Production

Kinescope Recording – Television’s Antique Recording Medium

The Story of an Unholy Marriage of Video and Film Formats

I’ve written about restoration of television programs before. But the master copies were usually on videotape that didn’t start showing up until the late 1950’s. The forerunner to videotape, the kinescope, was not considered to be worth restoration. The resolution was poor and most “used” kinescopes had been damaged from their many runs through projection equipment in varying states of age and quality of maintenance.

Kinescopes were considered an inferior reproduction method even while they were in use thus driving the invention of videotape. They are the most antique of antiques in the history of video media. Simply put, they are photochemical films made by pointing a motion picture camera at a cathode ray television tube. I’ve described the process in detail in my articles about the birth of videotape and the birth of digital video. The thought of using kinescopes to restore a program today was incongruous at least but more like unbelievable.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Library of Congress, UCLA’s Film and Television Archive are all leaders in giving new life to our early heritage of television and motion pictures. Active television restoration generally begins after the invention of videotape.  But when it comes to preserving television’s past, a place must be made for kinescopes even though their quality falls significantly short of what was aired live.

But now, the lowly kinescope is being given a new look. The results of the restoration and preservation of movies and television shows is striking when we see what can be done with digital cleaning and repair. Computer programs continue to evolve as they aid archivists in restoring what we can salvage in the way of films and videotapes.  Amazing results have been obtained with before and after comparisons that astound viewers.

In the last few years some work has been done on a way to take many of the surviving kinescopes, scratched and blotched though they may be, and restore them to a look approximating their original video quality. Early kinescopes or kine’s (the TV jargon term for the films) have always been thought not worth saving.  Combining their reputation for being subpar with the belief in the early years that television was a commodity and worth anything after it had been broadcast, an overwhelming amount of early television recorded on kinescope was destroyed

Videotape also suffered from the “no value” syndrome, except in tape’s case, the programs were erased so the expensive tape could be reused -Program destruction took place by recording a new show over the old one.

The common belief was you can’t recover information that simply is not there.  Or can you?

There are pockets of experimenters who continue to look for ways to put back some of the quality lost when the films were made decades ago. As the technology has become more refined, ways have been uncovered to at least bring back some of the “video” look to the old kinescopes.

One of the successful researchers was Peter Finklestone in Great Britain. In the mid 2000’s, he came up with VIDFIRE (Video Field Interpolation Restoration Effect) software. It addresses the motion differences between video and film rates and video’s temporal effects from interlacing.

Simply put, the software breaks down the kine (or telerecording as it is know in Great Britain) and reintroduces interlaced frames through motion estimation, essentially doubling the frame rate. The image is then interpolated and every two frames are assembled into one interlaced frame. When projected, the resulting video file appears to be reproduced from a live camera either at the U.S. frame rate of 30 frames (60 fields) per second or the European rate of 25 frames (50 fields) per second (often referred to as the “soap opera look”) rather than a non-interlaced 24 frame per second film camera.

Before applying the software, the kine to be recovered should be cleaned thoroughly, carefully run through a telecine to produce a digital file and then and put through the standard processes that are done to restore any older film based project. This includes scratch and blemish removal as well as repairing damaged frames.

Vidfire was used with success by the BBC to restore many early episodes of the “Dr. Who” series in the mid 2000’s. A description of how the BBC restored some of the Dr. Who series along with the kinescope/telerecording process can be found in an article in the U.K. publication The Guardian.

Some enterprising folks have uploaded some classic vintage U.S. programs such as Playhouse 90. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was performed live on October 11th, 1956. It would later receive five Emmy Awards including the Emmy for program of the year. The writer was Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) who won the first Peabody Award given to an individual script. The interpolation process has been applied to the program in the presentation below.

Kine’s were invented in 1947, although there is anecdotal information Great Britain experimented with the process much earlier. An engineer working for the old DuMont Television network, Harry Carter Millholland, filed a patent claim on DuMont’s behalf for a “Device For Recording Television” on May 19, 1945. The patent was issued on January 14, 1947. This predates the September, 1947, commercial release of the trademarked Kinephoto system built by Kodak in cooperation with DuMont and NBC. More can be found on the earliest arrival of kinescopes on the Early Television Foundation’s website and on Wikipedia’s attributed kinescope webpage.

In the United States, the process was needed to accommodate the three-hour time difference between the U.S. Eastern time zone and the Pacific time zone. In addition, in the days before the telephone company had fully constructed the nationwide coaxial cable, a method was required to supply network affiliated television stations with shows emanating from New York on a delayed basis. As kinescoping programs became common, television networks shot a lot of film. By 1954, the television industry’s raw film stock consumption exceeded the output of all the Hollywood studios combined.

As I mentioned, kine’s were regarded as being technically inferior in quality, even by 1950’s black and white television standards. The contrast range was severely limited and artifacts such as sync bars would occasionally bedevil engineers.  It was what it was.  An electrical to mechanical photographic conversion.  The invention of the Image Orthicon camera pickup tube brought a quality to the live television viewing experience that allowed the audience to sit back and enjoy a program on a decent sized picture tube rather than squint at a tiny flickering image viewers had stared at only a few years before.  Kinescopes represented a step backward in quality for the television viewing experience.

An RCA Image Orthicon Television pick up tube.
An RCA Image Orthicon Television pick up tube.

The degraded images resulting from the kinescope were the driving force in research to come up with a recording medium for television programs that rivaled that of audiotape – a copy virtually indistinguishable from a live feed. The race began to invent a way to record the full quality of pictures captured by the Image Orthicon tube.

When the first Ampex VTR machine was unveiled at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1956, the crowd literally went wild, whistling, hollering and applauding. One would think because kine’s were so inferior to the live signal, they would have been quickly retired as soon as videotape took over. However, kinescopes continued to be made into the 1970’s for facilities lacking videotape equipment such as American Forces Television’s more remote stations.

During the time before the advent of videotape, producers sought ways to avoid the use of a kinescope and achieve an image equal to the technology of the new cameras. Some programs went to the expense to do their shows live twice – once for the East and Midwest and then a second one two hours later for the West. This arrangement was time consuming and expensive but, especially for the early days of color television, it was the only way to provide color programs to the west coast of the U.S. As bad as black and white kinescopes were, color kinescopes were worse.

Another way to maintain the quality of a program was to just shoot it on film in the first place. Shows shooting with multiple film cameras included the games shows “Truth or Consequences” and “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx.  One of these producers cleverly exploited the perceived lack of value of a show after it had been broadcast.  Desi Arnaz negotiated a deal with CBS to produce the “I Love Lucy” show on 35mm film at his own expense. One caveat in the contract was for ownership of the films to revert to his production company, Desilu, the company he owned with his wife, Lucille Ball, after the network broadcast obligations had been satisfied.

In the process, Arnaz is credited with making the multi-camera sitcom production technique a common practice. It is still in use today on situation comedy shows such as “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s also why even after six decades one can still find “I Love Lucy” scheduled on some station or network somewhere just as pristine as when it first aired in the early fifties.

The DuMont Television Network worked with Jackie Gleason to take a different approach for a season of Gleason’s “Honeymooners” series to be produced for CBS. The show would not be live but would still be produced using three television cameras.   In addition, each camera would be equipped with a 35mm film camera as well.

In order to record the image, a splitter was put in place so the film camera photographed the show through the same lens as the television camera. A kinescope was made of the show from the television cameras. After the film from all four cameras was processed, the kinescope was used as a “workprint” and the higher quality 35mm film from each camera was edited in traditional film style to match it. The process was called “Electronicam.” A tag at the end of each show identifies the use of the process.

electronicam-credit

The Electronicam system was destined to fail, not because the system was too large and cumbersome. It was but no more so than the early behemoths of the three strip Technicolor cameras. It failed because DuMont would be out of the network television business by the middle of 1955. Electronicam never had a chance to catch on before videotape took off.

Another quality problem kinescopes suffer from is that most of them have been used until they were worn out. Most kine’s were distributed on 16mm film as that was the most common projection format in local television stations and shipping costs were substantially lower. 35mm projection was found only in the larger markets and at network origination points. Using a distribution method referred to as “bicycling,” filmed programs (both syndicated and network programs) were shipped between stations.

It worked like this: Station A received a fresh print. When station A aired the program, it was directed to send it on to station B. When station B was finished with it, the film was sent on to Station C and so on. By the time the film was returned to the distributor or network, the films were badly scratched, spliced and dirty. If you were a viewer of Station F or G, your opinion of kine’s is probably even lower.  Funny to think that today we pay money for editing plug-ins to do the same kind of damage to a pristine digital image.

Unfortunately, entire libraries of kinescopes were relegated to landfills and river bottoms due to legal wrangling, in the interest of saving storage space or to harvest silver from the photographic process. In those early days, there was no thought given to their place in history because television at that time had no history.

It is because of this very few examples of early television still exist. But even with the incidents of mass destruction a small percentage of kinescopes have managed to survive. Some were taken home by members of production and engineering crews or television station personnel and put away in attics and basements or stored in vaults by stars, directors or producers. Many have actually been rescued from dumpsters and trash bins.  It is among those distributed station reels that many of the treasures of early television have been found.

One example of such a ‘find’ was the seventh and final game of the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. By 1960, videotape was in common use by the networks. But not one of them either made or kept a copy of the game. It was considered lost forever until 2010. Recording, film and television star Bing Crosby was part owner of the Pirates baseball team at the time. He was superstitious and believed he might jinx the team if he was at the game in person so he and his wife went to Paris. Crosby also operated a film and television production company so in order to watch the game after he returned home, he had the game kinescoped.

In December of 2009, Robert Bader, vice president for marketing and production for Bing Crosby Enterprises, was going through Crosby’s personal tapes and films for a DVD release of Crosby’s work. The star had stored those materials in his wine cellar in perfect storage conditions. Bader found five 16mm reels of film containing the NBC coverage of the thrilling seventh and final World Series game and first Pirate world championship since 1925.

Today, discoveries like this are very few and far between. Hopefully, as our technologies continue to improve there will be a new appreciation for and awareness of kinescopes. This could lead to more discoveries.  There are still more out there – somewhere.  More visibility could be the spark that causes more of our cultural heritage to surface and be rescued from the indignity of the trash heap.


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Richard Wirth had barely learned to read when his parents brought the glowing box into the living room. By the time he finished elementary school he had read all the books about television in his…

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