ABC embarks on ambitious digital archive overhaul

Digital drive will transform broadcaster’s operations

The Australian Broadcasting commission is embarking on a massive reworking of its electronic, computing, Internet and archival facilities in what is set to be one of the biggest and most complex upgrade IT sequences seen in this country.

As part of this digital modernisation program the broadcaster will release a series of requests for tender over the next few months, beginning with one for a digital archive repository system for content services operations. Responses to the RFT close on 8 June.

Content services covers radio, television, electronic publishing, the archives for these, sound library and rights management. This initial tender, to handle storage of current media output, is effectively the front end of a wider program of work to modernise the archives already in existence, which date back well into last century.

The primary aim of the current project is to provide a more comprehensive, convenient and flexible system for capturing media content on the fly from all broadcast platforms and archive it in a readily accessible digital format.

This will mesh with the ongoing digitisation of the back archive, but is regarded as a separate focus.

The primary tender document states that the broadcaster is seeking “integration of the future Digital Archive Repository System with ABC production systems to enable the automated and ongoing ingest of file based digital content and related metadata information.”

The ability to ingest material as it is generated into a readily accessible format will make life a lot easier for ABC professionals wanting to reuse material.

For example, the program Behind the News needs to extract material from earlier news broadcasts to illustrate its presentation.

“We do it at the moment, but you have to ask, take the tape off the shelf, put it in a machine, identify the bits you want and then take it to the dubbing facility to copy the parts you need,” explains Mary Jane Stannus, the ABC’s head of content services.

“The new system will make it easier to use the archival material,” she says. “Once you get your archive recognition, once you move into that digital world, you're in a better position to use image recognition, or speech to text.”

Image recognition in a digital archive would mean that if a producer wants past footage of, say, a rock musician an image search could be deployed to find visual instances of the talent performing even if there is no metadata record providing written information on identity, venue, dates and other data.

The recent ABC television series on federal politics, The Killing Season, required a lot of archival material shot by News. Fortunately, because News has been going digital over the last six years there were digital files available for convenient use.

The ABC is expecting a wide variety of benefits from its proposed new system. Once it has widespread file-based content and related metadata, there will be enhanced content sharing throughout the ABC via a self-service mechanism.

Users will be able to conduct their own searches, have desktop access to view and select content, and be able to move content to specified destinations. They can skim through material on a quickly obtained low res file, then specify a high res file for what they actually choose.

New arrangements for data flows should simplify business processes and cut the number of systems and manual workflows required.

There should be reduced content duplication throughout the ABC with the introduction of a generally accessible central repository, and a simplified support environment with lower running costs by replacing multiple legacy systems with a single approach.

This means a reduction in online storage for production systems not designed for archiving content, while also minimising the risk of losing content through reliance on ad hoc storage solutions.

Use of digital files will end the need for purchase, support and maintenance of videotape technology. It will minimise business continuity risk through the replacement of systems facing technology obsolescence.

“It’s an extremely significant job, very big but one we can handle,” says Stannus. “We’ve worked co-operatively with people in radio and TV. We’re thrilled about it and the content developers will be when they get their fingers on it.”

That could be around the end of 2017, when the ABC hopes to have most of the basic work on the digital material capture system completed.

ABC archivists — or digital content services providers as they are also called nowadays — have been quietly beavering away over the last few years, getting a lot of content previously stored on increasingly obsolete technology converted to up-to-date digital formats.

For example, about 30,000 hours of one inch videotape and a similar quantity of quarter inch radio audio tape has already been digitised.

“That was the most vulnerable,” says Stannus. “We got in early with television Betacam and SP Betacam in early cassette format, because that material has been stored for quite a while.

“We've got about 80,000 hours of video content that we will do.”

An even older format, for radio recording, is very large recording disks in vinyl or even older materials, known as transcription disks. These were an early priority for digitisation, reflecting their considerable age, format vulnerability and historical significance.

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