Obsolete videotapes in Europe: a survey to map means & training needs
During the last decade, great efforts have already been made in Western Europe to foster and ensure the digitisation of obsolete video formats. The Presto series of research projects, funded by the dedicated former framework programmes of the European Commission, (Presto, PrestoSpace, PrestoPrime, Presto4U) have had the objectives of developing tools and methods for the digitisation of audiovisual archives, notably through the creation of a community of European professionals, the sharing of best practices and solutions. Several studies have been conducted with the aim of located endangered video formats, notably in Europe, and in all types of institutions (TV broadcasters, universities, cultural institutions, private collections, etc.) such as the recent UNESCO / IASA Magnetic Tape Alert Project, or the former Tracking the reel world survey published as part of the TAPE (Training for Audiovisual Preservation in Europe) project funded by the EU.
The FIAT/IFTA annual survey, Where are you on the Timeline?, launched in 2012 demonstrates the results of all this work. Many audiovisual archives, in particular those of public radio and television groups in Western Europe, implemented broad digitisation plans; which are, today, well advanced. This is the case in many countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Italy, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc. However, the results remain unequal. Certain countries, certain regions remain without plans to safeguard their obsolete video formats.
If previous initiatives have demonstrated or can be used as examples in favour of the implementation of broad and inclusive digitisation plans, including all type of video formats - as this approach ensures the quality and efficiency of the digitisation -, the remaining disparities encourage us to complete it with another approach. Indeed, in the short term, such large-scale and inclusive projects can only be implemented by institutions with important financial means. In addition, digitisation cost - especially for the older video formats, which are now obsolete, such as Quad videotapes - are increasing very sharply. Thus, we must consider a new approach adequate to institutions with lower means: to focus, as a priority, on the most threatened video formats. Doing so, these priority actions could have a triggering and catalysing effect. They would be a proof of concept, making possible to demonstrate the importance and the possibility of broader and ambitious digitisation plans; and thus, convince political decision-makers and head-managers of audiovisual archives, to invest for the safeguarding of the whole audiovisual heritage.
That is the reason why, in February 2020, the French National Audiovisual Institute (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel – INA), in partnership with the European Broadcasted Union (EBU) and the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT/IFTA), opened a survey about obsolete video formats digitisation, with a focus on Quadruplex (hereinafter referred to as “Quad”) videotapes.
This present study analyses the answers of this survey. It will enable to identify who in the community of European professionals' stakeholders in the field of audiovisual archives, need help and training to tackle the digitisation of their Quadruplex videotapes and/or other video collections. Thus, it draws perspectives to foster the preservation of not yet digitised video collections in Europe, with, the design and organisation of an adapted training programme. Based on this gathered information, this programme will be adapted to the needs and requirements highlighted by the survey. It would be made of several training sessions, each one focused on a specific video format. The first one will be dedicated to Quadruplex videotapes.
36 institutions from 25 European countries responded to the survey. Among these 36 respondents, the most represented types of institutions are public and private broadcasters (25 respondents) and Archives institutions (5 respondents).
These figures may be explained at least by two reasons:
- The cost of the Quad videotapes’ technology has restricted its use almost exclusively to broadcasters. As a result, most of the tapes have remained in their collections or related archives.
- The dissemination channels of the questionnaire, via EBU and FIAT/IFTA to their members; respectively, European broadcasters and audiovisual archive institutions
Furthermore, although a large part of European countries sent their answer to the survey, some remain missing. In addition, it should be noted that only one or two institutions per country responded. This figure may seem low but logical, since it comes from the period in which the Quad videotapes were used, when each European country usually had a unique broadcaster, mostly public.
Otherwise, by comparing some of the obtained answers with other reliable sources of information, it appears that some respondents actually owning Quad videotapes have not considered in their answer their non-digitised Quad videotapes collections.
Therefore, this study does not aim at an exhaustive and definitive representation of the reality of the obsolete video collections digitisation in Europe; but to give an overview and a better understanding, by representing the responses received to this survey.
As a first step, in order to focus on Quad videotapes, the parts two to four of this report will exclusively deal with the answers from respondents declaring to hold Quad collections.
2. QUAD VIDEOTAPES
Among all the analogue video tape formats, Quad VTRs are unique with very specific characteristics:
- Manufactured from the mid 50’s to the 70’s and used until the 80’s, it is the oldest analogue video format, recorded on heavy open reel tapes.
- AMPEX and RCA were the main manufacturers with several generations of machines and different technologies.
- VTRs are bulky and noisy and require air pressure and vacuum for video head assembly.
- The constant monitoring of a skilled operator is necessary to optimise the restitution of image and sound.
We note that 35% of respondents have an incomplete knowledge of their Quad videotapes collection answering "I don’t know" to one question or more and ignore at least one of the following information:
- The number of archived tapes,
- The duration of programmes that it represents,
- The quantity of Quad videotapes copied onto cassettes,
- The quantity of files digitised from Quad videotapes.
However, fairly clear trends appear. 80% of respondents have inventories which allow them to identify their collections’ content. In addition, two-thirds of respondents even know the brand of magnetic tapes used. This information and the machine’s brand used for recording can be both useful in the context of a digitisation plan.
On the other hand, the tapes state of preservation is poorly known (40%). Therefore, it is not possible to know whether the tapes are sticky or affected by mould.
Quad videotapes have been obsolete for decades and so may have been already transferred to other technologies for a long time.
However, the safeguarding of these videotapes remains a concern for 80% of the respondents to this survey. Among them, some are already engaged in the digitisation of their Quad videotapes collection, but for most of them, this digitisation remains a plan for the future.
Several situations exist:
- The majority of responding institutions is willing to digitise their own collections for the first time,
- Some had finished but have acquired new carriers which also need to be digitised,
- Other institutions may want to redo the digitisation of certain materials to improve the quality of the available digitised collections.
Among the respondents who have already saved Quad videotapes in the past, almost 3 out of 4 have transferred their collections to videocassettes (notably Digital Betacam) and/or later transferred these videotapes to hard disks or magnetic data tapes.
Not surprisingly, the respondents who conducted this work more recently did not need to go through an intermediate magnetic video medium. Very few respondents (7%) consider that their Quad videotapes collections are perfectly and fully digitised and that there will no longer be any need to return to original materials.
Two approaches of the digitisation process
The digitisation of Quad videotapes requires know-how, machines and spare parts which have become very rare and, consequently, quite expensive.
A large-scale approach could have been considered years ago when the equipment was easily accessible. As this is far less the case today, this option becomes ever less realistic.
Some institutions prefer a selective approach and declare they have given up on fully transferring their entire stock choosing to digitise only what is strictly necessary, at a certain time, and thus saving resources.
It is therefore necessary to study the state of the human and material resources necessary for this digitisation.
3. TECHNICAL RESOURCES AND SKILLS
Operational Quad VTRs have become very rare
The survey answers reveal the existence of about 20 machines in working condition within respondents’ facilities. If we consider the private and public structures which did not answer the survey, this number could be higher. Nevertheless, it does not change that Quad VTRs are amongst the most obsolete kinds of video playback equipment.
Among the institutions that declared having Quad videotapes:
- 33% no longer have any possibility to playback their tapes,
- 53% no longer have the possibility of cleaning the tapes before digitising them,
- 53% no longer have any spare parts for the maintenance of video players.
On a purely material level, only three institutions, located in the Balkans, declare having all the required technical equipment to digitise the tapes (cleaning machine, VTR and spare parts for maintenance):
- Radiotelevizija Bosne I Hercegovine (BHRT) - Bosnia Herzegovina
- Radio Televizija Crne Gore (RTCG) - Montenegro.
- Radio-televizija Srbije (RTS) – Serbia
Quad operating skills
The operation of Quad VTRs requires specific skills which have gradually been lost as this technology has become obsolete. 50% of respondents have a maximum of 1 operator trained in the playback of Quad videotapes.
Only three institutions report having more than two people capable of operating a Quad VTR:
- Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA) - France
- Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) - Kosovo
- Radio-televizija Srbije (RTS) - Serbia
Quad maintenance skills
As explained in Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: the Gathering Storm (Mike Casey, IASA journal 44, January 2015), "Machines, parts, and playback expertise for 2” Quad video have become very scarce". The maintenance of Quad VTRs requires even rarer profiles than the operation activity and requires knowledge of electronics that have gradually disappeared in favour of computer skills.
For this reason, almost 30% of respondents today declare that they have video players and trained operators but no longer the necessary skills to keep the video players in working condition or to repair them in the event of a failure.
When this expertise is internally lacking, 20% of respondents call upon external know-how, from private providers, specialists in obsolete video technologies. Considering the age of this technology, the knowledge issue is expected to quickly increase in the years to come.
The cross-analysis of the material resources and human skills available makes possible the mapping of material and training needs but also to imagine several types of European collaborations.
4. TRAINING NEEDS AND EXPECTATIONS
4.1 A Quad videotapes operating workshop
These figures above highlight a very clear need, throughout Europe and particularly around the Balkans region, to train technicians in the transfer of Quad videotapes through a practical workshop.
Significant training needs
87% of respondents holding Quad videotapes would like to train at least 2 technicians. This choice can be explained by the scarcity of such workshops and by the desire to duplicate internal skills in order to secure this activity in their institution.
One also notes that even among institutions claiming to already have staff capable of using a Quad VTR, 25% still would like some of their members to participate in the workshop, even if their Quad videotapes digitisation plan is already underway or even completed. This might be explained by the will of the institutions to ensure that:
- Their technicians can improve their knowledge and compare their practice with the methodology taught,
- Their new technicians are trained before the disappearance of this rare knowledge in the event new collections of Quad tapes are acquired or found, or simply to retain the capacity to make new transfers of assets whose initial digitisation was proven not good enough.
13% of respondents do not foreseen to train their staff: either because their digitisation plan is already finished and validated or because their staff is already trained.
The objectives of a workshop
Based on the respondents’ training expectations, a workshop could be organised to help the participants to:
- Benefit from the experience of the trainers about the maintenance of Quad VTRs,
- Improve their technical skills by practicing under the supervision of other experts,
- Share best practices, advice and experiences related to the cleaning and digitisation of Quad videotapes,
- Transmit knowledge from seniors to juniors,
- Know about the appropriate reaction when problems occur during the digitisation (head-clogging, machine failures, etc.),
- Learn how to set up an oven to make the baking technique more efficient.
To guarantee sufficient handling times for each participant and given the number of potential trainees (up to 35), several sessions of the same workshop could be organised.
4.2 A strategic seminar
In addition to a practical workshop for technicians, training needs also concern executives, managers and decision-makers who must know the technical and strategic issues in order to be able to make informed decisions and define action plans.
73% of organisations responding to the survey would like to participate in a seminar to discuss with their European counterparts more strategic questions such as:
- Is there still time to save their Quad videotapes?
- How to find funding for the safeguarding of this heritage?
- Should your digitisation plan be outsourced or is it possible to carry it out internally?
- Is the digitisation of Quad videotapes on demand a relevant approach?
- Is it utopian to want to pool technical resources on a European scale?
- Should the spare parts be rationed for a more selective approach to digitisation?
- Does it make sense to try to fight obsolescence, and to investigate the options of custom production of spare parts, for example. via 3D printing?
- Would it be relevant to create a European network of Quad videotape holders?
- How to interest the young generation of technicians in a technology older than 60 years?
- Is it still useful to keep your Quad tapes once digitised?
This type of seminar could promote the sharing of experiences and the emergence of new solutions through collaborative work. Exchanging with peers can help to clarify the roadmap of one's own institution and to situate oneself in relation to other stakeholders in the European audiovisual heritage sector.
Some ideas could be discussed such as:
- The creation of a European network for Quad videotape holders,
- The pooling of technical resources,
- Skills transfer and knowledge sharing in Europe,
An action plan for the safeguarding of Quad videotape collections in Europe.
Quad videotapes have been known as endangered for years, but the gradual disappearance of players and associated know-how also concern other supports owned by the respondents to the survey.
In addition to the Quad tapes, they also mentioned 33 formats among which some should be considered with the same attention. This is especially the case for 1-inch B and C tapes and for U-Matic and other 3/4" supports. Their digitisation remains an issue respectively for 45% and 40% of the respondents.
Although the Betacam family cassettes (Betacam SP or Digital Betacam) appeared later, it should also become a concern because of its strong prevalence in the respondents’ collections (preserved but non- fully digitised by almost 2 out of 3 respondents).
Beyond the foreseen workshop and seminar for Quad videotapes, 80% of respondents declare being interested also in participating to training sessions dedicated to the digitisation of these other formats.
The received answers to the questionnaire and their analysis confirmed that the question of the digitisation of Quad videotapes is far from being resolved and remains a concern for many audiovisual and archives organisations in Europe, whatever their technical and human resources and the size of their stocks.
The study shows the need of technical support for the digitisation of obsolete video formats – Quadruplex videotapes and others - in Europe. It highlighted the will from some institutions to enhance and strengthen their skills to this aim.
However, some institutions indicated a higher level of progress in the digitisation process of their collections as well as in their technical autonomy.
In order to reduce these disparities and ensure a more homogeneous preservation of the European audiovisual heritage, two initiatives could be considered:
- The implementation of specific training workshops, addressed to all European professionals who may need to acquire or reinforce their skills,
- The search and design of new European cooperation between institutions showing technical resources – in terms of equipment and knowledge - and those expressing the need for it.
These two initiatives, could, on the one hand, attenuate the disparities between European countries thanks to institutional cooperation, but also between European professionals themselves with small-scale training workshops. Of course, the urgency of dealing with Quad videotapes should not overshadow the other formats in a similar situation, especially 1-inch B or U-matic. This way, this study reinforced INA's will to design and organise, with EBU and FIAT/IFTA, training workshops dedicated to the digitisation of obsolete video collections; and consider the planification of seminars aiming at strategic reflection around possible further solutions and European cooperation.
The survey remains open, feel free to answer it
Photographic credit : an ORTF operator in 1964 - INA
For their contribution and support, thank you to EBU, FIAT/IFTA, Brecht Declercq, Etienne Marchand, Jean Varra