Saving old technology mean saving old shows

In the preservation world, if film is hot, video is ice cold.

Film preservation has Martin Scorsese pushing the cause, the Library of Congress highlighting movies to be preserved, and the U.S. government serving up funding.

Yet the television industry’s legacy, including news and entertainment, is in danger of disappearing, largely due to a lack of essential technology and basic support tools.

“There are millions of hours of footage on obsolete formats and tapes that are going to disappear unless something is done within the next 10 years. People are just going to end up throwing them out because there isn’t anything to do with them,” says Peter Brothers, a board member of the Assn. of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and topper of one of the most respected video restoration houses, Specs Brothers.

The problem: Tapes are becoming unplayable and the devices on which to play them are disappearing.

“They’re not making the machinery,” Brothers says. “The places that repaired them have gone out of business. You can’t fix them. You can’t get the spare parts anymore.”

Not only are tape players growing rare, so are the essentials for tape restoration. Tape-cleaning machines are critical, since a reel or cassette is too long to clean entirely by hand, but they’re disappearing for old formats. Splicing-tape and tabs for legacy videotape are no longer for sale; Brothers pulls strings to get them directly from manufacturers.

While archives and preservationists like Brothers haunt eBay, looking for hard-to-find parts (the BBC is said to have cornered the market on a certain type of videohead needed for a machine that plays the tapes it once used), curators and rights holders do triage on which shows to save.

TV broadcasts began before the introduction of videotape, so most early television was as ephemeral as live theater. Much of what survives, like “The Honeymooners,” was recorded as kinescopes — 16mm film of a TV screen.

“I Love Lucy” is a notable exception, but that’s because Desi Arnaz put 35mm film cameras next to his TV cameras to preserve the show for posterity.

Once videotape came in, networks used 2-inch “quad” tape that was often reused to save money, not archived.

Doug Warner, director of engineering for the Paley Center for Media, notes that video-tape manufacturers initially promised a 15- to-25-year lifespan for their product.

“When I say we have tapes dating back to the 1950s, that’s 60 years,” says Warner. “So a considerable amount of material has passed that lifespan.”

The six-decade tape era saw the rise and fall of numerous pro formats of varying quality and durability. One popular format from the 1970s and ’80s, 3/4″ videotape, has proven one of the least durable.

Water is videotape’s enemy. Tape absorbs moisture from the air, and over time, that process of hydrolysis makes the tape sticky and unplayable. “The picture doesn’t go away,” says Brothers, “the recording is still there, but the physical tape is difficult to play; you can’t run it through a machine.”

The sheer volume of tape sitting in closets, vaults, basements and attics suggests it won’t all be saved, even if it could be.

Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, says archivists prioritize what should be saved by looking at uniqueness of content and historical value.

For example, Horak notes, UCLA’s team put a lot of effort into restoring “The Goldbergs” (see TV story, next page) and a 1960 Fred Astaire color special, but “there is the question, ‘Do you really need to preserve every single day for 10 years of a gameshow?’ Right now, given the financial situation, nobody’s really doing that.”

Horak laments that video preservation depends entirely on private donations and lacks the government funding film gets.

“We have so much television and so much video that needs preservation, and the expense is as much or greater than film preservation, but there’s nobody that has taken that responsibility on.”

Most facilities working on preserving historic video are digitizing their materials, though today’s digital storage media are notoriously unreliable and go obsolete even faster than tape formats.

Technicolor is working on its own proprietary method that solves video preservation by moving the images onto film. Tom Burton, who heads Technicolor’s digital restoration department, says his team puts extra color information on the film so that if a print must be rescanned back to video, “we can do a side-by-side and they’re essentially a dead match. There’s no color correction required to get back to the original source.”

Maybe by turning video preservation into film preservation, Technicolor has found a way to finally give the format a little heat.

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