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Can BBC R&D save the world's audiovisual heritage?

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Richard Wright Richard Wright | 18:15 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The temptation is to say "Yes we can" but the realistic answer is "Well, not all by ourselves".  But we are on the brink of creating something that can make a major difference to the amount of broadcasting content, and other audiovisual content, that will survive: the PrestoCentre Competence Centre, to be launched 14-15 March in Hilversum, The Netherlands at "Screening the Future".

PrestoCentre announcement

PrestoCentre will be launched at Screening the Future, 14-15 March


Why worry about survival of broadcast archives?  Ten years ago the BBC led a European-wide project called Presto that looked at how much audiovisual content was in archives or other formal collections, and its status.  Presto found ten million hours of content, 75% of which was at immediate risk from technical obsolescence (2" videotape players are hard to find), deterioration (magnetic and acetate-based materials degrade over time -- and are old after 20 years) and physical damage (just playing film will quickly introduce scratches and other damage).

Further surveys by PrestoSpace and TAPE found 30 million hours of audiovisual content in Europe, and estimated the total amount of content -- archived content, not just any old audio and video -- as 100 million hours in Europe and 200 million worldwide.  We also estimated the mortality -- because at current rates of loss, and current rates of preservation activity, it was soon evident that more was going to be lost than would ever be saved: 70% of that 100 million hours of European content would be gone in 30 years.  It would have deteriorated and been lost before before anyone had come up with the money, equipment and time to save it.

Presto and PrestoSpace and TAPE (and other EC-supported projects) did make a difference: efficiency has improved, costs have come down and there has generally been more attention to the situation.  Now the estimate is that the amount of loss of audio and video content sitting on archive shelves will be reduced from 70% to 40%.   So instead of losing most of it, we're faced with 'only' losing nearly half of it.

Meanwhile, new threats emerge: we know what to do with content on shelves, even if we don't know where to get the money, equipment, trained staff -- and time -- to do the needed work.  But we don't know all the threats to file-based content sitting on mass storage devices.  There is very little experience of keeping petabytes for decades.  After all, most of us never heard of a petabyte even a few years ago -- and almost nothing in IT technology stays stable and usable for even one decade, much less many decades.


BBC R&D is a partner in PrestoPRIME which is addressing the new problems faced by file-based audiovisual collections.  But PrestoPRIME is doing more: it's trying to also solve the problem of preserving support, not just preserving content. 

Research projects come and go, and the attention and effort and information sheds some light on a problem for a fixed amount of time -- and then everybody packs up, the website is dormant, the workshops stop, the people move on to other things -- so where do audiovisual archives go for support?

PrestoPRIME's answer is an audiovisual competence centre -- a formal organisation set up by the five major archives that work together to make PrestoPRIME.  They will now be able to continue this work into the future as PrestoCentre -- a new organisation that will NOT stop when PrestoPRIME stops. 

The PrestoCentre is meant to run and run -- for as long as there is need, and as it has members and backing.  The need is for knowledge and how-to and who-to-go-to information on audiovisual preservation, analogue AND digital.  The backing is a commitment by audiovisual archives to work together to collect and maintain that knowledge, and provide a platform -- and staffing -- to make the information available.

The BBC is not a charity.  Why should the BBC help other audiovisual archives?  One reason is self-interest.  We don't know everything ourselves.   We've worked collaboratively in professional audiovisual archive organisations for many decades just because audiovisual archiving is a speciality, and so we need to work together to get strengh-in-numbers, leverage, standardisation (for exchange of archive content) and much more knowledge collectively than we would acquire in isolation.

Another reason to support the PrestoCentre is public value.  The BBC has much more technical expertise than can be found in cultural heritage or academic institutions or small audiovisual archives -- but collectively these small collections hold even more content than is held in the huge broadcast archives.  Just one example: ethnology and linguistics: recordings of endangered languages or entire endangered societies.  Human beings are also an endangered species, and such recordings may well be all that we'll ever see and hear from societies that made it into the 20th century, but didn't make it into the 21st.

The BBC releases its technical expertise (and creates public value) in two ways -- solving problems for the BBC, and solving problems for heritage in general.  We increase our public value by looking outside as well as inside.  After all, who should represent UK competence in handling audiovisual content, if not the BBC? 

The PrestoCentre is being launched on 14-15 March in the Netherlands, with a workshop Screening the Future.  It will be held in the wonderful audiovisual archive building of the Netherlands Instititute of Sound and Vision.Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision Building

Book now if you have a professional interest in the preservation of broadcasting and other audiovisual content.

The conference will connect small and large archives, service providers, vendors, funders, policymakers and educators developing solutions to the most urgent questions facing audiovisual archiving. AV stakeholders in Europe and beyond are invited to attend the conference and to join the celebration of the launch of PrestoCentre.

PrestoCentre is an initiative of:

• British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC, UK);

• l'Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA, France);

• Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Beeld en Geluid);

• Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF, Austria);

• Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI, Italy).

For registration and information


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