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Media Technology

Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them (npr.org) 125

Most videotapes were recorded in the 1980s and '90s, when video cameras first became widely available to Americans. Most of those VHS cassettes have become unwatchable, and others are quickly dying, too. Research suggests that tapes like this aren't going to live beyond 15 to 20 years. NPR has a story about a group of archivists and preservationists who are increasingly scrambling through racks of tape decks, oscilloscopes, vector scopes and wave-form monitors to ensure a quality transfer from analog to digital. From the article: Here's how magnetic tapes work: Sounds and images are magnetized onto strips of tape, using the same principle as when you rub a piece of metal with a magnet and it retains that magnetism. But when you take the magnet away, the piece of metal slowly loses its magnetism -- and in the same way, the tape slowly loses its magnetic properties. "Once that magnetic field that's been imprinted into that tape has kind of faded too much, you won't be able to recover it back off the tape after a long period of time," says Howard Lukk, director of standards at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Lukk estimates there are billions of tapes sitting around. There are plenty of services out there to digitize tapes -- local stores, online services, even public libraries and universities. Some services are free; some cost a lot of money. The thing is, many people don't realize their tapes are degrading. And some who do know -- even members of the XFR Collective (the aforementioned group), like Mary Kidd -- haven't even gotten around to their own tapes. Digitizing also takes a lot of troubleshooting. Each transfer the Collective does requires them to play the entire tape through while they sit there and watch it.
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Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Most movies from the 80's and 90's were unwatchable to begin with.

    • Re:Unsurprising (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Luthair ( 847766 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:13PM (#54554399)
      This is basically true for every decade. Nostalgia is the only reason people remember things fondly.
      • by orbit500 ( 827043 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:53PM (#54554677)
        Even nostalgia isn't what is used to be. Sigh.
      • Chuck Norris tapes will last forever.
      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        This is basically true for every decade. Nostalgia is the only reason people remember things fondly.

        And you can remember the bad things in a good way, without really rose coloring it. Like most people can look at a photo of themselves from 20 years and go "OMG we look so ridiculous" and laugh at it not "OMG we look so lame" and be embarrassed. I can reminisce about the BBS days and how slow the modems were isn't rose tinted, it's perhaps even exaggerated. A lot of these "memorably bad" moments are like that, you hold on to a few emotions and as the details fade you only remember that you were horribly, ho

    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      Yebbut, think of all the VHS porn, man!
      Someone needs to take matters into their own hands and start digitizing.

      • Yebbut, think of all the VHS porn, man! Someone needs to take matters into their own hands and start digitizing.

        Exactly. Traci Lords isn't getting any younger...

    • funny, as I still think that most movies from the 80's and 90's are way better than any crap that is put out today, and funny enough a lot of it are remakes which are worse then their originals.
  • Overly alarmist (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sh00z ( 206503 ) <sh00z@@@yahoo...com> on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:06PM (#54554353) Journal
    Just a scare to get you to spend money on something you don't need. I just watched some VHS tapes I recorded (EP Mode) in the summer of 1994, and they're fine, I've got audio cassettes recorded a decade earlier that sound the same as the day I recorded them (and in at least one case, better than the digital download of the same radio show via iTunes).
    • by Anonymous Coward

      It really depends on the media. VHS went through the same "let's have the absolute cheapest manufacturer produce everything" industrial suicide that the floppy disk went through.

      Remember in 1993 you could go to the store, get a nice floppy disk for about 80 cents apiece, and it was hard as a rock and could be used to dig your way out of a jail cell? One year later, suddenly floppy disks are 20 cents apiece, it was amazing - except suddenly we were losing all the data on our disks and the heads on floppy dri

      • VHS progressed.

        The market simply didnt buy in. You've probably never heard of digital VHS but not only was it a thing, it was better than DVD (at least in quality, but tape is tape) and basically came out at the same time that DVD was really taking off. The market went a different direction for its own reasons. Tape was dead as a market-leading solution not because of a race to the bottom but instead because it continued to be tape.

        Cassette tapes come in different qualities, so do VHS tapes, and so did
    • Yeah, I'm wondering whether the problem is VHS was always shitty to begin with, so people are coming across video tapes, playing them, saying "My god, this is awful! The color is all over the place, and smudged, and the image is blurry! And occasionally the screen starts jumping!", and not realizing that this is because VHS was between half and a quarter of the resolution/quality of broadcast NTSC, and was particularly sensitive to recording quality problems.

      There's a reason we all jumped on DVD when it

      • The first VHS was based on regular broadcast standards so color information isn't given much of the signal bandwidth at all

        Remember that broadcast color data was super-imposed onto the old standard black and white signal in a way that remained compatible for both color and black and white devices, both ways. Clever solution but at a cost: color not so good.
    • It depends on the brand of tape used in both cases. You probably used something of decent quality like Maxell or TDK. If Billy Bob Smith recorded his son's fifth birthday on some bargain-basement brand he got at the local SuperValu, he's probably SOL. The magnetised flakes have probably long since become separated from the backing material, and he'll have to shell out a lot to retrieve anything usable.
  • my sports pet peeve
  • VHS is unwatchable once you are accustomed to HD
    • Re:Unwatchable (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Lucas123 ( 935744 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:12PM (#54554393) Homepage

      It's the same as going back to a cathode ray television after having watched something on a 1080p flat screen.

      Many years ago, when I bought my first flatscreen TV, I gave my old (but very high end and not so old) Sony CR TV set to a friend. About four months later, I went over his house to watch a game and I was like, "Dude, what did you do to my old TV? The picture looks like crap."

      That's how it's always looked.

      I just sat there stunned. And, it really opened my eyes to the improvement between low-def and high-def. We're definitely spoiled today.

      • Honestly I've been mostly disappointed in the quality of large flat panel displays. Large LCDs are great because because they are thin but CRTs have a certain quality to them that is unparalleled in any other display tech right now. CRTs are both soft and sharp at the same time because the phosphor element density on a CRT screen can be insanely dense and independent of the input or output resolution for the display. Now, when considering the electronics in aging CRTs, especially cheap television varieties,
      • by Gr8Apes ( 679165 )

        You just had a crappy CRT TV. I had an HD CRT RPT. The picture was incredible. So good that when it went out after 10 years, I seriously had issues adapting to any of the TVs available. LCD was utter crap. LED (LCD) were a little better, but even at 240Hz still had seriously annoying glitches, which were only marginally removed with lots of calibration effort. Plasmas were great, provided you didn't miss the Kuro (I did, mine died about 2 months after the last of the Kuro clearances, and any Kuro still avai

      • I'm keeping an old high-end 4:3-format 28" SD CRT around for retro gaming. It is a bit silly, since it's like 90 lbs and takes up an unreasonable amount of space, but it makes old-school games look So. Fucking. Good.

        It's a B&O BeoVision MX 8000, with one of the best CRT's Philips ever made (none of that flat-front nonsense), two full-RGB SCART inputs and all the picture adjustments directly available from a menu, instead of having to take off the back and fiddly around with a screwdriver. And of course

      • It's about matching the right content. For example, a lot of my old SD anime from eons ago looks like shit on my 1080p ultrawide display. When I send the signal to my HD CRT, it looks fantastic.
    • by Luthair ( 847766 )
      They were always unwatchable, we just didn't have other options.
    • I find a lot of new movies especially in the horror genre to be unwatchable compared to vhs. I know you know the type I'm talking about where it's supposedly a record of cell phone camera, security cameras, and camcorders cut together.

  • Easy fix! (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Here's how magnetic tapes work: Sounds and images are magnetized onto strips of tape, using the same principle as when you rub a piece of metal with a magnet and it retains that magnetism. But when you take the magnet away, the piece of metal slowly loses its magnetism -- and in the same way, the tape slowly loses its magnetic properties.

    Sounds like we just need to put a magnet next to these so they refresh their magnetic fields.

    • Here's how magnetic tapes work ...

      I can tell we're in a strange new world when someone has to explain to a technical audience how magnetic recording works. I grew up playing with my dads's tape recorder. I ended up in the disc drive biz and spent 30+ years watching domains get smaller and closer together. Everyone just knew how it worked. I wonder how many tech-savvy slashdotters have seen a 3 1/2 floppy drive or a cassette tape outside of a museum.

      Run along kids. The old man is starting to mumble and drool on himself.

  • Wouldn't this be a decent project for a machine learning solution? It sound like a tedious job that requires a comparison between two inputs and correction based on what was observed.

    Also to echo some skepticism, I've listened to music reels from the 60s and they don't seem significantly degraded. Is video more fragile?

    • Actually yes. I happened to find this video just yesterday and it explains why VHS video signals would be very fragile compared to typical audio recordings:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfuARMCyTvg
    • "Wouldn't this be a decent project for a machine learning solution?"

      No, because a machine-learning solution would realize that it should just bulk-erase the media more quickly than a human would.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Be sure to periodically clean the entire tape path, lubricate capstan and roller bearings, and demagnetize your tape heads! It's often forgotten, and very, very important .. especially when moving lots of tapes (especially those of dubious origins) through the machine.

    • Yeah... you know what? I'll stick to digital files, thank you.

  • >> Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable

    I have Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition on VHS. That was nearly unwatchable the first time through after the Lucasizing it got...so nothing lost, right?
  • by Alejux ( 2800513 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:32PM (#54554513)
    Will be lost, in time. Like tears in the rain...
  • Jean-Michel Jarre was a visionary and predicted this problem. That's why one of his early work will never fade. The protection is built-in into the title itself! [wikipedia.org]

  • by netsavior ( 627338 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @05:35PM (#54554537)
    Let it die. We are terrified of letting the archive filter itself out, but really it is ok to let a billion VHS tapes go.

    I think one of the real dangers of the digital age is that we are so worried about losing memories, we are afraid to make them.

    Painstakingly archiving every detail of life really makes for a shitty life.

    I know I sound like a curmudgeon, but there it is.
    • Something like 90% of films from the silent era have been lost. That is a huge chunk of history and art lost to time.

      • And the point is we should keep making more. Not just reminisce about the old times. Yeah, it may be cool to find Doctor Who episodes in Hong Kong or Australia that were thought to have been lost, but what has finding them actually accomplished?
      • The good stuff perpetuates. The bad stuff doesn't. Thats how culture works.

        It easily hops across technology advances. I can easily find Aesop's Fables online, for instance, and that was created about 2500 years ago.
    • > Painstakingly archiving every detail of life really makes for a shitty life.

      That's exactly what I think whenever I go to a concert, and see people trying to record the performance. Like they're ever going to watch that shaky, horrible video with shitty audio. Meanwhile they're missing the live performance they paid so dearly to go see.

      • They don't really care about experiencing the concert. They primarily care about seeing other peoples response to them seeing the concert. So they post video of them at the concert, video of the concert, etc. to get their true desire.

        I'm fairly sure plenty of those people are doing gig work, posting to someone elses feed for a fee to make it appear that Bartiford was at the festival.
        • They don't really care about experiencing the concert.

          Wouldn't that, however, assume there being only one way to "experience" a concert, or other event? Considering how little work it takes to use certain recording mediums, you can just aim, while focusing your eyes on the show, and listening/looking at the visuals, so even if there were one way of "experiencing" it, you could still theoretically do it. (ALL strictly IMO, of course).

          • It's generally accepted that the best way to experience a concert is by observing both the photons and the sound waves.
    • Let it die. We are terrified of letting the archive filter itself out, but really it is ok to let a billion VHS tapes go.

      I'd disagree. I'll agree that 90% of everything is crap, but there is still that 10% that will stand the test of time. Due to the legal issues around media formats, music, and other issues, a sizable fraction of even that 10% will be lost because it can only be published on VHS. There will probably be no (legal) DVD, Blue-Ray, or other newer media formatting to ever view those movies or shows. Perhaps with some sort of proper archiving, it might last till it falls out of copyright or issues are settled and

  • Does this mean that Weekend at Bernie's gets to die forever (made in 1989, DVDs came out in 1995)? Oh shit, I've that on DVD!

    At least vinyl records from the 70's and prior continue on, my mom has both an original with Rocket Man by Elton John as well as a perfect Tommy by the Who. I got her a record player for Christmas last year and she's been busy cleaning all of her albums.

    I'm assuming cassette tapes have the same problem, so some of the 1980's craptastic "we have a keyboard!!!" stuff will rot. Good r

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

      Does this mean that Weekend at Bernie's gets to die forever

      You can always watch the remake aka Hillary Clinton's election campaign.

  • Each transfer the Collective does requires them to play the entire tape through while they sit there and watch it.

    While I understand people's reluctance to let things like this go, I have to say: if it is so difficult to find time to watch the tape now, why do you think you're going to want to watch it in the future?

  • I suppose this means I have to give up on that Ann Coulter/Sarah Palin sex tape floating around here somewhere.

  • This is a great small start. Much more needs to be done along the lines of Google's original idea of digitizing all books. I spent a lot of time getting all my old hi 8 tapes transferred to disk, and can attest to it not being easy if the tapes are old. The metal particle hi 8 tapes were particularly bad as some of the oxide would slough off during playback and gum up the play head. Sometimes had to clean and retry multiple times just to get 5 min converted. The metal evaporated tapes were much better. I ca

  • Seems many here don't quite understand the sheer volume of content released on VHS all the way into the 2000s. Not just home videos, but endless amounts of direct to video content, films, etc... Tons of which are not available on any other medium. Some of this got crowd "archived" just due to torrent sites and Youtube, but some VHS content hasn't been digitized to this day may be lost forever if not done soon.

    However, the idea of tapes not lasting past 15 to 20 years I think is incorrect. It may depe
    • Seems many here don't quite understand the sheer volume of content released on VHS all the way into the 2000s. Not just home videos, but endless amounts of direct to video content, films, etc... Tons of which are not available on any other medium. Some of this got crowd "archived" just due to torrent sites and Youtube, but some VHS content hasn't been digitized to this day may be lost forever if not done soon. However, the idea of tapes not lasting past 15 to 20 years I think is incorrect. It may depend more on the quality and conditions they were kept but I've had tapes well over 20+ years that played perfectly. There are still tons of old tapes from 80s and 90s you can purchase off Amazon or eBay which all play fine. Tapes in clamshell cases seem to be in the best shape leading me to believe not exposing the tape to the elements is the most important factor.

      Is it really worth the effort and cost in archiving? To be honest, I don't see the value or the point other than for that feel good feeling of archiving something obscure for the future in the off chance that someone may find it and watch it. There's a lot of old content that just needs to die and be forgotten. If it's worth remembering, someone already digitized it.

      • Re:VHS archiving (Score:5, Informative)

        by great throwdini ( 118430 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @06:19PM (#54554913)

        Is it really worth the effort and cost in archiving? To be honest, I don't see the value or the point other than for that feel good feeling of archiving something obscure for the future in the off chance that someone may find it and watch it. There's a lot of old content that just needs to die and be forgotten. If it's worth remembering, someone already digitized it.

        Off the cuff, I'd imagine that a great deal of news footage from the era in question was recorded to tape (rather than film) that is subject to the stresses of time and the elements. Materials such as these beholden to the limitations of the medium under discussion aren't just about "that feel good feeling of archiving something obscure".

      • This.
        Also this is where the "dreaded" pirating might come really handy. There are trackers out there (albeit private) which offer high quality digitized versions of older movies (some which were appealing to limited audiences only, so maybe in danger of being lost).

        I guess it's a matter of "archiving for the sake of archiving" thing.

      • by jetkust ( 596906 )

        Is it really worth the effort and cost in archiving? To be honest, I don't see the value or the point other than for that feel good feeling of archiving something obscure for the future in the off chance that someone may find it and watch it. There's a lot of old content that just needs to die and be forgotten. If it's worth remembering, someone already digitized it.

        Just because it is archived doesn't mean it won't be forgotten. And just because it is not archived doesn't mean it will never hold any significance in the entire future of the planet. Antiques aren't worth remembering until someone in the future decides it's worth remembering. But the main point is that it's not like we're running out of harddrive space. What is the big deal? Why wouldn't we archive our stuff?

        • Just because it is archived doesn't mean it won't be forgotten. And just because it is not archived doesn't mean it will never hold any significance in the entire future of the planet.

          Clearly we must lose some stuff or it will eventually become impossible to find anything.

      • Here's the thing - we don't know what data archeologists, or anthropologists, are going to find interesting or useful in a few hundred years' time. They threw away the kinescope films of the first NFL Superbowl, which is clearly of historical interest. Ditto many of the original Playhouse 90 broadcasts, where many of the initial TV screenwriters, and quite a few big name movie directors, got their start. The DuMont network, one of the original national TV networks, basically lost all of its programming othe

  • The high quality transfer of crappy tapes. LOL
  • by Miamicanes ( 730264 ) on Monday June 05, 2017 @08:27PM (#54555771)

    Somewhat counter-intuitively, I've noticed that my OLDEST (mid/late-80s) VHS tapes are in MUCH better shape than the tapes I made between 1995 and 2004. My theory: in the 80s, a VCR & its tapes were expensive, well-made precision hardware. By the late 90s, they were just cheap shit -- recorders AND tapes. I think my early-80s tapes weigh as much as 3 or 4 late-90s tapes.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is absolutely true. At my workplace we have a VHS archive of broadcast TV stretching from the 1980s up to 2005 and our archivist will confirm that the newer tapes are of vastly inferior quality. It's not news to us that these tapes "should" be digitised, but the cost of a mass digitisation program is pretty prohibitive. Just sourcing enough VHS players is a problem, then you have digitisation hardware, storage, and all the human costs of manual QA and metadata-generation. Also, how do you balance the c

    • I've had the same issue with all my old floppy disks. All my stuff from the 80's works perfectly, but most stuff post '95 has some kind of problem.

  • "Here's how magnetic tapes work: Sounds and images are magnetized onto strips of tape, using the same principle as when you rub a piece of metal with a magnet and it retains that magnetism"

    Geez, I thought that as the tape moved past an induction coil, tiny fluctuations in the coil induced a magnetic flux in the tape, which was coated in a magnetizable material.
  • How will I save my copy of Shazaam!?

  • What free services are out there that do tape to digital conversion?

  • What archivists REALLY need is a playback device with enough tiny heads to read the tape in linear fashion, with enough oversampling to allow complete capture with a single pass, then post-capture analysis to find the original diagonal tracks and do "digital tracking". This is a huge problem with current archiving methods that depend on semi-manual tracking control... it makes capture *hugely* time and labor intensive. If we could confidently do "one pass now to preserve its current state onto some longterm

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