Tech Case Study: Sesame Street

In the summer of 1969, "Sesame Street" creator Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson’s team of Muppeteers began production on the groundbreaking children’s series just as technicians at their downtown New York City studio were organizing a strike. Faced with the threat of missing their production deadlines, Cooney’s Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), producers of "Sesame Street," approached another studio uptown and pleaded for accommodations.

After a short deliberation, the owners of a facility at 81st and Broadway welcomed the opportunity to produce the first year of the newly funded program. But as CTW would soon discover, just getting this television institution-in-waiting off the ground was to become a technical feat in its own right."We worked day and night for six weeks, installing special film equipment, videotape editing rooms, and equipping the studio for the first ‘Sesame Street’ show, which we shot on time in September of 1969," says Walt Rauffer, CTW’s technical operations engineer at the time.

And so began the accumulation of an impressive media asset library, now into its third decade, that consists of numerous award-winning television productions, magazines, books, films, CD-ROMs and Web-based media.

Building a Library

By the second season, the emerging video asset library of "Sesame Street" was converted to 2-inch video reel segments, allowing more efficient access to clips in the absence of time coding technology. Also in the second season, the actual production workflow of the show was streamlined. CTW began shooting two shows per day while editors simultaneously assembled the segments as they were completed. At the time, the 2-inch video stock was considered state-of-the-art, and Rauffer’s crew was tasked with ensuring the quality of the tape, making dubs when necessary and guaranteeing that edited shows met the strict standards set forth by PBS.

"PBS was under the gun, they had just started in the early 1970s and committed themselves to providing high-quality material to 300 stations," says Rauffer. "It required a lot of recording and re-recording and playback of material, so everything had to be the highest quality possible and that, basically, was my job."

By 1976, CTW realized there must be a better way to manage the videotape library than with detailed notes on paper. Four librarians were working full-time to control the growing collection as "Sesame Street" entered its eighth year and CTW produced other programs, like "The Electric Company." Labeling conventions and storage standards were in place, but faster access to the segments was becoming a necessity.

Fortunately for CTW, time code was coming into popular use for referencing video. In addition, a Wang computer was purchased to organize and maintain financials, manage the videotape library, scripts and talent payments. A new team was formed within the group, an information systems manager was hired and a new method of cataloging was born. However, in 1976, the technology didn’t exist to retrieve the segments between the computer and videotape, but CTW realized it was only a matter of time.

"We saw that this could be automated; we had a number of discussions. Of course, we didn’t call it ‘digital asset management,’ we called it automated retrieval of segments," says Rauffer.

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