Adding Life to Aging Videotape

The TV of the past may stand a better chance of becoming the HDTV content of the future, if a Highland Park, N.J., technology outfit has anything to do with it.

Diligent Systems Inc. claims it has come up with a system that can turn television series edited to videotape — long considered too poor in quality for conversion — into HD content after all. Not only does that open the door for an expansion of future HD libraries, but it also preserves the edited versions now trapped in decaying videotape format.

The problem many studios and production companies face these days is an aging stock of videotape masters of series shot during the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. At that time, many television productions were trying to cut costs by shooting shows on film but editing the final cut on videotape, rather than the more-expensive film master.

That includes a laundry list of popular shows, ranging from The Wonder Years to Beverly Hills 90120, Baywatch and Mad About You.

Not only does a videotape master have a limited resolution compared to film, but it also has nowhere near the quality to convert into HD formats. In comparison, HD formats require about six times the resolution offered in National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) video, while original film can support resolutions up to 12 times that of video.

"Basically, four years ago we recognized that there was an issue with the whole lot of very good TV shows that would never be shown in an higher format than NTSC video," said Diligent CEO Charles McMullin. "We realized that given the tremendous number of channels out there in the world that will adopt, in our judgment, high-definition format, that this type of mainstream content would be necessary."

Thus, Diligent spent three years creating a software-driven computer system that can compare the video master with the raw film negative, frame by frame. By digitally snatching the frames, it can send the template to a film-processing house for a film negative copy.

From there, that copy can be converted into formats greater than 1080i HD resolution, but edited identically to the video master. The film then can be used to master DVDs or digital copies for distribution.

"The biggest crime in life is to not have sufficient content or worse, to not have sufficient resolution," McMullin said. "And that is really the market we identified and are playing into."

To remaster a video to film is no easy task. Armed with banks of servers able to produce combined processing horsepower, Diligent's software can match the millions of frames and frame combinations — sometimes shot out of sequence with the advent of nonlinear editing — and adjust for the difference between video's speed of 30 frames per second and film's 24 frames per second. It also can match up the audio track to the edited version.

Computers are better suited to this tedious task, which has "essentially grown beyond the mere mortal sitting there and doing it by eye," McMullin said.

"Because of the integration of the audio with the film, even when you are off by a frame you have a problem," he added.

That and the speed difference "makes this somewhat devilish. What we are able to do is to operate with a system that gets back to a specific frame-by-frame match, because we are really not constrained by that video versus film dilemma."

Even at that, it takes about three days to convert one half-hour show from video to film format, McMullin said.

"It's a time frame that oddly enough, appears to be incredibly quick on the one hand, but I will tell you as people get used to getting product that quickly, obviously people are going to say 'I need it faster, faster, faster.' "

But despite its potential to produce more HD content, Diligent is finding the studios are more interested in preservation — rescuing edited versions of TV shows from decaying videotape before they permanently fade into unusable images.

On the HD side, television series that are considered family programming haven't really grabbed hold, McMullin said. There is an expense to convert the content, so the hitch so far has been a lack of consumer demand to drive content owners to pay for that process.

"You get into a situation that when somebody is willing to step up and pay for the show, then owners will be proactive to go get it done and get it done quickly — which is to our advantage," McMullin said. "There are shows that are being done not for high-definition but for preservation."

So though Diligent now has the technology to convert older TV shows to HD format, the reality is that HD versions may not come along until the business plan gels.

"The issue is no longer a technological issue — it can be done," McMullin said. "The issue is, when is the economic environment correct such that HD becomes an economic driver? And we're not there yet. But the good news is, when we are there, there is a way to do it."

While there still is a big hurdle in defining a still-fuzzy revenue model, programming networks nevertheless are starting to delve into HD. "The stars are aligning for more content," according to Adi Kishore, a media and entertainment strategies analyst for Yankee Group.

Diligent is "probably a little bit ahead of the market, but that's as it should be," he noted. "I think vendors need to lead the market.

"You are not going to see a lot of change unless the technology exists to make it happen. So it is probably a little early, but I think within probably 18 months, there is going to be demand for this technology."