60th Anniversary of 1st Broadcast Use of Videotape

The first broadcast use of videotape took place 60 years ago today. At 6:15PM ET on Friday, November 30th, 1956, CBS recorded the live East Coast broadcast of Douglas Edwards and the News. The network used a black-and-white Ampex videotape recorder located at its Television City facility in Hollywood. CBS then played back the quarter-hour news program three hours later for stations on the West Coast. Specifically, KNXT in Los Angeles fed the program to nine stations of the Columbia Television Pacific Network (CTPN).

Ampex unveiled its 2-inch quadruplex videotape recorder in April 1956. CBS was the first network to place orders for machines and thus the first to receive any. It considered its use of videotape for Douglas Edwards and the News a technical test and made no public announcement prior to the initial November 30th broadcast.

How Did It Look?

Here’s how to Broadcasting*Telecasting described the videotape broadcasts of Douglas Edwards and the News in its December 10th, 1956 issue:

West coast television engineers watching the Doug Edwards tapes last week noted on Monday that about five minutes of the program was marked by fine white lines due to “tape dropout,” but that the condition was less noticeable Tuesday and almost eliminated on the Wednesday show. These fine white tracings were noted by a non-technical observer on the secret test Nov. 30 for the first minute of the program but otherwise the picture quality was far superior to normal film kinescope and to other observes appeared to be as natural as a live local origination on that particular receiver.

Last week’s “tape-casts” were described by engineers to have the quality of the best 35 mm film programs now turned out by top Hollywood producers for network use and in addition had advantages over 35 mm film quality. They explained the contrast range of the tape is far superior to film and very much like tv [sic] in that the tape reproduces well the full range from black through the greys to white without the bloom and flare often found in even the finer films.

In other words, the videotaped episodes looked pretty good!

Where Are The Tapes?

The earliest surviving videotape is a recording of “The Edsel Show,” a CBS special broadcast October 13th, 1957. What happened to the videotape(s) used to record Douglas Edwards and the News six decades ago? They were likely reused until they wore out, then tossed. Remember, videotape was in its infancy in 1956. The recorders were huge, complicated, expensive machines. Reels of videotape were large and costly, too.

It’s unlikely anyone at CBS considered saving the historic November 30th videotape for posterity. If any of these tapes are found, it will probably be very difficult to recover the programs–but hopefully not impossible.


Adams, Val. “TV-Radio News and Notes: Tape.” New York Times. 9 Dec. 1956: 159.
“Closed Circuit.” Broadcasting*Telecasting. 3 Dec. 1956: 5.
“NBC Acts to Expedite Delivery of Ampex Video Tape Recorders.” Broadcasting*Telecasting. 10 Dec. 1956: 96.

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5 Replies to “60th Anniversary of 1st Broadcast Use of Videotape”

  1. I’m sure machines exist somewhere, even if it’s in a museum, that could play the tapes but it’s likely if such tapes did exist they were transferred some time back. And unfortunately since videotape is magnetic, they can erase themselves as they deteriorate over time so it’s unlikely the tapes would survive in their original state.

    It was some time during this past year that it was announced the last VCR was being produced. Although people will still use tape machines for some time to come.

    1. Any 2-inch ‘quad’ machine can playback those tapes. Physical deterioration of media is the real problem.

      Tape deterioration over time is a chemical process – not magnetic. Self-erasure of the remanent flux field is measured in millennia. Tapes made 75 years ago will play back perfectly, if the media itself is still intact.

      Ever since the Television industry switched to digital, no one records pictures on tape any more. But many audio professionals will be using analog magnetic tape for the foreseeable future.

  2. Engineers discovered very quickly that allowing anyone to freebase tobacco around the super-expensive machines quickly ruined them, just as it did people’s bodies.

    That is why everything should be smoke-free, NOW!

  3. Interesting story from the Broadcasting*Telecasting issue. Now of course we know tape, especially from that era, is vastly inferior to 35mm. I think the thrill of being able to record live broadcasts kinda clouded their judgemen on it’s quality. CBS, not too long after acquiring the tape machines, forced Rod Serling to film using only tape to try and save money. However the quality was horrible and subpar even when viewing with the lower resolution monitors of the time. After seeing how six episodes turned out, Rod demanded that the network let him go back to 35mm film or he would cancel the show himself. Since The Twilight Zone was still a huge hit for them, they quickly let him go back to 35mm film. Thank goodness they did or the last half of the show would have looked like they had a foggy haze on the lens. Rod Serling knew what was better. One only has to view the Blu-ray set to see the difference. The filmed episodes are all in glorious high definition, the six taped ones look bleeech.

    1. I think some of the creepier episodes, like “Twenty Two”, actually benefited from the amateur, “local TV playhouse”, quality of the video production, especially with the intimate sets and harsh lighting. But for most purposes, it would be a long time before videotape would come close to the quality of film. It was also very hard to edit in those days.

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