Guest Commentary: Videotape’s Durability Carries a Hidden Cost

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In television’s early decades, pictures were either live or on film. Live TV took a lot of arranging. To show pictures from anywhere outside established studios involved hours of effort and tons of equipment. That was OK for organized sports, where game times are known far in advance, but live news tended to be all but restricted to scheduled events, such as political conventions or, in those early days, meetings of the United Nations Security Council.
Otherwise, there was film. Many of the early hit entertainment shows, such as “I Love Lucy,” were filmed, so they could not only play on announced network dates but also be resold to stations for additional use and income. News pictures also were on film, which meant the film-once exposed to the plane crash or flood-had to be carried to a processing laboratory, developed and then viewed and edited down to a manageable report.
In those primitive days the only concession to speed was the capacity of television machinery to project a (black-and-white) negative, and, with the turn of a knob, show a positive picture. This horrified film professionals. To them, a negative is holy, and running it through a projector where it might be irretrievably scratched or torn was sacrilege.
So a picture of even the most dramatic news event tended to be shown only a few times. Even protecting the negative by making a print of it took time, effort, money and careful attention. Today’s unlimited reproduction of a picture was unheard of then. Even a print would suffer damage after several uses and have to be replaced by another print, using up more time, money and all the rest.
Along came tape. From the beginning, the radio news professionals who inherited the infant television had longed for the ability to record and store images the way audiotape did with sound. When it finally came, in the late 1950s, it was a revolution-but a revolution that took its time reaching fruition. That fruition is what we live with today.
Tourists tramping the Louvre and fathers presiding over bar mitzvahs have TV cameras that record and play back, in full sound and color, sights and events beyond the imaginings of those pioneers for whom an outdoor picture involved dispatching a truck the size of a moving van. The pictures, being electronic, can be played over and over without damaging a tape. And they can be all but infinitely reproduced without the degradation of picture quality characterizing each generation of film.
If it can be done, it will be done. When Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie, seeking the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, seemed to be shedding tears as he stood in front of the New Hampshire newspaper that had insulted his wife, the film was shown on the network newscasts that evening, the photograph in newspapers the next morning.
When Dr. Howard Dean, finishing a disappointing third in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, tried the unfamiliar role of cheerleader for hundreds of disappointed young volunteers in his campaign, the tape was played several dozen times that day and continually for days afterward. No nighttime news satirist has failed to use it as grist for his mill; no pundit has missed showing it to relieve the TV tube of his uninteresting face while he drones on. (At least one reporter who was actually in that hall at the time reported Dean’s rallying cry did not, if you were there in the room, seem “over the top” the way it does inside the limited dimensions of the TV rectangle and the yell was quite in line with the feelings of his young audience. But the tape will probably haunt him as long as he lives.)
Next, Janet Jackson’s bosom gets the same “exposure” as Howard Dean’s scream.
Likewise, say “al-Qaida” and you are shown that one picture of a bunch of guys in Arab dress doing the monkey bars; say “Osama bin Laden” and, behold!-the tall guy with the big walking stick strolls the mountains with the short, pudgy one.
The destruction of the World Trade Center was replayed on tape thousands of times. The horror, fear and disgust at seeing the event in real time seems to have been replaced by some sort of macho revenge talk among Americans not directly affected by the attacks. If you watched the original live pictures unfolding that dreadful September morning, when you see those pictures repeated, again, again and again, is your reaction the same? The impact has been cheapened, the personal reaction coarsened in ways that might not be true from simply remembering.
In the early 1980s a passenger plane crashed while approaching a Midwestern airport. The fortuitous presence of a TV camera showed the plane making a cartwheel, over and over, as it crashed. The inquiry into that crash took months, and each report on it, on each network and station reporting, used that same spectacular cartwheeling picture. Seeing the stunning choreography of the cartwheel for the fourth or 11th time, one could forget the people dying inside.
Videotape is a technological marvel. But the Law of Unintended Consequences never sleeps.
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.