It quickly became apparent that no single vendor could handle the whole project, from cataloguing and ingestion to indexing and storage, says Carter, who will return to the university at the completion of the project. KET hoped to make archived material readily accessible by converting audio to searchable text by using speech-recognition software and other advanced indexing technology. However, Carter says that the few software companies specializing in video digitization offer “totally different packages that do totally different things, but none does everything.”

KET ultimately brought in the PPS Group to handle the project. The digital video production company, based in Cincinnati, works on site from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily to process the content. PPS is essentially learning how to integrate the necessary software as it goes, says Carter.

The Kentucky network said enhancing access to archives was its primary impetus for the project, but cost considerations preclude KET from digitizing content at 50 megabits per second with MPEG-2 compression--a bitrate many consider ideal for preservation quality. KET instead adopted the lower bitrate PBS plans to use in delivering standard-definition digital video to member stations, Stackhouse says. KET is digitizing 1-inch tapes--roughly a quarter of the 6,549 total--with MPEG-2 compression at 8 mbps and its 3/4-inch tapes at just over 4 mbps.

Stackhouse says tests by the station, PBS and PPS Group suggest that 5 mbps is the most economical rate that yields quality as good as the 3/4-inch original. "It's very watchable," Stackhouse says. "The average viewer would only be able to see a difference through a side-by-side comparison."

"The archiving rule is: 'You digitize to the best quality you can afford,' " Carter says.

While tapes archived at the lower bitrate can still be aired, the image quality might be noticeably lower. "In a pinch, could you use it as source material? I guess," says Dave MacCarn, chief technologist at WGBH. "But is that really the way you want to store it?"

Stackhouse says some editing, such as using material as an inset framed within higher resolution video, is possible. He says the priority, however, is to preserve and index the finished programs to enable internal and external research.

Carter confirms that the content will be used primarily by schools and scholars. KET is using a system by Virage that offers speech-to-text recognition and "reads" closed captions and text in the video to create an archive index. The network hopes to eventually make its database searchable via its website.

To organize and label its video, KET is using CPB's still-developing Public Broadcasting Metadata Dictionary (also known as PB Core) "to the extent that it's available," Stackhouse says. KET was part of a CPB-backed project to test the dictionary in marking up content for search and retrieval, PB Core project director Marcia Brooks says. The test began in early May, but KET began digitizing before the metadata was available because "we couldn't wait for it to be ready," Stackhouse says.

Adds Craig Cornwell, KET's director of programming: "The oxide on some of these tapes is disappearing daily."

What's your heritage quotient?

Blair, a consultant and retired longtime executive at Connecticut PTV, praises KET's sense of urgency. A reformed tape recycler from her days at CPTV, Blair admitted in a Current commentary that her career in preservation developed partly "to save my so-called soul as penance for destroying so much of what needed to be saved at CPTV."

Her former colleagues at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Local Television Task Force--her stint as project manager ended last fall--released a study, "Local Television: A Guide to Saving Our Heritage," in February. The guide was part tool kit (sample section: "20 Questions: What's Your Station's Heritage Quotient?"), and part case study of preservation efforts at WGBH in Boston and Arkansas ETV, as well as some commercial stations. Task Force co-chair Karen Cariani, director of WGBH's Media Library, says the guide was designed to raise awareness that older station video is "disintegrating before our very eyes."

Though preservation has its fervent advocates, other pubcasters say they'd rather put the staff time into creating programs rather than socking old ones away.

Michael Fields, president of WCNY-FM/TV in Syracuse, N.Y., is proud of the TV station's unusually extensive local production slate, including an hour-long weekday talk show and a strip of late-night half-hours. But he lets producers tape over the shows. Instead of cataloguing and preserving tapes, Fields says, WCNY usually recycles them in a month, with the exception of broadcasts of some major public figures.

"As a producer of over 35 years and a person who thinks almost nothing should be discarded, if I had the means to save everything, or even some of it, I probably wouldn't do it," Fields says. He suspects future producers would never have the time to actually examine and use the footage if it were archived and catalogued. "It just doesn’t happen," he says.

Blair says preservationists must persuade station execs that old footage will have great value in the future. South Carolina ETV has derived much of the programming for its digital South Carolina Channel from its archives, for instance, and its recycling showcase, ETV Classics, on its primary channel has proved popular. Tom Fowler, ETV’s senior v.p. for broadcasting, says a recent ETV Classics broadcast, "Building the Statehouse," was February's highest-rated program in the network's largest market, Greenville-Spartanburg. The study by AMIA, the archivists' association, indicated that outside sales revenue for Arkansas ETV's Production Video Library averages roughly $4,000 annually ($10,000 per year during the Clinton administration).

Less quantifiable is the value of "community heritage" that KET and others cite as a reason for preservation. Blair concedes that the big designated donation received by KET is exceptional. She advocates partnerships with local historical societies and universities--the Arkansas network, for example, partnered with the University of Arkansas. AMIA's guide lists organizations such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Historical Publications and Records Commission and National Television Preservation Foundation as possible grant sources.

"Grants and outside collaborations are great ways for stations to take control of their archives," Blair says. "The important thing is that it gets done."

Web page posted June 15, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


A sinner knows the value of the archives she tossed, by preservation advocate Sharon Blair, 2002.


For Pacifica, history isn't just old tapes in a box, 2004.


Visitors to the Kentucky network's website can watch streaming video of many KET productions.