The preservation of broadcast history is extremely challenging. It requires stations to dedicate special staffing and resources to save historic materials (including audiovisual recordings of past broadcasts) and maintain them in a safe, climate-controlled environment. This becomes an even larger task as formats change, and the content of old AV materials requires migration to current formats to remain accessible. In fact, most TV stations do not have the means of or interest in preserving their histories.
Fortunately, Maryland Public Television is an exception. In addition to producing outstanding, innovative programming for 50 years, it has been a meticulous archivist. In March 1990, MPT struck a deal with the University of Maryland Libraries and began donating both print and AV materials to the newly established National Public Broadcasting Archives. In 2013, MPT was one of the first stations to participate in the CPB-funded American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), a nationwide initiative launched by the Library of Congress and Boston’s WGBH “to preserve and make accessible significant historical content created by public media.” Today, UMD Libraries coordinates with both MPT and the AAPB to ensure that the station’s fascinating, colorful history remains accessible to viewers and researchers worldwide.
In order to maintain ongoing support for the collection, UMD Libraries and MPT are proud to honor the station’s 50th anniversary by launching The Maryland Public Television Preservation Fund.
Digitizing legacy videotapes
Umatic videotape was a heavily used professional format in the television broadcast industry from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. It was the first video format to be contained inside a cassette instead of open-reel. Like all audiovisual formats, Umatic tapes had their strengths and weaknesses. Portability and instant playback made production and editing easier, but long-term issues such as signal loss and binder deterioration, as well as the growing obsolescence of playback machines, render them high risk for content loss. While MPT’s program archive includes other formats such as Betacam cassettes, 16mm film, 1” video reels and VHS tapes, the bulk of the collection held at Maryland is on Umatic tape.
In order for their content to be accessible, all tapes must be converted into a format that can be viewed on present-day machines. To accomplish this, UMD Libraries sends batches of tapes to George Blood Audio/Video/Film/Data in Philadelphia. Mr. Blood describes the digitization process:
“Before playback, Umatic tapes are first treated to reverse the effects of the passage of time—parts of the shell may be broken, the leader often needs to be re-spliced to the tape, or the tape may be sticky and shedding. Therefore, both the tape and the machine must first be thoroughly cleaned. During playback, the technical quality of the video is adjusted using a waveform monitor and vector scope, just as it would have been originally. Inside the machine,a time base corrector compensates for the mechanical differences between the machine that recorded the tape, and the machine playing it back. The video and audio signals from the playback machine are then sent to an analog-to-digital converter. The serial digital interface from the converter is sent onto a computer where the video is encoded at the highest possible quality as a 10-bit uncompressed signal that is 100GB per hour.”