After a Dh30m investment, Abu Dhabi Media Company begins work this month on transferring thousands of hours of crumbling video footage of the emirate's recent history into digital formats which could eventually be used to develop new revenue streams. Keach Hagey reports The only footage of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Abu Dhabi's first exported barrel of oil lies curled in a plastic case in Abu Dhabi Media Company's (ADMC) archives. The two-inch wide video tape is so blotched with mildew that, at first glance, the reel appears to be a kind of black-and-white abstract expressionist art film.
"This is the painful part," says Ahmed al Menhali, the deputy director of broadcast technology at ADMC, lifting a water-puckered stretch of the footage from the 1982 celebration, titled Black Gold. "It's because of the humidity." ADMC, the publisher of The National, has already invested more than Dh30 million (US$8.1m) in building the in-house capacity and will begin restoring and digitising archives like these this month. Mr al Menhali estimates the project, which will begin with 5,300 hours of footage of Sheikh Zayed and eventually encompass the digitisation of 60,000 hours of footage stretching back to the 1950s, will keep his staff of 35 technicians busy for the next three years.
Because of the daunting scope of such projects, state-owned broadcasters throughout the Middle East, such as ADMC, have generally postponed the transfer of their historic footage to more updated formats. But as many of them came on line in the 1960s and 1970s, when the two-inch and one-inch video tape was the format of choice, they are now having to face the end of these early video technologies' short shelf lives.
"There are lots of national broadcasters in this area which have got national history rotting in their film vaults or warehouses and, increasingly, this is at risk because the actual medium is crumbling away," says Rob Beynon, the chief executive of DMA-Media Middle East, a media consultancy based in London and Abu Dhabi. "It's oxidising. It's becoming unplayable. Often it hasn't been catalogued anyway, so they don't know it's there," he says.
"Often, the machines they play it on have become obsolete and rare. It would be a calamity if all this just disappeared for want of cataloguing and modernising and digitising." This year appears to mark the beginning of the end of the region's procrastination over archiving, with several GCC countries, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, either completing or starting the digitisation of their national television archives. Although the projects are expensive, some state-owned media companies view them as investments in future revenue streams, both from licensing the recovered content to documentary filmmakers and other producers, and for using their studios to digitise other companies' archives for a fee.
"If you have an archive that has a lot of important factual events in it, then you will get revenue opportunities, mainly from production companies, documentary filmmakers and things like that," says Christopher O'Hearn, the general manager of DMA Media Middle East, who oversaw archives at Associated Press. "If you are reasonably well set up, archives can make a reasonable amount of money." Habib Mahakian, the regional director for the telecommunications and media sector in the Middle East and North Africa for EMC, says future content commercialisation is almost always part of a vendor's pitch to one of these big public broadcasters.
EMC is the company providing the infrastructure for the archiving project that Saudi TV and Radio rolled out in July. "Generally, when we are approaching our customers, the aim is to do digitisation in a way you can sell it - to other TV stations, to news agencies who might need the footage," Mr Mahakian says. Mr al Menhali says ADMC is planning to earn money from both licensing content and commercialising its archiving skills in the future. ADMC has a particular advantage in the region because it has kept its rare vintage one-inch and two-inch tape machines, now hooked up to a state-of-the-art digitising studio.
"Before, in the Middle East, if you had two-inch or one-inch tape you needed to digitise, you had to go to either India or the UK," he said. "But now, at ADMC, after we finish our project, we can do other projects for Oman TV, Kuwait TV, and other GCC countries. Those television stations have a lot of content that needs to be digitised but they don't all have the tools to do it." Whether ADMC will be able to convince other public broadcasters to send them their tapes is a matter of some debate among digitisation experts, who note these large bureaucracies are loathe to let their archives leave the premises. But what is clear is there is a great deal of money to be made from the Middle East's public television archiving push by the various vendors who sell the technology and expertise to do so. As such, the wave of digitisation is proving to be an economic engine in itself.
This wave began in Kuwait last year, when Gulf Media Company, a systems integrator, announced it had hired Harris Corporation, a US-based communications and IT company, to build its new archive facility at Kuwait Television in Kuwait City. Said Bacho, the managing director for Harris Broadcast Communication in the Middle East, says the archive, which has been running for several months, served as a springboard to Harris's growth in the region.
"Since we have won this project, we have won three more in the Middle East on the digital archives side," he says. The others include: ADMC; Al Rayyan TV in Qatar; and Ten Sports, a division of Taj Television located in Dubai Media City. The company is preparing pitches to three or four other broadcasters before the end of the year, he says. Hassan Ghoul, the director of sales for the Middle East for Ascent Media, the systems integrator that provided the technology for ADMC's archive, says landing its first major Middle East contract last year has inspired the company to consider opening an office in Abu Dhabi.
Mr Mahakian says the pressure to move from analogue to digital, led by the shift to digital signals in the West and a greater take-up of high-definition television throughout the region, is forcing all public broadcasters to look into digitisation programmes. "Every major public TV station in the Middle East has some sort of a project it wants to start," he says. "That's because all the historical footage is coming from the public TV stations. The privately owned companies are recent companies, so they started with digital broadcast, but the public companies are feeling the pressure to move away from analogue."
The relatively recent arrival of multiple private broadcasters in Middle- Eastern media makes proper archiving even more important than it is in the West, where multiple television stations often filmed the same historic events, says Mr O'Hearn. As the old one-inch and two-inch tape ages, its particles fall off, meaning some of it will be destroyed during its transfer to digital. "In the UK and US, you have some material you could piece together because you have ITN, BBC or, in the US, CBS and ABC," he says. "But here, there was only one broadcaster covering that stuff in that country, so there is probably only one copy of it, and that copy has probably only one play left."