Telerecording (known as kinescoping in the US) is the British name for a process pioneered during the 1940s for the storing of electronically shot television programmes on film. It was used for the preservation, re-broadcasting and sale of television programmes before the use of commercial broadcast-quality videotape became prevalent for these purposes.
The telerecording process works by aiming a film camera at a specially adapted flat television screen, with the camera shooting at a frame rate in synchronisation with the television frame rate. In the UK and the rest of Europe, television runs at 25 frames – or more correctly, 50 fields – per second, so the film camera would be run at 25 frames per second rather than the cinematic film standard of 24 frames.
Because television is a field-based rather than frame-based system, however, not all the information in the picture can be retained on film in the same way as it can on videotape. The time taken physically to move the film on by one frame and stop it so that the gate can be opened to expose a new frame of film to the two fields of television picture is much longer than the vertical blanking interval between these fields - so the film is still moving when the start of the next field is being displayed on the television screen. It is not possible to accelerate the film fast enough to get it there in time without destroying the perforations in the film stock - and the larger the film gauge used, the worse the problem becomes.
The problem of adapting the way the image is either displayed or captured on film, to get around the above, was solved in various different ways as time went on - improving the quality of the image.
Moye-Mechau film recording
The first successful procedure was to use the Mechau film projector mechanism in reverse. The Mechau system used a synchronised rotating mirror to display each frame of a film in sequence without the need for a gate. When reversed, a high-quality television monitor was set up in place of the projection screen, and unexposed film stock is run through at the point where the lamp was illuminating the film.
This procedure had the advantage of capturing both fields of the frame on a film, but it was difficult to keep the mirrors running at the right speed and all the equipment adjusted correctly, which often resulted in poor quality output. An additional problem was that the whole procedure took place in an open room and it was known for insects to settle on the screen which were then permanently present on the film recording. The Mechau film magazine only held enough for nine minutes so two recorders were needed to run in sequence in order to record anything longer.
A simpler system less prone to breakdown was to suppress one of the two fields in displaying the television picture. This left the time in which the second field was displayed for the film camera to advance the film by one frame, which proved enough. This method was also called 'Skip field' recording.
This method had several disadvantages. In missing out every second field of video, half the information of the picture was lost on such recordings. The resulting film consisted of fewer than 200 lines of picture information and as a result the line structure was very apparent; the missing field information also made movement look very 'jerky'.
A development on the suppressed field system was to display the image from one of the fields at a much higher intensity on the television screen during the time when the film gate was closed, and then capture the image as the second field was being displayed. By adjusting the intensity of the first field, it was possible to arrange it so that the luminosity of the phosphor had decayed to exactly match that of the second field, so that the two appeared to be at the same level and the film camera captured both. This method, invented in 1965, came to be preferred.
Another technique developed by the BBC known as "spot wobble" involved the addition of an extremely high frequency but low voltage sine wave to the vertical deflection plate of the television screen, which changed the moving "spot" through which the television picture was displayed into an elongated oval. While this made the image slightly blurred, it removed the visible line structure and resulted in a better image. It also prevented moiré patterns appearing when the resulting film was re-broadcast on television and the lines of the recording did not match the scan lines.
Use of telerecording
Even after the advent of commercial broadcast videotape systems in the mid-1950s, telerecordings continued to be made as they possessed several distinct advantages, particularly for overseas programme sales. First, they were cheaper, easier to transport and more durable than video. Secondly, they could be used in any country regardless of the television broadcasting standard, which was not true of videotape. Thirdly, they could be used to make cheap black and white copies of colour programmes for sale to television stations who were not yet broadcasting in colour.
The telerecording system was actually of a very high quality, easily reproducing the full detail of the television picture. One side effect of the system was that it removed the "fluid" look of interlaced video and "filmised" the picture.
The system was largely used for black and white reproduction. Although some colour telerecordings were made, they were generally in the minority as by the time colour programmes were widely needed for sale, video standards conversion was easier and higher quality and the price of videotape had become much reduced. Before videotape became the exclusive transmission format during the early to mid-1980s, any (colour) video recordings used in documentaries or filmed programme inserts were usually transferred onto film.
The first known surviving example of the telerecording process in Britain is from 7 October 1947, showing the singer Adelaide Hall performing at the RadiOlympia Theatre. The footage was filmed on the "Cafe Continental" stage set at the theatre for a BBC TV show entitled Variety in Sepia. Hall sings "Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep)" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", as well as accompanying herself on ukulele and dancing. When the show was originally broadcast on BBC TV it was 60 minutes in length and also included performances from Winifred Atwell, Evelyn Dove, Cyril Blake and his Calypso Band, Edric Connor and Mable Lee, and was produced by Eric Fawcett. The six-minute footage of Miss Hall is all that survives of the show.
The wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip also survives, as do various early 1950s productions such as It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer and the opening two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, although in varying degrees of quality. A complete seven-hour set of telerecordings of Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation also exists.
There is some evidence to suggest that the BBC experimented with filming the output of the television monitor before the television service was placed on hiatus in 1939 — BBC executive Cecil Madden later recalled filming a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel in this way, only for film director Alexander Korda to order the burning of the negative as he owned the film rights to the book, which he felt had been infringed. However, the evidence for this is purely anecdotal, and indeed there is no written record of any BBC Television production of The Scarlet Pimpernel during the 1936–39 period. (The incident is, however, dramatised in Jack Rosenthal's 1986 television play The Fools on the Hill.)
Up until the early 1960s, much of the BBC and British television in general's output was broadcast live, and telerecordings would be used to preserve a programme for repeat showings, which had previously required the entire production being performed live for a second time.
In the 1950s a home telerecording kit was introduced in Britain, allowing enthusiasts to make 16 mm film recordings of television programmes. The major drawback, apart from the short duration of a 16 mm film magazine, was that a large opaque frame had to be placed in front of the TV set in order to block out any stray reflections — making it impossible to watch the set normally while filming. It is not known if any recordings made using this equipment still exist.
British broadcasters used telerecordings for domestic purposes well into the 1960s, with 35 mm being the film gauge usually used as it produced a higher quality result. For overseas sales, 16 mm film would be used, as it was cheaper. Although domestic use of telerecording in the UK for repeat broadcasts dropped off sharply after the move to colour in the late 1960s, 16 mm black and white film telerecordings were still being offered for sale by British broadcasters well into the 1970s.
Telerecording was still being used internally at the BBC in the 1980s too, to preserve copies for posterity of programmes which were not necessarily of the highest importance, but which nonetheless their producers wanted to be preserved. If there were no videotape machines available on a given day, then a telerecording would be made — there is evidence to suggest that the children's magazine programme Blue Peter was occasionally being telerecorded as late as 1985. After this point, however, cheap domestic videotape formats such as VHS could more easily be used to keep a back-up reference copy of a programme.
Another occasional use of telerecording into the late 1980s was by documentary makers working in 16 mm film who wished to include a videotape-sourced excerpt in their work, although such use was again rare.
Telerecordings form an important part of British television heritage, preserving what would otherwise have been lost. Nearly every pre-1960s British television programme in the archives is in the form of a telerecording, along with the vast majority of existing 1960s output. Videotape was expensive and could be wiped and re-used; film was cheaper, smaller, and in practice more durable. Only a very small proportion of British television from the black and white era survives at all; perhaps 5% from the 1953-58 period and 8-10% from the 1960s.
Many recovered programmes, particularly those made by the BBC, have been returned as telerecordings by foreign broadcasters or private film collectors from the 1980s onwards, as the BBC has taken stock of the large gaps in its archive and sought to recover as much of the missing material as possible. Many of these surviving telerecorded programmes, such as episodes of Doctor Who, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part continue to be transmitted on satellite television stations such as UKTV Gold, and many such programmes have been released on VHS and DVD.
Because videotape records at 50 interlaced fields per second and telerecordings at 25 progressive frames per second, videotaped programmes that exist now only as telerecordings look more "jerky" than the originals One solution to this problem is VidFIRE, an electronic process to restore video-type motion.