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Peter Croft reports on the end of the videotape era.

Posted by ken On September - 3 - 2009

Peter documents the demise of the Ampex ACR25s and how high maintenance and new technology made them obsolete.

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Peter Croft with an Ampex ACR25

We debated long and hard what to do as it broke our hearts to scrap these great machines, but they were so big and heavy (they weighed literally one tonne) that we just couldn’t find any reason to keep them. You’ll notice that we were wearing black armbands in one of the shots. These were partly a joke, but we were genuinely fond of these machines as techs.

It’s not as if they’d been kept, they could just be switched on and operated. They required a compressed air supply, a 30A mains feed (very heavy initial current draw on power on) and to be fed with sync pulses. Not to mention a floor capable of supporting 1 tonne.

We thought about keeping various bits. They were full of big motors and power supplies and so on, but every time I thought of grabbing something, I thought “What am I going to do with it??? Don’t be silly!”

So in the end, unfortunately, we got a scrap metal dealer in to make us an offer to take them away for scrap.

They were amazing machines and a masterpiece of electronic and electromechanical design. The Ampex company was something special. I was lucky enough to visit their premises in Redwood City, California in 1988 and got a very brief look at a machine being documented after manufacture. The handbooks alone occupied 4 large ring files of block diagrams, plus two monstrous ring files of the actual circuitry, plus about a dozen books describing the circuitry and operation. The great thing was that the circuits were accurate! This is not always the case with complex electronic gear, but with Ampex, you could rely on the wiring diagrams.

A major part of the manuals was “the interconnect”. This was a set of scores of fold out pages showing how all the parts of the machine were connected through all the hundreds of connectors and rear module connections. Once you learnt how to read these you could trace a signal or wire from source to destination through a mass of intermediate stages. The amazing thing is, I don’t remember ever finding an error in these diagrams.

We got our machines in late 1974 and boy, were they a steep learning curve! Most electronic equipment in those days was inherently unreliable and a fault a day was not uncommon on these machines. The theory was that a lot of the faults would occur early in the life of the machines (the first 3 – 4 years) and decline as they bedded in, then slowly rise as they got “old”. In those days, equipment was considered to have a useful life of about 10 years. (In the seventies, any new VTRs were accompanied by a manufacturer’s engineer who helped install the machine, then spent up to a week fixing the faults that were found on switch-on.)

But these ACR25s were so important to the station’s revenue that they had to be kept going, no matter what.

Complicating the scene was that (a) the first digital formats were coming out; (b) Sony was becoming a force in broadcast equipment, offering superb build quality and unheard of reliability (basically, fault free!); (c) Ampex and Sony’s digital formats were incompatible; and (d) TVW7 lost its autonomy in equipment choices after we joined the Seven Network, with control coming from Sydney.

The result was that choice of a digital replacement commercial cartridge storage system was long delayed, way beyond the design life of the ACR25s. In fact they had to be kept going until about 1996, a service life of 22 years!

The Ampex company had been steamrollered by Sony and Panasonic and had decided to concentrate on digital data tape storage for computer use. They still made a digital VTR, and a digital cart machine that STW9 bought, but the Seven Network dithered for years after Ampex dropped support for the ACR25s.

We, in fact, bought a whole range of assemblies for the ACR from scrapped machines in other states (ie from stations that had made their digital choices and moved on.) These were complete power supplies, mechanical assemblies, motors, headwheels and so on. They were quite cheep and a good bargain.

However, in the last few years, we were forced to remake a few of the printed circuit boards etc to keep the machines alive. They also no longer went direct to air. All the commercials still came from the ACR25s, but went to digital cassettes as whole breaks, so that any faults could be fixed without loss of revenue. It was extremely labour intensive and wasteful, but the transition to a new cart system took a long time.

The new cart system was the Panasonic MARC machine, which contained five D5 digital cassette decks. Each station in the Seven Network got one, at a cost of a bit over $1 million each. These were very good, but videotape was rapidly overtaken by digital recording to hard disks and they were only used for about seven years! They were replaced by Tektronix boxes filled with standard hard disk drives, offering almost no moving parts operation. So ended videotape. The end of an era.

2 Responses to “Peter Croft reports on the end of the videotape era.”

  1. John Carusi says:

    Hello, I’ve found the WA TV History site very fascinating, as with the exhibition staged in Fremantle late last year.

    One question I forgot to ask, and I hope someone here might help me answer it: now with the 2″ Ampex machines removed from the likes of TVW7, how do they access archival analogue colour or monochrome footage? Did they (that includes the other channels here) do a batch copy of those obsolescent formats onto another more current format, either in their entirety or by keeping highlights and wiping the rest? Or do they maintain all the archives in their original formats (2″, 1″, BetaSP, etc) and send the tapes to an outside copying service and digitise selections on demand? And is it a similar story with telecine items on 16mm film?

    I’m curious how they would do this if they have no 2″ machines ready at their disposal whenever they do highlights featuring archival footage, say when background is needed or if someone’s died, that are required at short order.

    Many Thanks—again, marvellous work here folks!
    John Carusi

    P.S. When watching the TVW7 50th Anniversary Special, when they were discussing the changeover to colour in 1975, they featured just a mono photo of Charles Court turning on the colour at midnight (I’ve seen a colour photo of the same event, different vantage point), but was that event either live to air but not recorded, or filed under “missing…believed wiped”? Aunty would not have let that happen to Aunty Jack’s brilliant take on that and TVW’s then-sister station, SAS10, recorded their switch-on and features their own then-premier, Don Dunstan, flicking a switch on a control board.

  2. John Slater says:

    Hi Peter loved your petapixel post, we had the good ole days!

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