Of the fifteen hundred Firing Line episodes, more than four hundred are recorded on 2-inch quad videotape, the first and oldest broadcast-quality videotape format. These videotapes come spooled on an open reel about a foot in diameter, and each videotape in its case weighs nearly twenty pounds. Specialized videotape preservation laboratories are used to assess, treat, and transfer the content of these 2-inch videotapes to modern videotape formats, as shown in this slideshow.
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Preservation work begins with an assessment of the videotape's physical condition. The splotches on this videotape are glue that has migrated from the reel on which it was stored. The glue deposits must be carefully removed before it can be played.
Edge damage, also identified during the assessment process, is usually the result of previous playbacks in which the videotape gets stuck in the tape transport mechanisms, creating the ragged edge seen here. This portion of damaged videotape represents about 2–3 minutes of program time. If the damaged edge passes through the playheads, loss of audio or picture breakup may result and, in worse-case scenarios, further tape damage and shredding could occur.
Damage to videotapes is not limited to the edges. The wrinkle in this videotape probably occurred during a previous playback.
After the assessment is complete and any necessary physical treatments have been performed, the videotape is exercised, meaning that it is fast-forwarded on a take-up reel without being threaded through the playback mechanism. This ensures smooth transport and optimal image transfer during the next step, the actual playback and simultaneous transfer to a modern videotape format.
With the videotape threaded through the playback mechanism, the tape is carefully played and the contents recorded onto Digital Betacam videotape. The 2-inch videotape playback machine is as big as several refrigerators. In the central area, a reel of videotape feeds through the four playheads onto a take-up reel as multiple monitors display program content and technical data. Playback occurs in real time; thus after the physical assessment and exercising, it takes 60 minutes to play and transfer a 60-minute videotape. A video engineer watches the monitors and makes technical notes concerning playback quality. Because 2-inch quad videotape was replaced by 1-inch open reel tape in the 1970s, few 2-inch machines remain in working order. Skilled video engineers who can operate the machines are equally scarce.
The engineer cleans oxide shed from the video playheads after each videotape is played. Oxide particles detract from playback quality, hence the frequent cleaning.
The dirt on this cleaning cloth contains the oxide particles cleaned from the video playheads after a single playback. With the heads clean, the next videotape can be exercised, played, and transferred to a modern videotape.