But What About Videotape?

Although the concept of magnetic video recording dates from the late twenties, a viable system was not developed until 1956, when AMPEX unveiled its VTR, or videotape recorder. One of the earliest successful demonstrations of videotape occurred in October 1956, when a pretaped clip of a musical segment was inserted into an otherwise live transmission of The Jonathan Winters Show. A few weeks later, CBS reran its New York–originated newscast to a West Coast audience via videotape, rather than kinescope, for the first time. Both of those historic broadcasts remain missing.   

Throughout the sixties, as the two-inch videotape format known as Quad became the industry standard, shows that had formerly been broadcast live were now taped. However, the exorbitant cost of the new technology meant that the videotape itself was typically erased and reused. As a result, an alarming array of live-to-tape programs from the late fifties to the early seventies, particularly sporting events, talk shows, game shows, soap operas, and news programming, are now gone forever. Ironically, those that do exist have survived as back-up kinescope recordings—the very technology that videotape was meant to replace.  

Obsolesce has always been one of the challenges of television preservation, and videotape, which is prone to rapid deterioration, remains a questionable method of preservation. As the Library of Congress noted in a 1997 report: "Next to [highly flammable] nitrocellulose film, videotape is probably the next best medium for a society which does not wish to be reminded of its past." In this digital age, as media technologies continue to evolve at breakneck speed, it is more critical than ever to track down and preserve all formats of our broadcasting heritage.