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Why there’s no excuse for not archiving your digital content

Cinegy's Jan Weigner on why it's time lawmakers mandated media archives

Being asked to write an opinion piece about thoughts concerning MAM, archive and storage and all the related technologies is a great opportunity for reflection on the last 20 years I have been in this industry. Another aspect that plays into this introspection is the global pandemic situation and the even more recent #BlackLivesMatter protests that have ignited a whole other debate regarding our not too distant history and how this is embodied in public monuments such as statues of past dignitaries, or closer to our industry, in old TV programmes such  episodes of Fawlty Towers or films like Gone with the Wind

Starting on an emotional level, the immediate response is an overwhelming feeling of frustration and a sense of self-entitled “I told you so”-ness, however helpful that is. 

But the fact is, that after all these years too many broadcasters or media companies still do not have an over-arching technical archive strategy. 

In many cases the situation is even worse than it ever was as tapes and other media have deteriorated and are gone for good. Moving to digital “workflows” has not made things any better. Silos, departmental islands, regional islands, different buckets of storage anywhere you look. Many, many databases, all leading their independent lives or dying quietly when projects or shows end. Each of these silos have their own social media “strategy” publishing their bits to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok or whatever the respective countries’ local flavour of this is.

On the one side, if you still have not digitised your SD video tapes, don’t bother and save us all from the trouble attempting to do so today. That ship has sailed and a number of decades of television are lost for good. On the other side, there is not too much hope for the future either, unless publishing clips to YouTube is the archive strategy. But does gifting potentially valuable content to the social media quasi monopolies absolve you of your legal, historical and ethical responsibilities to have a properly managed archive? Seemingly yes.  

But that is not the answer. It can’t be. There is no guarantee that any of these social media platforms will persist. Nothing is constant other than change. Remember MySpace – the fabulous platform once backed by Murdoch? Google+ anyone? A company does not even need to disappear into obscurity. It is just enough for them to decide that this is something they don’t do anymore.

Archiving what gets published to social media platforms is of historical importance. The Trump presidency should have made that abundantly clear. How can you look back in 50 years from now and not look at how social media was much more instrumental than television? The televised, endless press conferences are also important records, but are historic records that need to be kept. 

Who do we rely on doing this? Who chooses what is kept and what is not? Just this choice alone allows to shape future views on these events. 

The United States at least has the Library of Congress, but it is equally unprepared to deal with the avalanche of data brought on by all the social media platforms. Preserve books, magazines, television and film for future generations. But a lot of our public lives take place online. Does not every YouTube video with more than one million hits also deserve eternal preservation in the Library of Congress? Or only ones with US political relevance? No to Canadian clips? Or British ones? No space for Brexit recordings?

Where is the Library of Congress for social media platforms for all the respective countries? Answer: there is not. If the rotting tape archive of your organisation is a real problem, the digital black hole we have created is an infinitely bigger problem.  

The likes of Google, Facebook and all the many others will not willingly guarantee preservation and archiving of all the content they harbour. No one is safe from bankruptcy or “business changes”. 

Anyone who publishes to airwaves, streams live or puts content on social media in a professional capacity must be obliged to archive this for at least 10 years. Think of a media Sarbanes-Oxley Act that requires media professionals and companies to archive. While we are at it, I would mandate a standardised set of metadata as well and a temper-proof digital fingerprinting preventing alteration.

Oh no – the cost, the additional work, and all the other blah blah blah people will come up with! The financial industry survived the Sarbanes-Oxley Act quite well. 

There is no excuse. There has never been one. This never has been about technology. Not for decades.

Storage costs? 1000TB or 1PB of disk storage can be had for less than $40K. That would hold approximately 40K hours of XDCAM HD422. 40K hours for $40k – or one dollar per hour, easy enough to remember. This gets cheaper all the time. There should be no business that can’t factor this into their business model. Also, the “nuisance” of a mandated archive will help protect business and will act as legal proof in case of disputes. 

It is not the money. Seemingly archive is not sexy. Worse, most managers see it purely as a cost factor with no or little upside to it. 

I could now start my diatribe on how short-sighted this is and that a corporation-wide archive which makes all assets immediately available to anyone planning or producing news, sports, drama, documentaries, children’s programming and even reality, immediately pays back in spades. With “available” I mean also during production, as well as rushes, and not the select bits that end up being broadcast or published to streaming services or social media. 

But the reality is that especially with larger organisations this falls on deaf ears on many levels. 

The question managers seem to ask themselves consciously or subconsciously: a) Will this get me promoted, b) Will I still be there when this is all done and dusted and I stand to take credit for it?,  c)  Will this show up positively on this or next quarter’s bottom line?, d) Do I get to go to the cool parties for doing this? As the answers are mostly negative, so are the chances of pulling off the big picture.

Yes, in the silos we will find Production Asset Management Systems or news systems with PAM, maybe some with an attached MAM mostly to migrate storage. This all falls into the category production workflow acceleration, but is not aiming at strategic, long term archival.

Ultimately, the lawmakers need to mandate media companies and professionals to maintain archives, and also exactly what and how. Including social media. Again, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act comes to mind. Without this, no adoption of long-term archive strategies will occur and those that maintain archives will shape and define future generations perceptions of this period in time. Who do you want that to be?