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From archive to asset: Why streamers and broadcasters are doubling down on digitisation

The pandemic saw an archive-based goldmine unearthed as broadcasters and streamers digitised content from previous years. According to Lance Podell, senior vice president and GM, Iron Mountain Entertainment Services, content needs to continue to be exploited to keep audiences engaged

During the pandemic, streamers and broadcasters turned to their archives and saw a huge opportunity to re-invigorate content that had been sitting on shelves, unused for prolonged periods – often for years or even decades. The reason was that quite unexpectedly and without precedent, it became essential to satisfy a massive growth in appetite for content to distract ourselves from the huge concerns surrounding isolation, lockdown and remote working.

Viewing trends from that period offers some fascinating insight into the unprecedented growth levels seen at the time. According to a study by Mintel, for instance, the closure of cinemas, coupled with consumers spending much more time at home, meant Covid-19 was a “transformational event for streaming video media.” The result? Video streaming services achieved more than five years of projected growth during 2020-2021 alone, according to media analysis.

Take sport, for example, which became a huge driver of digitisation efforts as rights holders saw the value in not just preserving their archived content digitally but also in the latent value it had for broadcasters and service providers competing for viewers. One major asset digitisation project, for instance, saw almost 7,000 hours of Premier League football content digitised, while another – for the All England Lawn Tennis Club – delivered 8,000 hours of converted content.

Fast forward two years, and after a titanic effort to digitise huge volumes of existing content across a myriad of archives, there is an ongoing appetite to leverage this content and satisfy consumer demand for quantity and quality entertainment. But, today, in a post-pandemic environment, where are we heading?

Without a doubt, the streaming industry has become enormously competitive as providers battle for subscribers against a backdrop of a more challenging economic climate. Consumers, with their spending power coming under pressure, are considering which services to keep and which to cancel. Netflix, for example, lost nearly a million subscribers between April and July this year, while global churn rates of 30 per cent will see over 150 million people cancel a paid streaming subscription in 2022.

To stay competitive and deliver compelling content choices, platforms are investing huge sums into the production of blockbuster movies and ‘box set’ series. Streaming services have also focused on digitising analogue content in order to provide a much more robust and diverse range of choices for their subscribers.

In addition, digital archiving is proving, time and again, that it has become critical to the future revenues of broadcasters and streamers the world over. One of the most well-known examples is the renewed success of Friends, which few would have predicted would come back so strongly nearly 20 years after its final episode was shot. It also illustrates the crucial point that studios and rights holders need to preserve the content they have developed, as it’s impossible to predict how future circumstances will impact interest in their assets.

But how does this work on a practical level? Typically, the digitisation process means working with content stored on Beta SP or Digibeta tape formats which, generally speaking, are fairly robust. In some cases, ageing tapes can give rise to errors and dropouts during the digitisation process, or the oxide of the tape itself may begin to shed. Complete loss of content is relatively rare, however, with the result that analogue assets are being readied for a new lease of life in the digital ecosystem in huge volumes.

The pace of change

Looking ahead, the digital broadcast and streaming industries are continuing to evolve, with hundreds of services now available worldwide. But with 85 per cent of US households now subscribing to at least one streaming service, competition is only likely to increase even further as Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon, et al take customers from each other rather than signing people up for the first time.

And in an environment where mergers and consolidation are perhaps now more likely than in recent years, the industry also has to get to grips with archive infrastructure that is widely dispersed. Indeed, prior to digitising their content, owners may first have to identify what they actually own before looking at how to aggregate it in a unified system that allows them to extract maximum value.

Digitisation of content, along with content management platforms, boomed during the pandemic, and it’s likely this trend will continue for years to come; it seems that across the broadcast and streaming industries, a new archive-based goldmine has been unearthed and needs to be further exploited to keep audiences engaged.