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"Day at Night" Preservation Challenges

Met by CUNY TV Archivists, Engineers and Editors

CUNY TV archivist Molly Fair shows U-matic tape in need of restoration (Photo: Vincent Verdi)

Rare Video Interviews of Notables from Arts, Media, Politics and Science Are Restored

For over three decades, CUNY TV – the professionally staffed 24/7 television station of the City University of New York – has served cable, and now broadcast, TV viewers in the New York City metro area.

The station has a vast archive of its original programming, one of the largest produced by a public university. The CUNY TV Library, under the direction of station archivist David Rice, also manages historic media collections from television and radio pioneers such as James Day, Himan Brown, and Alvin H. Perlmutter.

The archive contains programs on a variety of obsolete media formats, such as U-matic tape, electrical transcription discs, Betacam SX, and most formats popular in television production from the 1980s up to today. Works recorded on videotape formats are greatly at risk due to the inherent instability of magnetic tape, exposure to improper handling and storage in production environments, and the technological obsolescence of playback devices, making preservation increasingly a necessity and a challenge.

As part of its ongoing audiovisual preservation projects, CUNY Television has restored and is re-broadcasting newly digitized episodes of Day at Night, an intimate one-on-one interview program hosted by James Day, a former President of Channel Thirteen, National Educational Television (NET), and KQED/San Francisco. The series was originally broadcast on public television from 1973-1974, and features interviews with notable figures in the arts, media, politics, and the sciences including Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, Aaron Copland, Alger Hiss and Muhammad Ali, among many others.

Mr. Day, a member of CUNY TV’s Advisory Board prior to his death in 2008, donated his entire library of 70 half-hour Day at Night programs to the station.

Fourteen of the interviews in the best physical condition began airing on CUNY TV in December 2008. The entire collection was recorded on U-matic tape, a format once considered top-of-the-line for broadcast, but which has not proved stable for long-term preservation, presenting a significant problem for television collections.

Beyond wear and tear from playback, the format’s composition deteriorates over time. Signs of decay are evident in shedding oxide flakes, a vinegar-like smell, and the presence of mold and other contaminants.

The process of preserving the U-matic recordings of Day at Night involved meticulous inspection for signs of degradation, cleaning, repair, and even "baking" the tapes in a food dehydrator to deal with the oxide shedding, also known as “sticky shed syndrome.” Once achieving a clean signal, the tapes were then digitized to high quality, losslessly compressed digital video.

Now, the remaining episodes – curated by station program director Brian Camp and restored by archivist Molly Fair, engineer Michael Di Filippo, and editor Darren Ryan – are being shown on CUNY TV and on, for reference by students, scholars and historians, and to the delight of television viewers.

CUNY TV is broadcast in the New York metro area (NY-NJ-CT) on digital Ch. 25.3, and cablecast in the five boroughs of New York City on Ch. 75 (Time Warner and Cablevision Brooklyn), Ch. 77 (RCN Cable) and Ch. 30 (Verizon FiOS).