Editor’s Blog: Not Everything is Terrible

March 17, 2015 | By


There’s a bit of a furor developing among VHS fans, cultural archivists, and shot-on-video [SOV] movie buffs about a proposed program seeking funding to gather and recycle what they believe are 2.26 billion videotapes resting in Ontario households and businesses like toxic time bombs.

Let’s take a few steps back with some personal anecdotes, although feel free to read yesterday’s Metro piece for some context to my editorial.


A Brush with Recycling

Between 1989 to roughly 1999 I ran a small production / post-production company involved in conversions, duplications, and archival tapings, and one day I received a call from a company interested in gathering old tapes for recycling. I said ‘Great idea,’ because what I had were old ¾” U-matic tapes with zero cultural content, and the tapes themselves were wearing out. After voicing my interest, he started to quote shipping charges by the pound, and I said ‘Wait a minute: I pay you to pick up my free stuff so you can make money? I don’t think so.’

Those tapes were ultimately given to a local vendor who reused them for his own purposes, so they weren’t wasted. He had old U-matic machines, and the tapes stayed away from the landfill. It all worked out (and I know he throws nothing away).


A Brush with Craigslist

Now in 2007, I moved out from a disintegrating house, and it was clear the mass of VHS and Beta tapes I’d gathered since 1983 could not remain with me. We’re talking about 2000+ tapes containing a mix of material good and worthless. I did some culling, and halved the so-called collection, putting it up on Craigslist with the caption ‘preferably the entire lot.’

A few messaged interest, but one guy with a minivan took all 20 boxes and went back to Oakville where they were to be used in a school for whatever.

Was there anything unique on those tapes? Yes, but it was a space issue, and it was getting insane, dragging that quantity of tapes place to place, knowing I’d never watch them nor have the time to sift and archive unique material.

What was lost were some short-lived TV series that will never come out on video, but most were films already available on disc, so the only real sorrow were those TV series – including the entire run of Picket Fences which never went beyond a Season 1 set. In fact, a guy came into work asking about the availability of two shows that were on those donated tapes. Also in some of the boxes were high grade Beta tapes which I had to include because there was no more room to house them – not a happy decision, given I have machines capable of playing / recording, because Sony built my model like a tank.

Now before you scream, I still have 1000+ tapes, including Beta. I purposely kept the oldest and most unique because their content are a smattering of peculiar ephemera, from TV shows to shorts, cartoons, and more. Quality’s classic EP, but I’ve yet to see the content appear anywhere.

For example, PBS used air a show called Matinee at the Bijou, where they’d simulate a show at a local 1930s / 1940s neighbourhood cinema with old shorts, cartoons, and a B-movie. Most of the material was shopworn and truly ephemeral, but it’s a series that may exist now only tape in some vault which is infrequently accessed, as the generation interested in that programming has shrunk in size.

Better example: I was a huge fan of Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies and Magic Shadows – my interest, knowledge, and work in film & video owes a great debt to him – and archived are all those reruns of famous directors, writers, actors, and historians that were recut into the Talking Film series, of which only a few are archived online.

Those will never get junked, and represent what was kept after that selective cull. They also represent what TVOnatrio, like other broadcasters, probably still have in their archives and will / should never junk. I see job postings once in a while for a library archive manager – a job I’d love to have, BTW – so it’s clear some companies recognize the value of their own historic productions and would never junk that material.

Migrating to digital takes time, and even if it was all completed, knowing the unknowns of digital media – will it still be playable, the need to transfer content to backups from increasingly obsolete media – it’s not prudent to turf what’s clearly a corporate intellectual asset. They made it, so why eradicate it, let alone give it away to be recycled?

The old CityTV station retained their tape library of music videos, and the network realized what it possessed were copies of music history many labels, artists, or stations had long ago junked. Much More Music and its retro brethren exist because that content was still available. The ability to craft a documentary or overview of specific artists and genres is possible because the content still exists. They may have seen the dollar signs in having that archive, but CityTV also knew it would’ve been foolish to turf what was clearly unique.

The conundrum for many companies is that archives take up space, require some maintenance (cool dry environment), and media does go bad. Oxides flake or the tape backing turns to goo, so there’s a percentage of media that may require ‘baking’ before playback.

There’s also the players which still exist, but few of the surviving transfer house retain, largely because the demand is very low. I had U-martic machines up until late 1995, and don’t miss them. Unless they’re kept running 24 hours straight – something CityTV did – they go bad. The boards can fry from sudden heavy usage, parts wear out, the sensors that prevent mechanisms from jamming and tape-eating go bad, and at up 120 pounds of metal, you really don’t want to own one unless you’re a dub house, or a collector capable of repairing one yourself.

Remember the film Poltergeist? Shuttle to the scene where the ghostly apparition glides down the stairs, and is captured by a set of video cameras and VCRs. I had those recorders. I think a Volkswagen is only 2 pounds heavier.

Lets get back to the main thought stream, and wrap things up.


Obsolete Formats

The idea that 2.26 billion tapes exist in Ontario sounds overly generous, because it presumes a) it’s all crap; b) it’s literally in everyone’s basement.

I do the main tape transfers at one job, and I make a point of telling customers ‘Don’t throw these away,’ because if the DVD is scratched or goes bad (and they do), you still have the masters. However, the tapes are going bad, so it’s in their interest to rip and dub and transfer their family memories to other media as another tape playback might not yield better results in the coming years.

Oxide flakes, it dirties up heads, and a clean playback becomes less successful. A lot of home movies taped on camcorders have speed quirks unique to the cameras, and if recorded in the slower EP mode, a lot of VCRs will not track well; you might get a clean playback for a while, but after 10 mins. or an hour, static lines appear because the machine can’t lock onto a stable part of the recording.

That makes the success of playing back a VHS tape cleanly a little slim. My tapes still play fine, but there are ones none of my machines will lock onto properly. That means the videos families remember being clean and stable are now filled with nicks, static tracking lines on the top, bottom, or rolling in the centre.

That is how your memories now look, and unless a transfer house has several machines of several vintages, that might be as good as it gets. Tape stock is also an issue, because the $1.25 no name brand may not even play now.


Wrapping Up

I don’t record shows on tape anymore (obviously), but I retain stock because it’s actually useful in creating over-saturated images for video projects. Digital can’t handle hot levels the way tape can, and I bounce footage between digital and analogue mediums to create assorted video tracks for eccentric projects, so in my camp, this obsolete format has use in the production and post-production realm. However, I recognize I’m an anomaly.

What Project Get Reel is offering isn’t outright awful, but certainly their posturing is wrong.

It’s as though they’re inferring ‘All those tapes are toxic time bombs.’ No, they’re not.

Or ‘The content is all worthless matter.’ No, it’s not. Broadcasters would be foolish to junk their archives.

Or perhaps saying ‘It’s material that can help people with barriers with real jobs.’ Sure, but rather than posture and allege it all needs to go, work with clients and provide them with a plan, designed in coordination with real archivists, as to how to weed through what’s clearly refuse and what’s cultural history. Give them tools prior to taking recyclable materials off their hands so they’ve safeguarded their histories and potential intellectual assets before unloading crap.

And then there’s suggesting ‘Households are filled with this stuff in Ontario.’ If so, so what? People have old clothes, furniture, rusting cars, rooms filled with crap, unused pools, old radios, etc. Again: advise in your proposal how the average person should sift through their taped memories – home movies or off-air tapings – and donate those materials they know have no value.

Better still: buy some old VCRs and invite clients to skim through the tapes on site before donating, because a lot of people no longer have the machines to play their tapes, and they’ve either got precious home movies, rare TV shows, or hours of soap operas. Or blank tapes. That’s a service Get Reel can provide for a modest fee.

Two recent documentaries – Rewind This and Adjust Your Tracking – very clearly articulated the danger of film history being winnowed down to what’s available online, and the wealth of older, esoteric material that’s being ignored or taken out of distribution.

Get Reel may view SOV’s as viable recycling matter, but everyone sees value in certain programming which others dismiss as rubbish. Would Get Reel have encouraged CityTV to donate their massive music video library because its attractiveness had long passed?

Get Reel’s proposing a service with a business plan that hopefully provides empowerment to those with barriers, but they may not understand the sudden hue and cry coming from factions they never realized existed. They need to establish a dialogue with archivists and film preservationists to refine their sales pitch and mandate, and ensure what is donated isn’t turfed willy-nilly.

My suggestion: offer a sorting service in tandem with recycling. Set aside pre-recorded tapes for public sale at the location or online auctions which requires labour. And establish guidelines to flag content that may have value at the time of discussion with donor clients, during the sorting process, and follow-up calls should something unique appear.

This of course presumes a certain expertise, and a knowledge on the part of donors to actually know what they have, making it logical for donors to set up their own archive protocols when dealing with culling a collection, and reducing a bloated library to something more manageable.

Get Reel isn’t proposing something evil – they see opportunity in matter idling in homes, businesses, and landfill – but instead of shrill exchanges, parties should start a dialogue, listen, and react positively, because if there are 2.26 billion tapes out there, you want to know its cultural DNA before it’s torn down.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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