March 27, 2004

Access to public media could expand if we do right on the web 

Just got back from a conference in Indianapolis focused on how to build a better public media system on the web. Public broadcasting content producers like me got together with IT experts and library science people to talk about "interoperability," i.e. how to make our content universally available thru the Internet. We have some problems to solve: Most public TV and radio stations produce a lot of content that has lasting value, but it's stored in different media formats. We're talking about everything from cassette tapes (yuck) to files on hard drives, from analog to several dozen flavors of digital file types. I can tell you WILL has several decades of worthwhile content stored on everything from 18-inch steel platters, 1/4 inch magnetic tape, half a dozen analog videotape formats, DAT, MD, CD, DVC Pro, DV cam, Betacam, not to mention digital file formats like WAV, MPEG2, MP3, Real, Windows, and Quicktime media, and a few truly bizarre and proprietary formats. Not all of that may be worth preserving, but here's the actual rub: How do we even know what the material is? And that points to the real problem we're trying to solve, the "elephant under the carpet" as they say. It's all about the metadata, that is, the information describing the content. We can devise tools to convert that content into preservable digital files and share those files over the Internet, but we have to know what we've got. And it would help if everyone used the same language to describe their content, so we can build a big global media library throughout the public broadcasting system. It turns out that universities, libraries, research centers, and other public information providers are trying to do the same thing. So the idea is, let's build a system whereby if someone wants to know about something, they can get at any content in any format anywhere anytime. Sounds like the Internet, right? Yes, but if you think Google is pretty useful now, just wait until we get our act together. We're building a public media architecture that would establish a universally accessible interface to every facet of human knowledge. Turns out we can actually do this with the tools we now have if we all work together. Let's just hope we can finish it before they pull the rest of our funding.

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