Digitisation: It’s now or never

21 November 2014 | Tim Phillips


Tim Phillips

Blog Author | Freelance writer

Imagine 60 miles of shelving, full of obsolete videotape. Your mission: digitise it, index it, store it and distribute it. How hard can it be?

Imagine 60 miles of shelving, full of obsolete video tape. Your mission: digitise it, index it, store it and distribute it. How hard can it be?

The BBC found out. It has been digitising its video library since 1998 and it hasn’t finished yet. Nor will it ever complete the job. The D3 tape format which the BBC used has become obsolete. Even though the BBC bought every available playback machine and every spare part on the market, it will still run out of equipment to play them.

Internet distribution of video continues to experience strong growth. Frost and Sullivan estimates the video CDN market at $1bn by the end of 2015, growing at 15% per year. Wholesale carriers promote high-performance, cloud-based video distribution networks, distributing content to an ever-increasing set of customers: broadcasters, service providers, consumer websites.

Today, video is born digital, but there’s a huge backlog of video tapes, many of which contain valuable archive material we will never see again unless someone converts them. On the other hand, if they are digitised, they can be made accessible to billions of people. It’s a big opportunity, but an even bigger headache.

The scale of video digitisation projects around the globe is mind-boggling, or depressing if you’re the archive manager stuck with the job. Sony research shows that, on average, 100,000 tapes are held in the archives of a media company. One in 25 has more than 1 million tapes to digitise. In Europe, there are approximately 14 million hours of tape in need of digitisation in the next eight years.

The average digitisation project lasts three years. The tape doesn’t just have to be digitised, it needs someone to log the meta-data of what’s on it, so that it can be indexed. Some valuable tapes need careful handling and restoration. Then there are the problems of where to store it and how to distribute it.

At the moment, broadcasters need to deal with one company for digitisation, another for storage (or invest in doing it themselves), before they do business with a carrier’s distribution network. It’s the reason Sony recently launched its Media Lifecycle Service (MLS), letting broadcasters outsource the capital-intensive jobs, because Sony has been digitising and storing content for years. MLS goes further: it handles digitisation, storage and distribution too, because Sony has done all of these jobs, separately, for different customers.

The division of responsibilities is one reason why only one in five broadcasters has completed a digitisation of its archive. Also, there’s a problem working out if digitisation is a cost or a benefit. Internally, digital distribution is disconnected from archiving, so those who can use digital video to make a profit are disconnected from those who will fund the project.

There is, however, one reason for large-scale digitisation projects to take place: if they aren’t started now, broadcasters may not get a second chance. It’s a job that won’t keep. When humidity climbs to 80% in the archive, videotape becomes unplayable in five years.

Optimistic estimates are that carefully stored tape will last for 30 years, and then it’s gone. UNESCO estimates that, by 2040, we will have lost 40% of our tape archives to mould, fungus, stretching, breaking, shocks and demagnetisation. It may be difficult to create a compelling business case for digitisation today but, for the owners of analogue video tape archives, it’s now or never.