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Top 10 reasons video tapes deteriorate

First and foremost, a disclaimer.  I am a co-developer of LifeFlix, simple Mac software for capturing video from old Video8, Hi8, Digital8 (D8), HDV and MiniDV tapes.  While I love the technology and history behind video, I’m also writing this in the hopes you’ll try LifeFlix.  One of the reasons I developed the software was the information below scared me!

At this point in time, there are billions of hours of video footage stored on Video8, Hi8, Digital8 and MiniDV tapes.  We all know these tapes won't last forever but there is good news! If you’ve painstakingly taken care of your videotapes they could last up to 30 years.  

You’re in good shape if you’ve kept tapes in a dry and dust free environment and away from direct sunlight, stored them in a plastic airtight container with some fresh silica gel in a temperature stable environment, periodically “baked” your tapes dry, never stored the tapes near magnetic fields, (top of TV, speakers, etc.), exercised (fast-forwarded and rewound) your tapes every couple of years to prevent sticking, always stored tapes rewound in their case and  standing upright (not flat) and originally purchased and shot on professional quality digital videotapes.

Mhmmm.  Yeah. Right.

It is fact your tapes will wear out.  The small camcorder play head and thin tape make it more susceptible to the effects of "tape dropout", where magnetic particles are eroded from the tape surface. 

Maybe you’ve already noticed some like this:

Here are the top 10 reasons for videotape deterioration:  

  • Plastics.  It turns out Dustin Hoffman’s lack of interest in plastics in The Graduate was wise.  Videotapes consist of small magnetic particles applied to a plastic material which can shrink over time and affect playback. 
  • Diversity.  In this case, diversity is not good.  Each tape brand and model uses a different type of lubricant, which gets all over the heads of the camera.  The different lubricants can combine and form goo inside your camera which may cause dropped frames, static, and other defects in your recording.
  • Climate.  Temperature and humidity changes can adversely affect videotape.  If you haven’t been storing your tapes in a dry, mild climate they will deteriorate rapidly.  
  • Life.  Everything ages in life.  Videotapes can become sticky, jamming playback units, or become brittle and snap.    
  • Overuse.  Videotapes will deteriorate after being written to more than once.  The videotape is also very thin. If the tape has been played frequently it will become stressed which can affect longevity.    
  • Quality.  How long a tape lasts is determined by the quality of the material used.  Higher quality tapes have a higher density of metal particles in order to minimize dropouts or hits.  
  • Improper Storage.  Leaving tapes inside the camcorder for long periods of time is known to accelerate the aging process.  If not stored properly, your tapes can be susceptible to dust and other particulate.  
  • Time is not your friend.  Videotape is made of magnetic media. What you see ten, twenty years later is nowhere as sharp as when the tapes were first created.
  • Inactivity.  If you haven’t played your video for a few years that’s one section of the tape being stretched at the same spot.   Tapes which haven’t been exercised (fast-forwarded and rewound) every couple of years to prevent sticking can deteriorate more rapidly.  
  • Obsolescence.  This doesn't exactly fall under the "deterioration" category.  However, the obsolescence of the necessary playback device (ie. camcorder or tape deck) means it's getting harder and harder to watch the video.  Camcorders capable of playing back Video8, Hi8 and Digital8 were discontinued in 2007. For MiniDV and HDV the final year was 2011.

    Time is not on your side.  Either the tape or the playback device will go away at some point.  Video8 was launched in 1985, Hi8 in 1989, Digital8 in 1999 and MiniDV in 1995.  

    It is time to rescue and archive the footage on these old videotapes!  There are many software tools to do this as my fellow LifeFlix co-founder writes about in Top 4 Best Ways for Mac Users to Import MiniDV Tapes.