The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 7

The Loss of Early Video Recordings: The Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate"

by Jim Lindner

From the invention of the first practical videotape recorder by Ampex Corporation in 19561until approximately 1979 virtually all broadcast television was recorded on a format known as Quadraplex or Quad. Of the tens of thousands of recordings that were made during that period of time, very few remain. Of those that do remain, some historical recordings like the famous Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" are in questionable condition. This paper will explore a few of the reasons for the large loss of these early videotape recordings and briefly discuss efforts to assemble a "restored version" of the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" videotape recorded on July 25, 1959.2

Although one could generally categorize the loss of Quad recordings as "system obsolescence," the real reasons for the loss of so much information over such a long period of time lies much deeper. From a 1998 perspective, the total loss of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of "visual assets" seems inconceivable. From a business perspective alone, how could such a huge inventory of product that could be marketed for many years, creating a significant cash flow, be permanently lost? Indeed, how could so much culturally and historically important material be gone? Even from a microscopic perspective, one must wonder how a single major historical and media event (both in its own time and from a historical perspective3) such as the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" could exist only in very damaged pieces?

There are many reasons for the loss of the vast majority of television broadcasts originally recorded on Quad. While some of the reasons are peculiar to an early implementation of a technology that was destined to become ubiquitous, most of the reasons relate to the economics of a new technology and its operation in a business environment. As such, many of the reasons for the loss of the information are as valid today as they were in the dawn of television video recording from the 1950s to 1970s.

Operational economics is one of the key reasons for the loss of the programs recorded on Quad videotape. Videotape recorders were expensive, costing over $75,000 in 1956 at their introduction4. In order to justify the large cost, a major initial selling point for videotape versus film was that tape could easily be erased and reused and film could not, thereby saving great expense. Videotape could allow television networks to "shift time" by replaying the news or other shows at a later time in another time zone when there would be a larger audience5, and largely eliminate the huge cost and processing time required by film to accomplish the same task. Although videotape was reusable, it was expensive as well, and as a result of the high cost of tape, an early tenet in videotape operations was to reuse videotape, thereby cannibalizing program content for all of time. If these same programs had been recorded on film, this could not technically have occurred.

In one case a Video Tape Use Record6 clearly shows that 13 programs were recorded over, with only the final recording surviving. That translates to the loss of 7.5 hours of programming on one tape alone. From a management standpoint, the immediate economic impact of bills created by the use of a new technological media obscured the need for an appraisal policy to protect the future economic and cultural asset value of the content. Indeed, when your business is to produce 24 hours of programming a day the huge task at hand is to create a vast quantity of new material...what happened yesterday or even 10 minutes ago is no longer relevant, so why save it? In effect, the carrier was perceived to be more valuable than the information on it.

While the economics associated with early videotape recordings contributed to their loss, the rapid progress in technology as well as the size and maintenance cost of the earlier technology led to the rapid scrapping of many of the remaining recordings and the equipment used to play them. Quad machines are large by any standards. Even later model machines were four or more feet long, two and a half feet wide, five feet tall and weighed more than 1000 pounds7. These same machines required compressed air and drew more than 50 amps in electric current to run. The machines required constant and expensive maintenance by skilled and expensive personnel, were very difficult to transport, and often were unreliable. While many other formats had been introduced in the ensuing years after quad was invented, they did not have the image quality required by the broadcasters. When a new broadcast quality videotape technology that was smaller, cheaper, easier to maintain, and required less highly skilled personnel appeared on the scene in 19778, the broadcasters ran to it. The new format, called 1" Type C, used videotape that was a fraction of the size and weight of the huge 2" reels of tape used in Quad machines. The reduction of shipping costs alone, from the 25-pound reels of quad tape to the five pound reels of 1", was economically significant, as well as the dramatic reduction in the need for storage space. A format that had lasted for 20 years became obsolete virtually overnight with the equipment going to the junk yard and the tapes being either discarded (many simply chose to throw them out) or stored in the least expensive and often the worst possible environmental conditions. In the hurry to get rid of these huge old tapes, many that had survived were then lost or misplaced when put into questionable storage conditions.

The video recording that became know as the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" was made at the color television technology display at The American National Exposition in Moscow. The 16-minute and 10-second videotape interchange between Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon technically did not occur at a model American Home Kitchen. Several incidents that occurred over several days became known as the "Kitchen Debate" even though they occurred virtually from the time Nixon arrived at the airport until he left9. The videotape of the interchange made by an Ampex videotape recorder with RCA cameras was flown back to the US by "Mr. Gundy, whose concern manufactures video tape equipment."10 As noted in the New York Times, "The video tape, as it appeared on the networks, was clear and certainly preserved the immediacy that is associated with live television. On each network telecast, Mr. Khrushchev's voice was heard and then lowered in volume as the English translation of each remark was read by announcers in the studios."11 No one knows what happened to that original tape. A tape that would appear to be an original exists at the Library of Congress, given by Ampex to register copyright. Typically, however, companies send copies, not originals, for this purpose. The Library of Congress version of the tape starts off with a model in front of the camera which would tend to indicate that the images were test images made before Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev arrived. This same recording, however, has very poor sound and it is virtually impossible to hear Nikita Khrushchev's voice at all, much less hearing it change in volume. Another recording is held by a broadcaster in a corporate collection. This recording has excellent sound. However, it is labeled as a "dub"12 or copy, and the video is quite poor, which would be typical of a copy made at that time considering that this was one of the first color recordings using the RCA electronic color system.

This "dub" recording has several elements that differ from the tape at the Library of Congress. At the beginning of the tape, no model exists. Further, a test pattern that says RCA (who supplied the cameras) is clearly on the tape. Following the test pattern are introductions by Frank McGee and two closings also by Frank McGee who is in black and white. Documentation with the tape clearly indicates that this tape was not edited, and yet Frank McGee appears (in black and white) and the model does not appear, the discussion between Nixon and Khrushchev appears in color, and the sound is excellent on a tape that is marked as having not been edited. How could Frank McGee, who was in New York, appear on a tape that was not edited? A unique restoration effort that was completed in 1995 by the author incorporated elements held by the Library of Congress and elements held by UCLA and a broadcasting company. Despite these efforts, no one knows if this restoration accurately represents the original tape, because neither the documentation nor the original are known to exist.

Although we will probably never know what happened to the original tape, a clue may appear in the New York Times. Part of the furor surrounding the tape was the Soviet demand that the tape be shown in the United States at the same time as in the Soviet Union. That could not be done because of "the need to adapt it to the different technical standards of Soviet television and the delay in the work of translation" according to Mr. Gundy.13 This meant that the tape had to be transferred to the Soviet Television Standard (SECAM) by Ampex which could have only been done at the company's headquarters in Redwood City, California. If this is the case, none of the copies held are accurate representations of the master recording which had to be used to make the copy for the Soviet Union. So we may never know exactly what the original recording did look like.

In the specific case of the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" videotape, the record of a significant world event has been distorted and permanently lost by the obsolescence of the system used to record it, the instability of the media used to record it (which has severe shedding, causing image distortions and "drop outs"), the lack of proper documentation and labeling, and the lack of a management and preservation strategy that included proper environmental conditions for the media. As a result, scholars and historians will never have an exact record of a historic interchange between two leaders in the Cold War and one of the first color television recordings ever made. In the larger case, thousands of hours of broadcasts that document world events and cultural history that were recorded in the 1960s and 1970s are lost forever due to a series of poor or non-existent preservation strategies and the failure of media that was never designed to last forever.


1 Schneider, Arthur. Electronic Post-Production and Videotape Editing. Stoneham, Massachusetts: Butterworth Publishers, 1989, p. 3.

2 US Television Network Tapes Moscow Debate (1959, July 2), The New York Times, p. 3.

3 Announcing the Death of Richard Milhous Nixon By The President of The United States of America, A Proclamation to The People of the United States (1994, April 23), The White House: Office of the Press Secretary.

4 Sterling, C.H. and Kittross, J.M. (1978), Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, p. 321.

5 Marlow, E. and Secunda, E. (1991), Shifting Time and Space: The Story of Videotape. New York, NY: Praeger, p. 33.

6 Private Collection.

7 Actual measurements, RCA model TR 70B, Private Collection.

8 Schneider, Arthur. Electronic Post-Production and Videotape Editing. Stoneham, Massachusetts: Butterworth Publishers, 1989, p. 11.

9 Many articles (1959, July 24-27), The New York Times.

10 Khrushchev-Nixon Debate Aired On TV Here Over Soviet Protest (1959, July 26), The New York Times, p. 2.

11 Presentation Is Clear (1959, July 26), The New York Times, p. 2.

12 Private Collection.

13 Khrushchev-Nixon Debate Aired On TV Here Over Soviet Protest (1959, July 26), The New York Times, p. 2.

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