Restoring Its Former Glory: Part III

To rid the tapes of the sticky-shed syndrome, Schechter first tried to absorb the moisture by sealing the tapes in an airtight bag with desiccant, such as silica gel, for a month. That didn’t work. Then he scrubbed the tapes clean with a tape cleaning machine. The tapes were still sticky. Then he incubated, or baked, the tapes at a low temperature in a specialized oven. Still, the stickiness remained.

Having exhausted the proven remedies for sticky-shed syndrome, Schechter began to invent his own. Without a “guinea pig” tape to test out his theories, he didn’t know if these unproven methods would rescue the tapes or potentially damage them further. He lubricated the Cartrivision’s tape heads with Teflon. He froze the tapes. He modified the cleaning machine to scrub the tapes with isopropyl alcohol.

Then, at 2:00 a.m. on that Saturday morning, he raised the temperature of the incubator to just below that at which plastic melts. If Schechter was wrong, it would destroy the tapes. “I knew it was a one-way trip,” he said. “But it was either that or nothing. I was basically out of options.”

When he removed the tape 24 hours later, the plastic reels had begun to melt, but the tape stayed intact. He described the feeling as pure euphoria when both cassettes actually played from beginning to end without getting stuck and he was able to record the video digitally.

Now, the damage the deterioration caused had to be fixed. The picture was shaky in parts. It bent at the top. It jumped. It went completely blank or cut to snow for frames at a time. The sound warbled and faded in and out. In short, the game was unwatchable.

The recording was split into its audio and video tracks, so each could be worked on separately. On the video end, the damaged frames had to be repaired or replaced and here’s where Cartrivision’s compression technology literally saved the game.

Basically, the Cartrivision system captured only one video field when recording (two fields make up a video frame). On playback, it repeated that same field three times. Your eye, coupled with the analog televisions of the 1970s, compensated for the lost images so that the missing fields were imperceptible. For every one damaged field on the tape, Schechter had two “spare” fields.

“The problems digitally were only on one field, generally,” Schechter explained. “That means I had two other fields with the same images that I could replace it with. Cartrivision’s form of compression gave us the tools to replace the damaged image.”

Other damage was beyond repair. In some places, the picture warped or went to snow at the top and bottom of the screen. In those cases, Schechter’s team enlarged the image. Sometimes the color would completely drop out, so they used a sepia tone so the change isn’t as dramatic.

Restoring the video took about four days. Fixing the audio, a matter of erasing dull sounds, restoring high frequencies and removing background noise, took about half that time. Once the audio and video were synced back together, a broadcast quality copy of Game 5 of the 1973 NBA Finals finally existed.