A Tale of Videotape: Displacing Film in the '60s

Some folks mark the start of a new year by reviewing past triumphs and I've got mine picked out. Last year, I successfully tracked down John Vrba, a man I've never met but whom I'd known vicariously for more than 25 years.

Last spring I found a current snapshot of him on the Web--an older man, thinning hair now gone to white, but entirely recognizable from his likeness on film more than 40 years earlier. The broad smile and bright eyes in the picture transmitted an e

(click thumbnail)John Vrba, sales manager for KTTV in Los Angeles in 1961, made a pitch for a new product in the eponymously named production, "Television Tape."I knew Vrba only from an old 16mm film of a sales pitch he recorded in 1961 while he was sales manager at KTTV in Los Angeles.

The show's name was that of its subject, a new medium for program production and distribution, "Television Tape."

I'm not sure whether it qualifies as broadcasting history or as merely a quaint bit of ephemera. I'll let you decide. You can watch a RealPlayer version of "Television Tape" at http://www.televisiontape.tv


Seeing the old studio and equipment is fun. "Television Tape" is an RCA TK-30, and the 2-inch quadruplex VTR is an Ampex VR-1000B. The show's title relates to those two competing manufacturers. Ampex, which first brought video recording technology to market, registered the term "videotape." RCA was left without a way to describe its own tape products, so "television tape" became the RCA moniker for pictures etched on iron oxide.

As for the program itself, I'd found a box of cast-off 16mm films decades ago while I was a communication arts student. The rejects were undoubtedly given to the school by one of the same broadcasters who donated those noisy, nasty turret-lens cameras. I'm sure it was believed they were good practice for broadcast students threading up the ancient film chain in television production classes. Boxed along with such riveting titles as "Hurricane Watch" from the National Weather Service, "Television Tape" seemed campy and self-conscious, but nonetheless demonstrated the hottest production techniques of its day.

An off-camera announcer interrogates Vrba regarding the many wondrous advantages of the new production tool. Chief Engineer Ed Benham offers practical lessons in technical topics like A/B roll editing, and one lavish segment, replete with a variety of tabletop product shots and a big-haired model, runs through every wipe the switcher could muster.

As sharp and quick-witted today as he appeared then, Vrba recently explained the fundamental problem of marketing tape-based production back then--selling in the abstract. Calling clients and talking-up the new medium couldn't overcome the visual/tactile need.

"I don't know if we ever really overcame that," Vrba said, "because what we'd still wind up with was a show-and-tell, a demonstration.

"One of the first objections of the film guys was, of course, lighting. 'What do you TV guys know about lighting?'" they'd ask.

Then there was the problem of showing a promotional videotape to prospects who didn't own the hardware.

"I remember taking that (program) to Proctor & Gamble," Vrba said. The household products giant was, in those days, not just another potential commercial client; it was the Holy Grail of advertising itself. "I dragged them over to WLW-TV" in Cincinnati to hunt for an available VTR and monitor. Vrba said the screening circumstances were "not exactly ideal."

Acutely aware of the problem, Vrba and station management tackled the presentation method.

"Everybody had a 16mm projector," Vrba said, and that was the answer. A kinescope transfer was produced from the 2-inch master, and Vrba showed it to anyone who would watch, large and small advertisers alike. "The goal, of course, was to get the big spenders, but you're not going to get them right away."

Vrba persisted, hoping that they'd fall in line once they'd seen tape at work for smaller clients.

"We finally passed the test when we got a Clairol commercial," he said, noting the Chicago-based advertiser relied on good-looking shots to sell its hair-styling products. He credits the success of the spots to aggressive oversight on the part of his client.

"We had to hand it to the agency producer, who was fussy," he said. "She was complimentary when it was finally done."


Vrba's early responsibilities at KTTV also included program syndication, not a commonplace practice in those days and strikingly unique for an indy like KTTV.

"Why would anybody pay attention to an independent station?" Vrba recalled wondering.

But ingenuity apparently triumphed, since Vrba's pitches in "Television Tape" were delivered from behind the judge's bench on the set of "Divorce Court," a weekly show that originated from KTTV. As with their other syndicated offerings, quad dubs were sent to stations around the country and successfully aired, quashing the fears of countless engineers who doubted the interchangeability of the quad tapes.


Vrba said he began his career in 1948 as a "young spear-carrier" in an agency, writing ad copy. He was approached for his first TV job by a World War II buddy who'd become program director at KTTV, then owned by the parent company of the Los Angeles Times. He called his friend's pitch "a con job." Why would he leave a perfectly good advertising job to get involved in this odd new business?

"There were only 78,000 sets in the greater L.A. area in February of 1949," he said. "I thought, 'Man, this could be fun.'"

Vrba ultimately became vice president and sales manager of KTTV during his 16-year tenure there.

The young KTTV occupied the former Nassour Studios on Sunset Boulevard, later called "Metromedia Square" after the station changed hands. Vrba said the film unions asserted control that went beyond the sale of the property, and required that two of the four stages remain film stages, not TV. The historic studios were razed in 2003 to make way for a high school.

Armed with a fundamental understanding of the essence of broadcast television, Vrba's career took off after KTTV. Following broadcast sales management jobs in Denver and Cincinnati, he worked for Time-Life Films, bringing BBC programming to American outlets.

Since 1974, he held key roles in broadcast sales, while continuing to consult in just about anything media-related that catches his fancy. At age 80, his fancy is still regularly caught by an astonishing number of projects.

I'm glad I was able to find John Vrba last year; I learned a lot in speaking with him, and I was happy to share with him a DVD copy of his 1961 video tour de force, a show he'd presumed lost to the ages. His pithy summary of his KTTV years says it all:

"It was a fun time,' he said. "and it was challenging, which is what I liked."

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.