How I Found the Oldest Videotape
A veteran editor discovered CBS VideoTape # 1 — the oldest entertainment videotape in existence — when looking for a recording of the legendary Edsel Show.
Editor's Note: Kris Trexler is a two-time Emmy award winning video/film editor who has worked on shows like "In Living Color" (Fox), "Ellen" (ABC), and "Titus" (Fox). You can find this story and more like it on his blog, King of the Road.
The invention of videotape revolutionized television broadcasting in the 1950s. Suddenly, programs that were broadcast live in the East could be recorded quickly and efficiently for rebroadcast three hours later on the West Coast. And because videotape could be erased and reused, the cost of producing those broadcasts was reduced greatly.
But this last advantage also meant that few broadcasts were preserved for posterity. Many recordings were simply taped over because the cost of videotape was still considerable, and few companies were in the habit of recording programs to begin with. So today, only a small smattering of broadcasts still exist from the dawn of the videotape era.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the oldest surviving videotape in existence, a 1957 recording of the Edsel Show.
Imagine my surprise when I found the oldest surviving videotape, a 1957 recording of the Edsel Show. Broadcast live on October 13 from CBS Television City, the hour-long special was intended to promote Ford Motor Company's new Edsel cars, with help from stars like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Rosemary Clooney.
I've been a fan of the 1958 Edsel since it was introduced a year earlier. Being an avid car nut throughout my childhood, I had been well aware of the impeding arrival of the "Newest Thing On Wheels." Almost no one living in the United States during the late 1950's could have missed the Edsel; Ford created unprecedented anticipation for the new car using every imaginable resource to whet the appetite of the motoring public. Everyone knew that "E-Day" was coming on September 4, 1957.
But in 1959 the Edsel died, and my passion for cars eventually became dormant for many years. After college I began a career as a film and video editor, then moved to California in 1971. In 1980 I spotted a 1958 Edsel coupe in Los Angeles. This was my first Edsel sighting in years, and my interest was instantly rekindled. Several months later I convinced the owner of that pink 1958 Edsel Citation coupe to sell his car to me, and I quickly became immersed in a new hobby of collecting vintage automobiles.
Coincidentally, my career and hobby merged a year later, when I was hired to edit a television special about classic TV commercials. Among the archives of old films and videotapes that were located for the show were five 1958 Edsel commercials that had been presented on the popular 1950's NBC program, "Wagon Train." Edsel was one of the sponsors of that show during the 1957-58 season. It was a miraculous discovery for me, as I was deeply involved in the restoration of my 1958 Edsel convertible at the time.
Yet another lucky event happened when CBS News did a story about the old Edsel debacle for their "CBS Evening News" program that same year. I was asked to be interviewed for the story. The producer of the segment had located numerous old Ford promotional films to accent the show, and I asked him to loan me the tapes to make copies. Among the tapes was an extremely poor kinescope copy of "The Edsel Show," which I vaguely remembered watching live as a 7 year old boy back in 1957.
That copy of "The Edsel Show" was one of the poorest quality kinescopes I have ever seen. The image was fuzzy, with bad audio fidelity and countless film scratches and splices. It was nice to see the Edsel extravaganza again, but disappointing that the musical numbers and the precious Edsel commercials were in such a sad state.
Years later, in September of 1987, I was reading a story in a broadcast trade publication about the history of videotape. The timeline in the story indicated that CBS had acquired their first-generation Ampex videotape recorders in 1957 for use at the nearly new Television City complex in Hollywood. The recorders were destined to replace the inferior kinescope process, and one of the immediate uses would be to "tape delay" network programs for re-broadcast in the Pacific Time Zone. The story stated that the first use of videotape was for the CBS Evening News broadcast anchored by Douglas Edwards. But the first use for an entertainment program at Television City was around October 1957.
My imagination went to work overtime. I wondered if "The Edsel Show" had possibly been recorded on videotape in addition to the lousy kinescope I had acquired in 1981? I contacted the videotape archive departments at CBS, both in Hollywood and New York. No luck, both sources stated. "The Edsel Show" only existed as a kinescope -- no videotape was recorded or saved, so I was told.
Miraculously, "CBS VideoTape # 1 - The Edsel Show" survived as a souvenir of the momentous occasion when CBS ushered in the era of videotape.
Unconvinced, I placed a last-ditch call to the videotape engineering department at CBS Television City. I inquired if there was anyone still working there that had been with the tape department from the beginning. I was soon speaking to a gentlemen on the verge of retirement who remembered "The Edsel Show" well. In fact, he had the videotape of the show on his desk!
I was in a state of shock. He told me that back in the old days it became common practice at CBS to take advantage of the "miracle" of videotape: the ability to erase and re-use the tape stock over and over. But he had personally preserved "The Edsel Show" because it was the first entertainment videotape program recorded at CBS Television City. "The Edsel Show" originated at TV City for a "live" broadcast to the East Coast, but was "tape delayed" for re-broadcast three hours later in the Pacific Time Zone. A "backup" kinescope had been recorded and was played backed simultaneously with the videotape in the event that the new technology failed.
Of course, the tape did not fail, but only the kinescope went into the CBS archive after the broadcast. A few prints were made and distributed to Ford Motor Company and the stars of the show. Miraculously, "CBS VideoTape # 1 - The Edsel Show" survived as a souvenir of the momentous occasion when CBS ushered in the era of videotape.
I had established my credibility as a responsible editor and technician at a Hollywood facility that supplied programming to CBS, and I was given permission in October of 1987 to borrow the master 2" format Video Tape in order to duplicate it. The old cardboard package containing the tape had not been opened since 1957.
Fortunately, the tape was enclosed in a plastic bag inside the box and the ideal storage environment at CBS preserved the tape in excellent condition. Two-inch format videotape was fast becoming obsolete by 1987, so I made the duplicate recording onto 1" format tape which was the new standard at the time (I have since copied the program again to BetaCam digital format).
As the VTR's were making the copy, I watched the show on a professional monitor with a studio sound system, and was absolutely amazed at the quality. A far cry from the poor old kinescope that was thought to be the only surviving copy of "The Edsel Show." The original videotape's whereabouts are currently unknown, but its historical value has now been established and it is surely being well cared for.