Two-inch-wide quadruplex (or quad) videotape, which was the TV-industry standard from 1956 through the late 1970s, was never meant for long-term storage of sound and images. Developed by Ampex, a company based in California, it allowed network shows to be recorded while being broadcast in New York and then played back later the same evening for West Coast audiences.
Thrifty producers were grateful that videotape could easily be erased, then reused.They were slow to realize that the initial recordings might have value in the distant future.
The videotapes have delicate coatings — essentially “polyurethane paint with magnetic particles inside it,” says Jim Lindner of Media Matters, which specializes in transferring videotaped material to more stable formats. Over time, these coatings absorb moisture, grow sticky and sometimes separate from their backing. With every fleck that peels away, Lindner says, “a bit of recorded history does, too.”
At the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, technicians often “bake the tape” in a 130-degree oven for days to resolidify these loose coatings. That is just one of the difficult steps in the tape-to-digital conversion.
Once resolidified, the tapes can be played back only on old video players as part of the conversion process. Doing so entails a risk that they will snap in two as the players’ magnetic heads whir across them at 88 mph. If the head encounters a bump, says Packard video-lab supervisor Paul Klamer, “it hits it like a Mack truck and saws directly through the tape — zing! These are scary to play back.”
Much of our video heritage is already lost to history. “A lot of things happened culturally because of TV, but in many cases we no longer have those tapes,” Lindner says. “What we have now is just what was left over” after routine erasures and discardings.
For example, the Vietnam War played out on nightly network news shows, but “we have very few [tapes of those shows] today,” according to Lindner. Did late-night humorists contribute to changing social mores in the ’60s? Hard to say, since episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from 1962 to 1970 have almost totally disappeared. “It was only after Carson secured the rights to the show from NBC that he insisted on keeping copies for subsequent clip licensing,” says Mike Mashon, who heads the moving image section at the Packard Campus.
The archives of one major network, which Lindner declined to identify, contain fewer than 3,000 tapes of evening news broadcasts from the heyday of quad videotape; he says that is less than half of the shows that aired.