ABC News Aims for Digital History

After five years of planning, ABC News has taken on the massive task of digitizing its content archive. And by fall, the network hopes it can identify its 500 best clips while, on a daily basis, improving the ability of reporters and producers to access historical footage.

ABC created its archive by using a multi-vendor system that lets trained operators transfer news content from analog videotapes and ingest it as digital files for long-term storage, where it can be easily accessed for repurposing. IBM is the prime contractor, providing long-term storage for ABC News' content on an outsourced basis through a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract.

Journalists now have to request tapes from the archive and screen them on aging tape decks, a laborious process. “First, they have to be confident they have access to all of the material, and second, they have to be able to call it up easily and quickly,” says Dave Westin, president of ABC News. “There's the danger of things just falling between the cracks, either because the logging system is not good enough, or a tape falls off the shelf.”

IBM has installed a mix of disk-based storage area networks (SAN) and LTO (linear tape-open) data tape libraries at ABC News' operations center on West End Avenue in New York, and placed personnel there to manage it.

IBM has done this before. It began digitizing CBS News' archive in 2000, and has recently created digital archives for Fox Sports and Fox Business Channel. Its archiving technology is also used by Disney's West Coast operations. But the six-year deal with ABC News is the first time IBM has supplied its storage hardware on an outsourced basis under the type of umbrella services contract that is commonplace in other industries.

“It's a natural evolution,” says Steve Canepa, IBM VP for the global media and entertainment industry. He expects more services-type deals for IBM's IT management expertise, so broadcasters won't have to sweat the details or rearrange personnel.

ABC engineering staff had been considering technologies and vendors for the archive since 2002; Westin says IBM seemed the “most reliable and cost-efficient.” Digitizing began last October.

The beauty of outsourcing the archive to IBM is that “it's not capital-intensive, it's operating-intensive,” says Bill Tracy, VP of ENG/EFP operations for ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering (BOE). And the operational part of creating the project, which involves trained operators screening all taped material, is vitally important to guaranteeing the overall quality of the archive, say ABC executives.

ABC has created screening stations for ingesting tapes into the digital archive that consist of tape decks linked to Avid NewsCutter nonlinear editors. “Preservation associates” screen tapes to check quality, make notations about any problems and clean up the video to eliminate dead airtime before ingesting the video as digital files into an Avid ISIS content server with 500 hours of storage. The metadata logged with the files is consistent with ABC's existing MARS (Media Asset Retrieval System), a bar-code-based system it has used to log tapes since the late 1990s.

The content is pulled from the ISIS server into IBM's storage under the direction of Masstech's hierarchical storage management (HSM) software, and transcoded using Telestream's FlipFactory software to the appropriate video format for long-term storage.

At the same time, a low-resolution Windows Media proxy is created to let journalists browse content at the desktop before requesting the transfer of a full-resolution file. Soon, journalists will perform the same type of text-based searches for material that they have in the past, but instead of getting the number of a tape to be manually pulled, they'll be able to “browse content instantaneously at the desktop,” says David Christophersen, ABC electronic newsgathering project manager.

The IBM storage is currently configured to hold about two years of storage and designed to scale exponentially up from that. Since the network generates an average of about 70 hours of fresh video to be archived a day, ABC has figured on the archive holding about 25,000 hours of standard-def storage per year and about 1,500 hours of HD.

The 500 top clips archivists are assembling will likely focus on the '60s, '70s and '80s. Indeed, archivists are finding hidden nuggets such as 1968 footage of ABC reporter Bill Weisel, who was shot during Robert F. Kennedy's assassination but, bleeding from his wound, kept reporting while sitting on the floor. ABC News had intentionally set about digitizing the 20% of tapes that were most requested, instead of starting at the beginning.

As of last week, ABC News had archived some 1,700 hours of footage, representing about 4,400 tapes, for an average of about 80 hours per week. Preservation associates work 12 hours a day now (two six-hour shifts), and ABC plans to ramp up to 24-hour archiving operations later this year. ABC's goal, says Tracy, is to digitize about 40% of its Betacam library and 30% of its three-quarter-inch tapes this year.

The undertaking doesn't just help journalists, either. Digitizing the archive could allow ABC to better monetize its news content by improving its licensing business with third parties, Westin says: “In theory, you should be able to have the digital archive up on the Website.”