ABC: ENG format comes first

The implementation of asset management at ABC television network involves a broad strategy, the outcome of which is by no means certain, according to Preston Davis, ABC's president of broadcast and engineering operations. Asked to describe where the network is today in terms of asset management, the ABC executive is quite candid. "There are a number of initiatives under way here which need to be sorted out. All of them impact on how we are going to proceed, in general, with asset management. We are not behind the curve. We are just being careful, because we recognize that you can wind up spending a lot of money in the wrong places."

Asset management is a complex problem that needs to be addressed as part of an overall system. A more fundamental decision has to be made by ABC about the right acquisition format, since determining the ENG format is the critical first step in the entire sequence of asset-management-related events.

"We are in the process of trying to figure out what our next electronic newsgathering-ENG-format will be," says Davis. "Will it be a traditional tape format, an optical format or based on magnetic media? We have been following, very closely, the progress of optical storage, which seems to have all the right attributes of an acquisition format. Our acquisition strategy ties directly into our asset-management strategy."

Davis believes the ability to leverage a combination of optical and magnetic media as long-term storage media across the entire TV-production chain, as well as in the consumer-electronics realm, is an important ingredient in the asset-management mix. Being able to deploy it at a much lower price point only adds to optical recording's appeal.

"Because news is the driving force here, we are on hold as we await an optical solution. Almost anything else you do will end up as a short-term solution, although data tape may emerge as a viable long-term storage medium as well," says Davis. "Once the asset is digitized, it can be migrated to denser storage media as technology permits."

Last year, ABC initiated a research project that was designed to provide the network with a better understanding of what constitutes both the best way to acquire content and the best way to archive it.

"We have been looking at asset-management software systems and attempting to identify agnostic hardware systems as well," says Davis. "We have been using independent servers in our news department from companies such as Avid and Grass Valley for a long time. But we are just in the early stages of understanding how they should be linked together."

ABC has been developing an intranet-based news-archive platform known as the Media Archive and Retrieval System, or MARS, which is powered by Excalibur Technologies' RetrievalWare. This is a replacement for an earlier archive-management system known as STAIRS. While the MARS team at ABC, which is headed by Avi Wolf, director of applications engineering at ABC Information Systems, has been primarily concentrating on text and audio content, the focus is shifting to video.

"We have done experimentation with what we call visual MARS, and we are still learning. That is about all I can say at this point," says Davis. "As far as an easily searchable digital archive is concerned, we are spending considerable R & D dollars to come up with a blueprint that all of the production units within ABC could deploy. We started to transfer analog tape to D2 three years ago. But we shut that down last year because it was just too time-consuming."

Though the labor intensity of the archiving process became an issue, Davis says he does not see work flow, in itself, as a major issue going forward as the network evaluates its asset-management options. And a combination magnetic/data tape-based archive is not entirely out of the question either.

Like the rest of the TV industry, ABC is still sorting out what digital television is all about. But DTV uncertainties aside, Davis says that, at ABC, there is no question that the Internet is impacting enormously on operations as a whole.