Yesterday’s News Today’s Documentaries

Imagine sitting at home in your pajamas, accessing all the footage you need from your desktop. While the technology isn't here yet, a recent survey of major news archives indicates that a limited version of such dream accessibility - though still...
November 1, 2000

Imagine sitting at home in your pajamas, accessing all the footage you need from your desktop. While the technology isn’t here yet, a recent survey of major news archives indicates that a limited version of such dream accessibility – though still some distance away – is definitely coming.

There are several working models already in place on the Web, such as The Image Bank’s, where you can browse QuickTime samples of a portion of their moving image collection and make use of a limited electronic ordering capacity. Several small archives are following this lead., which operates as a clearing house for image-based archival information, is planning to offer a visual Lexis-Nexis-style service, enabling clients to research different image archives from its site and to transact electronically. This promises to be innovative, but will only be viable for certain superficial searches.


Creating a workable visual database to accommodate the enormous (and ever-increasing) size of most news archives is a Herculean task. The archives face many big issues in the near future:

Though most news archives have been online with full-text databases for some time, converting these to visually based systems is a formidable challenge due to the sheer volume of material. Typically, a news archive contains millions of feet of older film, as well as hundreds of thousands of hours of video shot more recently. These numbers are compounded, on average, at an alarming rate of 750 hours of video a month.

Then there are the questions of what and how much to digitize. The first responsibility of most news archives is to service the internal needs of their news shows and production units, with footage sales to outside clients taking second place.

Copyright is also an issue, since any major news archive contains footage gathered from outside sources in support of daily news broadcasts that can never be licensed as stock footage. Separating what can and can’t be licensed will be a difficult task for many archives.

Also of concern is the question of watermarking, or electronically identifying what belongs to whom, since current technology for keeping track of unauthorized usage is limited.

Lastly, the ever-accelerating changes in the field of digital technology are a

cause for caution. There appears to be a consensus that MPEG2 is the way to go today, but that could easily change to another standard tomorrow.


These problems, and the very idea of marketing news images on the Web, provoke a range of responses from archive directors, from the skeptical to the enthusiastic.

Dan DiPierro, director of information at CBS News, is taking a more cautious approach. ‘I don’t know if the extra revenue it might generate would justify the expense,’ he says. ‘I’m a cost-benefit type of person, and I’m not convinced it would be worth it. It’s not the model we want to pursue right now.’

The New York-based CBS News archive, which began in the late 1940s, is known for the visual quality of its materials, but accessibility has always been a problem. It is chronically under-staffed, with no online database (although one is promised). For outsiders, researching the collection can be difficult and frustrating. ‘We’re very aware of the value of what we have,’ DiPierro continues. ‘And we guard it very closely. But, footage sales are of secondary importance right now. I’ve even thought about eliminating the sales operation altogether.’ Although he wouldn’t elaborate, DiPierro did suggest that CBS News is pursuing other ways of exploiting the collections.

In direct contrast, London-based ITN Archive, a relative newcomer to the North American market, appears committed to a visual online presence.

James Jordan, ITN’s director of North American operations, states: ‘We are geared to embrace the digital future. Right now, our website has virtually our entire library shot-listed online. Early next year we will begin the ongoing process of digitizing all of our material – first creating the ability to screen low-resolution clips online, then moving on to eventually deliver master materials online, as well as an e-commerce function for licensing.’

A recent partnership with Reuters has made ITN one of the world’s largest news-gathering operations and, as a direct result, an enormous archive. In addition to its globally oriented modern materials, it has a significant collection of older 35mm newsreels, such as British Paramount, Gaumont Graphic and VisNews. Taken together, this represents over 100 years of news coverage from around the world.

Jordan stresses ITN’s commitment to service, even in the face of the challenges posed by a global marketplace. ‘At the moment, though our collections are stored in London, we offer delivery of materials within 24 hours, via satellite or fiber optics. In the very near future, delivery will be available via immediate download, or we can create a master in any format you might choose and get that to you within the day.’

Atlanta’s CNN ImageSource is also leaping into the digital world. Kathy Christensen, VP of News Archives, says a recent alliance with SONY and IBM (April 1999) provided the impetus to begin digitizing the entire ImageSource collection, which they expect to have visually available on the Web within five years. ‘Of course we value documentary and editorial-based product, but we are also looking to expand into other areas, such as private networking, advertising, corporate videos and education. We feel that having our materials visually available online will empower our clients, giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves what they want to order.’ Although the ImageSource collection is relatively small compared to many of the older networks, it has been generating material since 1988 and is now a respected player in the arena of modern news images.

Equally optimistic about the digital future is Geoffrey Hopkinson, manager of visual resources at the CBC Archives in Toronto. Hopkinson is directing the digitization of all the CBC archival holdings. ‘Our approach,’ he says, ‘will be to initially have compilations or ‘best of’ selections, available for browsing on the Web in categories such as sports, politics, personalities, lifestyles and so on. Our clients will be able to download low-resolution copies to work with, and I fully expect client demand will dictate we provide an e-commerce service and all that goes with it.’

Hopkinson also points to the aggressive restoration process the archive has recently undertaken. ‘All of the early film material, starting in 1952, and all of the material on now-obscure video formats, such as 3/4′ NTSC and 1′, are being systematically restored and transferred to digital betacam masters.’ He is convinced that having a visually based browsing and downloading capability on the Web will increase sales revenue.

The ABC News VideoSource in N.Y., the first major news archive to have an electronic database and the first to put it online, recently introduced a more sophisticated search and retrieval system called mars, which is intended to serve as a platform for a visually based search system. According to Joel Kanoff, director of film and video resources at ABC News, ‘Right now mars is text-based and we’ll start by enhancing it visually. But, our real goal is to reverse that priority and create a fully visual system that is enhanced by text.’ Kanoff says the ultimate system will allow both internal users and outside clients to view material in the form of thumbnails, electronic storyboards or streaming video.

The ABC News collection (established in 1963) contains 66 million feet of film and around 750,000 hours of video, with some 300 to 400 hours added each month. This does not include the other collections it represents, such as the U.K.’s World Television News and British MovieTone. Commenting on the feasibility or desirability of having the entire collection available for visual searching, Kanoff says: ‘I don’t think we will start that way. It’s not really necessary and may not even be possible, at least for a long time. More probably, we’ll start by compiling 1,000 hours on our most used material, get that in place, and then concentrate on a goal of having 10,000 hours or more on the Web. Deciding what we put up there will be an ongoing, thoughtful process. We’ll see what works best for our clients and adjust accordingly.’

The VideoSource has a large staff devoted exclusively to the sale of news footage. David Seevers, director of the VideoSource since it began in 1995, says: ‘We’re eager to have our collections visually available online and to provide full e-commerce capability. This will be of real value to our clients and will certainly benefit sales revenue. But, I don’t see the VideoSource turning into an impersonal cyber-warehouse any time soon.’

The VideoSource is unique in that it freely licenses unedited b-roll or out-take materials, which is a great advantage to doc producers who shudder at the thought of using pre-cut material from someone else’s edit. The archive is also distinguished by its aggressive marketing strategy (handled personally by Seevers), which includes an array of print ads, a slick promo reel, a newsletter and even baseball caps and t-shirts.

The NBC News Archive began in the mid-1940s. ‘We are very conscious of the history here,’ says archive director Nancy Cole, ‘[and] of its importance. It’s the life-blood of any archive, but at the same time, we’re looking as far forward into the future as we can. We’ve been thinking for some years now about visual web accessibility for our collections, and have been experimenting extensively at the NBC Digital Laboratory. Given the enormous size of our archives and the volatility of digital technology, we want to proceed with intelligent caution.’

A measure of just how seriously history is taken at NBC is the newly completed preservation and storage facility in New Jersey, devoted to frame-by-frame restoration of film elements and forward-looking conversion of outdated video formats.


While a version of the producer’s dream of full online access to footage appears to be a matter of when, not if, online archives will initially be of limited value to documentarians. For them, access to all of the information, all of the time, is essential. As founder John Tariot sums up: ‘In terms of what we will offer, documentarians will be the last to be satisfied.’

Speculation on the cyber-future still raises more questions than answers: Will text information atrophy in time, leaving users adrift in a sea of historically unanchored images? For producers and consumers alike, will reliance on pre-selected ‘best-of’ images result in a standardized iconography of history? And, how will this sameness affect the way future generations see history? Until the process of online archiving really gets underway, definitive answers will remain in short supply. Stay tuned.

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