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Old Television Programming FAQs
How old programmes have survived and how they are recovered and restored

How many old British television programmes survive?

A lot but not as many as you would think or like. Film recording of television was not practised in this country until the late 1940s (some pre-war recordings of German programmes exist, but whether these were actually filmed off-screen or made on film in the first place is not clear). Video tape recording started in Britain in the late 1950s.

It is important to understand that in the early days of television few people could see any value in recording programmes. The process was imperfect and expensive, and there was a widely-felt view that television was a shallow, ephemeral kind of entertainment and frankly not worthy of preservation. For this reason, the few recordings which survive are mainly of state occasions, major sports events and serious drama – not light entertainment or other commonplace events. However, programmes actually created on film, including the BBC Television Newsreel, do survive in greater number.

As costs slowly came down, by the late 1950s many more programmes were recorded but by no means on a routine basis; that did not come in until the 1980s but even now not everything is considered worth saving. This is a very simplified answer and much more could be written on the subject.

What is the quality of these old recordings?

They vary widely. The best film recordings are extremely good, the worst are pretty awful. The attention paid to making them seems to have varied significantly. Early video recordings, from the 1959/60 period, are remarkably good.

But videotape can deteriorate, can't it?

Yes indeed. The most common fault is 'drop-out', which can have two causes. Either a minute piece of the magnetic oxide containing the recorded signal parts company with the backing tape or a speck of dirt on the surface of the oxide prevents the replay head from recovering adequate signal. The result is horizontal white streaks. Dirt or loose oxide on the surface of the tape can also cause 'head clogs', again preventing the replay head from recovering adequate signal.

The tape can additionally decompose. The tape may be decomposing. Both audio and video tapes suffer from the dreaded loss of plasticiser problem. The substance that keeps the tape flexible leaches out into the atmosphere, and in consequence the tape loses its suppleness and flexibility, causing poor contact with the record/playback head as well as a binding action and squealing noise.

Hydrolisation is the name of this process; minute gaps are left behind by the missing plasticiser and are filled by moisture from the air. The water molecules actually make the tape expand a bit, so it doesn't fit the machined tape-guides properly any more; and they can interfere with the lubrication impregnated into the tape; and it is theorised they can even interfere with the polished smoothness of the tape surface.

Why this should affect some tapes and not others depends on the formulation of the plastic backing and binder. Tapes of the 1950s and 60s are unaffected but these were made using whale oil (it is asserted) and the problems occurred when manufacturers started to look for a synthetic substitute. In the mid-1970s, 3M (Scotch) and Ampex, both major tape manufacturers, started experimenting with their formulas. They thought they were introducing major improvements, but instead created a tape much more prone to hydrolisation than anything had ever been. Because the problem did not show up for years, the formulas did not get corrected until sometime in the mid-1980s. Theoretically any tape could get hydrolised over a long period of time, especially if stored in a high-humidity situation, but in practice most squeaky tapes were made (roughly speaking) between 1975 and 1985.

One fix is named by Richard Fish on the Internet. He cites a method of baking the tapes in a convection oven for eight hours at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It is entirely possible to bake a tape twice if the first time doesn't do the trick. You get about a three-week 'window', says Tom, before the tape starts to re-absorb water. So the best deal is to bake the tape and immediately make a copy. But if you forget to do it and it re-hydrolises, you can bake it again. There are other fixes for squealing tapes, involving water (or Freon) baths and lubricating films, and there are firms that will attempt to recover material from deteriorated tapes (for example Vidipax in the USA).

In some cases the binder that ‘glues’ the oxide to the tape base starts to come through the oxide and it's almost impossible to play them. This ‘stiction’ effect is irreversible and if the tapes suffer from this fault then dubbing will be impossible.

I am aware of the work done by Channel 4 Television in restoring classic silent films and have often thought it might be possible to do similar work on old television programmes. The BBC have usually followed the line that early programmes were of such poor technical quality that they are unbroadcastable today. However, with modern, powerful computers it should be possible to enhance old films, at least.

It is certainly correct that with modern technology you can eliminate many defects in old film recordings; the BBC has made a digital transfer of Quatermass II and a Harry Worth Show (the latter discovered as a ropey 8mm print), and in both cases the results are remarkable - highly watchable. Whilst it is true that insufficient care was taken with some film recordings (‘telerecordings’), the picture and sound quality of most of those that survive would satisfy most nostalgia enthusiasts (if not casual viewers of today).
The difficulty I foresee is that a lot of early programmes were broadcast ‘live’ so recordings do not exist. As the 1960s progressed video tape was used and the BBC informs me that these were re-used several times.

Entirely correct. The cost of recording programmes in those days was many times higher than today and given the prevailing attitude that television had little enduring merit, it is a miracle that many programmes were kept at all.

Has the BBC or any of the ITV companies retained many 405 tapes and related equipment for playing old tapes?

As far as I've heard the BBC has around three dozen actual 405-line spools (possibly 39). This does not include tapes which are in b/w 625 lines and converted from 625 line. The sort of programmes held include some panel games, foreign magazine programmes, Gardening Club, Bucknell's House (DIY), Vision ON, Play School, Jackanory, Blue Peter, The Springfields, An Evening With Nat 'King' Cole, It's The Beatles (only in part), The Newcomers, T.O.T.P, Stanley Baxter Show. There are far more 625-line b/w tapes (hundreds in fact). ITV is much more difficult to assess; however, companies such as STV have very few compared with Granada and Anglia which must have the most 405-line tapes of all TV companies. [Andy Henderson]

These days old tapes are handed over to specialist facilities houses for play-out and transfer to modern formats.[AE]

Why were so many programmes junked in times gone by?

Let’s clarify the question first. In times gone by many programmes which had been videotaped, say for a single repeat, were then erased. There was no further need to preserve them, and the tape was needed for recording other programmes. Video tape was an extremely expensive commodity in those days; a reel could cost as much as a small car did. Video tape was not seen as an archive medium and video-recorded programmes intended for archiving were telerecorded onto film to release the tape for re-use.

As to why already archived programmes were later destroyed, the answers lie in unenlightened policy changes and acute shortage of storage space (which itself does not come cheap). It’s all very well to criticise decisions taken in the past in the light of current policies and understanding, but people saw things differently then. Would you consider the output of today’s satellite shopping channels and the worst game-shows worthy of archiving? Probably not but in thirty years time people might have other ideas.

However, as Jeremy Rogers so rightly points out, the main reason for not keeping so many programmes was because they had no commercial value. This stemmed from the lack of a secondary television market in the UK, and the strict agreements on repeat and foreign sales rights which after a few years rendered the material unexploitable.

It’s not fair! Why is it that so many more old television shows survive in the USA than over here in Britain?

From the outset many live shows in the USA were ‘recorded’ by pointing a movie camera at a television screen (for which the technical name is a kinescope); these are what's called "kinescope recordings," or just "kinescopes". In some cases (possible as a result of a FCC requirement) these broadcasts were recorded in case someone claimed libel or complained about obscenity or whatever. The main reason for the large number of film recordings is that in the early 1950s the kinescopes were the only means of distributing network programmes to stations that didn't yet have a coaxial cable or microwave relay connection to carry the programmes live. For instance, in Buffalo they used to get Uncle Miltie a few days late, on film.

A vast number of kinescopes were trashed after some legal time limit passed, or when the networks just got tired of storing them, as NBC did once to the vast dismay of most of the world. The recordings we have now are often copies saved by the performers or producers, as in the case of Your Show of Shows.

Some programmes were actually created on film in the first place and these too were distributed to stations on film. Often there was no reason for stations to return these prints after showing them, which is another reason why vast numbers of film prints have survived.

Shows which were videotaped are less likely to survive than ones shot at the outset on 35mm film (such as I Love Lucy), because the tape deteriorated or it had to be recycled.

Why is it that so few recordings of archive programmes have their original opening announcements?

Part of the reason has been given already. Most of the recordings which survive are what are called transmission prints, prepared in advance on film; they would have been announced live at the time of transmission. They might also be repeated later, meaning that any recorded-in announcement might be inappropriate for a later occasion. Then, as we said, there is a separate kind of recording known as a Programme as Broadcast recording (P as B) which does include continuity announcements and on-screen idents, clocks and so on, but these are much less common because they were made for specific purposes only.

How are the old 405-line recordings played today?

Nobody uses 405 lines for broadcasting today but a fair amount of British archive programming is still held only on 405-line videotape (VT). This means that certain broadcasters, facilities houses and the National Film & Television Archive (NFTVA) have to maintain 405-line VT machines and monitors. In addition, a number of museums and collectors operate 405-line studio equipment, receivers and so on.

Does anything else ever turn up on these international missing Doctor Who hunts?

There is no such thing as an episode hunt. The BBC don't go out of their way to hunt down material of any description. This would be a waste of licence payers money in view of the fact the material was meant to be destroyed anyway.

What does happen is that enthusiasts do their best to use their own initiative in finding material. People and TV stations offer material back. The sort of material since 1982 which has been returned to the BBC is quite interesting and includes such things as:

The returning of Doctor Who is in fact a minority and in terms of television history many of the other discoveries are more notable, but do not carry the enthusiasm that the missing Doctor Who material has. [Andrew Henderson]

Further information can be found by looking at and going to the 'BBC Archive Holdings' article. [John Aspinall]

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