The End of Video Tape

Video recording is changing. Tape has been around for several decades – will it survive several more? Here’s a look at the history of videotape and a look into the future of this ubiquitous technology.

I remember, as a very small child, going to my grandparents’ house one bleak winter evening to welcome them back from a long vacation. We gathered in the living room on fold-out chairs as my grandfather set up the easel and unrolled the “portable” movie screen. As the lights dimmed, the flicker of the home-movie projector cut through the darkness and broadcast a grainy image of… their hotel room. Whoa! Imagine the excitement. In fact, we had to suffer through at least two more hours of out-of-focus, herky-jerky footage, while my grandparents took turns narrating every starkly dull detail. Still, at the time it was the pinnacle of home-movie entertainment – until my father bought his first handheld camera with separate VHS recorder in the late 70s and made us watch every out-of-focus, herky-jerky frame he ever shot. At the time, however, it too was truly amazing.

An Age of Marvels

In seemingly just a few short years, we went from this massive display of roll-out movie screens and clattering, flickering projectors to putting this thing called a videotape into a machine which actually played stuff we had just shot, on our TV! Now some three decades later, the world is changing again.

Thirty years seems like a long time, but in actuality, videotape has been around a lot longer. In the 1940s, a thing called magnetic tape was already recording sound. A man named Charles Ginsberg, a researcher at Ampex Corporation, led the team that used the principles of magnetic sound recording to develop the world’s first functional videotape recorder (VTR). This marvel of recording technology, which turned live images captured by television cameras into electrical images stored on magnetic tape, sold for $50,000 – a tad expensive, even by today’s standards. (See Good Ol’ Days sidebar).

These quadruplex machines used a precursor to the helical scanning system used by more modern formats, and recorded images onto an open-reel (exposed) two-inch tape. This format produced excellent images and was a professional standard for more than 20 years, but it was still cost-prohibitive for the average consumer.

For the next 20-plus years, engineers and other thought-leaders worked on making videotape more practical and affordable. By 1969, Sony Corporation introduced U-matic, a pro-use 3/4″ videocassette and then the 1/2″ (consumer) Beta system in 1975. JVC Corporation followed with its VHS (Video Home System), and, by 1976, the world was in the midst of a linear video war.

Professionally, many of Sony’s Beta systems are still in use today, but consumers quickly adopted the VHS format for home viewing. However, consumer video recording turned out to be a different playing field entirely. Full-size VHS camcorders were around for a while but were soon supplanted by smaller 8mm camcorders, which were in turn overtaken by Hi8. Digital8, a digital version of the 8mm format, was around for a while, but never found its audience and withered away. VHS-C (compact) made a run, but it was shoved out of the way by Mini DV, which is still a popular consumer format. The one drawback for consumers with Mini DV is the fact that Mini DV VCRs never found a niche in the consumer market. This is because they came on the tip of what we now refer to as the digital video revolution. Some say this revolution has ultimately spelled doom for what so many shooters have cut their teeth on… tape.

So, What’s Next?

We don’t need a crystal ball to see it, because it’s already here. The industry is moving rapidly toward a tapeless future, where solid-state recording is the norm. According to Wendy Perlman-Klonsky of Canon USA, this type of technology offers a variety of lifestyle advantages for the consumer, including “lighter, sleeker camera designs, with the added benefits of fast response time, low power consumption and a lower risk of data loss.” This last benefit is of significant importance to any shooter capturing that “once-in-a-lifetime” memory. Just ask anyone who has experienced a dropout or loss in video quality due to something as random as humidity or even extreme air temperature.

“The development of solid-state technology that does not rely on moving parts has overcome many of these issues and provided new advantages,” said Robert Harris, VP of Marketing for Panasonic Broadcast. “Devices like solid-state SD memory cards and P2 cards provide reliable recordings without the dropouts and hold up well against shock, vibration, extreme temperatures and environments.”

Recording capacity for solid-state systems has also improved, allowing users to fit as much, if not more, footage onto a single card as onto a single tape. They can then easily transmit the footage onto an editing system hard drive without the need to spend time logging and digitizing footage with a costly peripheral device. While this is an attractive feature for many shooters, just as many complain that they have to spend just as much time on the back end renaming footage files that received seemingly random numbers and deleting bad takes they would normally have skipped in the digitizing process.

For those transferring footage directly from the camera, using it as one would a deck, keeping the camera and editing software current is essential. Once a version of camera software is out of date, it may fail to sync properly with up-to-date editing software. Therefore, if only for lessening the frustration that comes with keeping up to date with a heavy flow of software upgrades, you may find it of benefit to invest in some sort of peripheral transfer system, such as an external SD card reader or whatever your particular system may require. The storage and backup workflow depends on the user’s needs and desires. According to Panasonic’s Robert Harris, “The great thing about solid-state recording is that it is file-based. As a digital file, it can be transferred to a range of storage devices, from hard drives and Blu-ray Discs to standard DVD or (even back to…) tape.”


Is This Really the End?

So, is the end of tape really here? Will all those cassettes in shoeboxes and on storage shelves become nothing more than the proverbial paperweight? It’s not likely. Rest assured, you will not need to hunt for raw tape on the black market just to keep that old camcorder going for the next few years. Tape has secured a firm place for itself for at least the near future. However, with more and more manufacturers beginning to phase out development and production of new tape-based recording systems, there is no doubt that we are quickly heading for a future where solid-state recording is center stage. For how long is anyone’s guess.

Michael Fitzer is an Emmy award-winning commercial and documentary writer/producer.

Side Bar: Working with Tape in the Good Ol’ Days

The earliest Ampex VTR was the VR-1000 (Top left photo), used at WTVT in 1957. The RCA-TR22s (bottom left photo), introduced in the 1960s, were more efficient, reliable machines that made extensive use of transistors. The quad tape (only a few minutes in length) was inside a bulky plastic container. The tape was bar-coded and loaded into a carousel that held about fifty other tapes inside the machine. A computer would trigger the correct tape for air. A noisy suction device would pull the tape out of the cassette and around the heads for playback. In the foreground of the bottom center photo is an Ampex VR-1200. WTVT engineer Rick Rea stands beside two Ampex VR-2000Bs. One of them was equipped with the Ampex Editec that had animation capability. The bottom right photo has Rea and the Ampex ACR-25, the first quad VTR that used a cassette-style cartridge. Find more on quad VTRs and clips from the oldest restored quad tapes here. You can see more historical information on WTVT’s site.

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