Thirteen’s Digital Makeover

March 17th, 2008

Thirteen blogger: Nan Otek, Project Director, Preserving Digital Public Television

Picture this – an obscure room in the sub-sub-basement, filled with a chaotic jumble of 60,000 broadcast-format videotapes going back 40 years, lined up on rows and rows of metal shelves, stacked up on the floor, and spilling into every aisle. No one knows what’s there.

When Thirteen moved in 1999, this ‘tape library’ almost got dumped. Thankfully, the station changed its mind and decided it wasn’t such a good idea to throw out its own broadcast legacy. Instead, it came to its senses and created the Thirteen Tape Archives.

That’s how, by helping save the tapes, I became the informal but outspoken guardian of all things archival at Thirteen.

Not just analog, but digital archives, too. Unlike videotape, digital stuff is hard to preserve, and major collecting institutions like the Library of Congress are really afraid of losing moving images like public television programs. So the Library gave us $ 3 million for Preserving Digital Public Television and I coordinate the project as part of the Library’s National Digital Preservation initiative. (Sorry, but DVDs are NOT the solution!)

Preserving digital video is closely tied to managing online video, and I go to a lot of ‘new media’ meetings. There were a few hundred geeks at the recent Public Media Conference, struggling to bring public radio and television to the Internet near you. These folks had great enthusiasm and talent — but many had been at their jobs for less than a year. They knew nothing about public television. Broadcasting, hey, what’s that?

Meanwhile, down the hall at the invitation-only ‘Management’ track, I heard it was a whole different story. Forget about the interactive Internet. These CEO’s were afraid that public broadcasting was already missing the online boat. They didn’t know what to do and were a little desperate.

What a disconnect — The new-media types jumping right in trying to make us relevant and timely, while their bosses are keeping their feet on the brakes. The mood was so different, it almost seemed like two unrelated gatherings.

I know we won’t survive without reaching the non-broadcast masses, but we’re tied to our ‘musty,’ aging, over-the-air service. For a poor broadcaster, it’s pretty scary.

Public television needs one of those makeovers. You know how it works — before any of those women become stunning and self-confident, they have to let go of things first. They have to throw out all their dowdy clothes, get a new haircut, and try on a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit. And they need a serious attitude adjustment.

Are we bold enough to try something like this? Thirteen is working on it, and even though there’s a lot of inertia here, I can feel the undercurrent of excitement growing. We’ve thrown out some of our old clothes and are starting to try on a few new things. I hope it won’t take too long before we see what finally fits…

— Nan