Technology obsolescence or degradation, what's the biggest risk to videotape collections?

by Adam Hodgkinson

AV media is not getting any younger, and one of the big questions we commonly get asked is “what do I need to worry about the most - technology obsolescence or failing media?

The life of magnetic recording media (videotape and audio tape) is finite and, while somewhat more robust, motion picture film too will eventually fail. As each year passes, deteriorating media condition becomes a greater and greater concern. For many organisations that we talk to, they feel some comfort in knowing that if media is stored in a controlled environment degradation issues such as the chemical decomposition of the acetate film or failing binding agents used in magnetic recording media will be slowed down and that the life of the physical carrier can be prolonged, even if it is only for a few years.

Degradation is a serious issue, however, we believe that potentially the greater threat to any collection is technology obsolescence. Recorded media is totally reliant on dedicated, proprietary technology platforms to enable replay of the content.

Manufacturers have over time made a conscientious effort to support discontinued formats by maintaining a supply of parts and equipment to ensure access to obsolete tape formats. Sony for example maintains a supply of spare parts for a minimum of 7 years after equipment production has halted. However, at a time when the technology paradigm is shifting at an unprecedented rate, manufacturers' appetites for supporting legacy media technology is in fast decline. Professional video playback decks that were in full production as recently as the mid 2000’s have ceased such as Panasonic’s DVCPro 25 and 50 decks, which are no longer available as of earlier this year. Another example comes from Sony with their recent announcement that it will no longer be building video tape recorders, with all support set to cease in the near future.

The end of dedicated VTR manufacturing means that once commodity items have become a scarcity. Vital spare equipment such as heads and transports units must now be sourced from specialist providers and this will see a rapid increase in the cost of remaining spare parts. For example, we have seen the cost of a complete video head replacement for Digital Betacam increase by 63% in fewer than 10 years. Many of these decks are now approaching 15-20 years old, so the maintenance costs are increasing considerably. Now that Sony no longer supports Betacam, there is no way to estimate the price increases that will be incurred to maintain a Digital Betacam deck in top working order over the next 5 years. And this example is for relatively contemporary hardware, so the challenges facing older formats like 2-inch video are immense.

Beyond just parts, the skills required to maintain the equipment are fast disappearing and it can be said that they are already in short supply. And the skills needed to operate and get results that meet best practice standards are progressively becoming harder to come by. This loss of technology and knowledge has come at a faster rate than expected and the implication for collection owners and custodians is that undertaking digitisation projects will see a steady increase in cost as scarce resources continue to decline. 

So, while degradation remains a significant ongoing concern, much closer attention must be paid to the rapid decline in the availability of professional playback equipment. Maintaining media in great condition is extremely beneficial, however, this maybe a futile exercise if you cannot play it back and the cost to digitise becomes so prohibitive that only the most significant pieces of a collection can be digitised.