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Preserving Europe's Memory

PRESTO shows how to preserve Multimedia in the most cost-effective fashion

By Richard Wright - July 2002

The longer established European broadcast organisations are now facing a considerable challenge in preserving large broadcast archives that risk irreparable degradation through ageing. Richard Wright highlights the problems confronting broadcasting organisations and how technical developments produced by the PRESTO Project can help.

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EC Project PRESTO has completed a survey of the holdings and preservation status of ten major broadcast archives. These archives represent a significant portion of total European broadcast archives, including some of the largest individual collections. Approximately 75% of this material is at risk or inaccessible. The collections are growing at roughly four times the rate of current preservation work. The technical developments produced by project PRESTO reduce the costs and improve the effectiveness of multimedia archive preservation projects.

The Audiovisual Heritage of the 20th Century

The Twentieth Century was the first century with a record of its significant events - the sounds and moving images - on film, audio and video media. A major repository for this record is the collective broadcast archives, particularly the archives of major broadcasters. In Europe, the main broadcasters are publicly supported, leading to archives that have a role not only in the business of broadcasting, but also fulfilling a public service requirement to support wider educational, cultural and heritage purposes.

This record is now largely at risk, as the bulk of these recordings reach the stage at which they are deteriorating, or on an obsolete format, or both. Broadcasting was never developed as a mechanism to create and hold permanent audiovisual history. The consequence is that these archives have arisen to support broadcasting, and have no business model or funding model specifically designed to support preservation.

What Can be Done?

EC Project PRESTO has the aim of increasing the efficiency of the technical work needed to preserve broadcast archives. The efficiencies are of two sorts: reducing costs, and developing strategies to ensure that archives are not simply physically preserved, but preserved in ways which maximise their future benefit. To get the size, shape and urgency of the problem, a survey was made of the holdings and preservation requirements of ten major European public service broadcast archives (details of the PRESTO project and survey participants are listed below in Appendix I).

The survey covered the following areas:

The presentWhat broadcast archives do: their place in the business
 What they hold (media types, size of holdings and condition)
 Current preservation practices: technology, processes and costs
The futureService requirements: new services for new holdings
 Preservation requirements: new technology and processes

Results of the Survey

Size and Condition of the Material

The ten archives in the survey represent a significant portion of total European broadcast archives, including some of the largest individual collections, but total European holdings of broadcast material are probably ten times larger. The survey found about 1 million hours of film, 1.6 million hours of video recordings, and 2 million hours of audio recordings in the ten archives.

The content covers the entire century, as broadcast archives include bought-in film and even wax cylinder material from before the development of the broadcasting industry. The record of news, current events, sports, culture and entertainment covered in radio archives dates from the 1920's (recorded originally on shellac discs), and there are film recordings of television output from 1936 onward.

Access to this content is notoriously difficult, because almost all the material is on 'professional' formats (film, broadcast-standard videotape) which need special players, certainly unavailable to the general public and often unavailable even to national archives and educational institutions. Also much of the content is unique, master material that cannot be allowed to circulate generally. A major goal of preservation work for broadcast archives must be to find joint solutions to preservation and access problems: preservation for access.

The amount of audio, video and film material in the ten archives surveyed is given in the following diagrams:

venn diagram: Audio holdings
Figure 1: Audio Holdings
venn diagram:  video holdings
Figure 2: Video Holdings
venn diagram: Film Holdings
Figure 3: Film Holdings

Preservation Status

Obsolescence: At least 2/3 of the material in archives cannot easily be used in its existing form, because the medium is too specialised (film) or obsolete (2" videotape) to allow easy access. For audio, this includes the massive holdings on ¼" open-reel tape.

Deterioration: Approximately 1/3 of the material has one form or another of deterioration:

Fragile media: A large part of the holdings cannot be released for access because the media are too easily damaged. Examples are: all film negatives; all film prints except for access by qualified professionals; all shellac and vinyl audio recordings.

Current Preservation Technology and Costs

The main approach to preservation of video materials is transfer of old formats to new formats. It must be stressed that these transfers do not constitute true preservation - they simply solve today's format incompatibility and tape wear/degradation problem by creating an identical problem to be faced - at equal additional expense - in as little as ten years in the future.

For audio, however, the approach is increasingly to transfer the material to digital files which can be held on magnetic or optical media (datatape, CD, DVD). This approach allows future transfers to be fully automated using media-handling robots - and so the mass digitisation to a "robotic formal" is a significant step toward true media preservation.

Digital videotape is somewhere in-between analogue media, which is expensive to transfer to new formats, and computer files for which condition monitoring and media transfer can be fully automated. The technology for "preservation work" being developed by PRESTO is aimed mainly at processes for conversion of older analogue formats (for audio and video). Cost-effective approaches to the preservation of digital videotape and digital audio are being developed by the related EC-sponsored project AMICITIA[1].

Future Requirements

Preservation is a major issue, but cannot be viewed in isolation. The institutions which hold this endangered material perform services, and broadcast archives serve a highly technical and rapidly changing industry. Preservation strategy needs to consider - to foresee if possible - the future service requirement of multimedia collections for at least the next twenty years. These service requirements will increasingly be based on electronic mass storage and direct, networked end-user access - probably using web technology. The critical question is: how much preservation money should be invested in the additional steps required for conversion of existing media to new technology? This raises the related issue of how to estimate and justify the additional expense. PRESTO has developed a strategy for dealing with this problem, based on the concept of 'cost per use'.

Cost per Use

The true cost of an asset is total lifecycle cost. The true benefit is related to the number of times that asset is used over the lifecycle. Although not every use has equal benefit, overall more media issued from the archive means more benefit to the broadcaster and to the wider public service. Therefore a simple way to combine transfer cost, life cycle cost, and the significance of new service opportunities, is to translate those new opportunities into a predicted rate of item usage. Options for preservation can then be compared, in monetary terms, on a "cost per use" basis. A significant conclusion of the PRESTO survey is that archive preservation strategy should aim at the "lowest cost per use" over the life cycle of the new media, NOT at the lowest transfer cost.

The Business Case for 'Re-writing the Archive'

Digitisation and mass storage is about 50% more expensive than just transferring from old formats (carriers) to new formats, but the new technology allows much easier access to the media. Simpler and faster access has already been shown to double at least the usage of an asset. This means it is cost-effective to spend the extra 50%, because the extra investment more than pays for itself in terms of extra usage of the material, i.e. in terms of lower overall cost per use.

Although advanced technology using mass storage has the highest initial investment, it has the lowest overall 'cost of ownership' because it allows the greatest automation of future preservation work.

Technology being developed by PRESTO

PRESTO has identified 12 specific key links covering both radio and television archives. The new technology being developed or integrated will either reduce costs or increase the benefit of the whole transfer chain - or both.


  1. Audio Playback
  2. Audio Quality Control
  3. Audio Lossless Compression


Manufacturers of videotape recorders (VTRs) cannot be expected to incorporate the advances in videotape technology into new players for old formats - because old formats are by definition obsolete. Three areas related to improving the performance of VTRs are under development, concentrating on 1" and ¾" (U-Matic) formats.

  1. Playback device improvement
  2. Digitisation quality monitoring / logging
  3. Time base corrector with drop out detection and compensation
  4. Multi-level encoding


  1. Auto-resplice
  2. Alternative film handling
  3. High-quality Format Converter
  4. Lossless compression for film (and video)

Metadata management

  1. Common access to broadcast archives (Broadcast OPAC)


Broadcast archives are in the early stages of the biggest and most expensive media conversion they will ever face. The whole process of selection and digitisation of analogue media will take at least another 20 years. Without widespread funding and support, and without cost-effective and farsighted use of technology, the work will not keep pace with the deterioration of the material. EC project PRESTO has documented the problem and provided guidance for organising preservation transfer projects. PRESTO has now delivered multiple forms of new technology for reducing preservation project costs, and increasing their efficiency. The future of PRESTO lies in maintaining information flow to all involved in archive preservation.

[ Note that Richard has also contributed an article on the Multimedia Archive Preservation Workshop in this issue. ]

Appendix 1

Appendix 1- Project PRESTO details and survey participants

PRESTO [3] is a two year, 4.8 million Euro project of the EC Information Science and Technology (IST) programme. The goal is to develop technology and processes to reduce the cost of media preservation.

Main partners:

Technical partners:


  1. The AMICITIA Project,
    URL: <> Link to external resource
  2. The BRAVA Project,
    URL: <> Link to external resource
  3. The PRESTO Project,
    URL: <> Link to external resource

Author Details

Picture of Richard WrightRichard Wright
Technology Manager
Information & Archives
S120 Reynards Mill, Windmill Road
Middx. TW8 9NQ
United Kingdom

URL: < Link to external resource
Email: Link to an email address

Richard Wright was educated at the University of Michigan, USA and Southampton University, UK. Degrees: BSc Engineering Science 1967, MA Computer Science 1972, and Ph D in Digital Signal Processing (Speech Synthesis) 1988. He worked in acoustics, speech and signal processing for US and UK Government research laboratories (1968-76), University College London (1976-80; Research Fellow) and Royal National Institute for the Deaf (1980-90; Senior Scientist). He was Chief Designer, Cirrus Research 1990-94 (acoustical and audiometric instrumentation). He has been Technology manager, BBC Archives since 1994.

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For citation purposes:
Wright, R. "Preserving Europe's Memory", Cultivate Interactive, issue 7, 11 July 2002
URL: <>

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