One of the key components of my job is the preservation of the assets of the Coca-Cola Archives. With all of the artwork, photographs and artifacts in our holdings, it may surprise you to learn that one of the most difficult media formats to preserve is videotape. We have more than 10,000 tapes in our collection, with content as varied as television commercials, news reports, sales meetings, executive interviews and Olympic Games Torch Run footage. All of this footage tells an important part of our heritage story.

Video tapes are so difficult to preserve because of the way they were created. Explained simply, magnetized iron oxide is applied to a thin plastic strip spooled on two cores. Everything about the makeup of the tape can, and often does, go bad. The plastic sheet can stretch. The iron oxide can moisten (causing an issue called “sticky shed”) or even lose its magnetism causing a loss of image. If you've ever tried to play an old VHS tape, I'm sure you have seen some of the symptoms of aging tape.

While Jamal Booker wrote about how Analog tops Digital when it comes to music LPs, in the case of video tape, it is the opposite. The analog format itself is the issue, and migration the only answer.

In the digital age, everyone assumes we can just digitize our collection. That's the outcome we are looking for, but the road to success with video tape is more challenging due to the variety of formats. VHS, Quad, D1, D2, ¾ in Umatic... the list is nearly endless. And even more importantly, you have to have a playback device that syncs with the tape. You can't play a VHS tape in a Beta machine, and so on. In some cases, the tapes are so old that the playback machines themselves are museum-worthy. Quad (or two-inch) tape has not been used in decades, and the machines are very hard to find. In our case, this is critical because the iconic Mean Joe Greene ad was mastered on Quad, and our only original copy is in that format.

We are in the middle of a multi-year project to digitize more than 6,000 tapes in our collection. We chose Crawford Media Services as our partner. When I visited their Atlanta facility, I was so impressed by the recorder museum, digitization stations and ovens (used to bake and dry tapes to re-adhere the iron coating) that we worked to develop a video to give an overview of how we are working to preserve the content on the tapes. 

While Crawford is a commercial company that focus on business-to-business projects, I would urge anyone who has precious memories on video tapes older than 10 years to look for a group locally who can migrate the content. If you don’t, your memories will inevitably be lost as the tapes degrade.

Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company