How Long Does Video Tape Last?

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in 2004,and updated in the
January, 2005, issue of Larry’s Final Cut Pro Newsletter.
Click here to subscribe.  Latest updated 8/19/2006 and 5/10/2007. ]

This whole issue began when several students in one of my classes asserted that they were told “by people who know,” that the life of video tape is about a year. This struck me as seriously wrong.

John Lynn, of Genius DV, and I have been having a lengthy discussion about the best way to archive media. John, in an article on his website, argues that the best way to archive media is to store it on hard disks. You can read his article here:

The more I thought about this, and discussed it with John, the more I disagreed with this point of view. A few months ago, I wrote an article on how to archive your FCP projects. You can read it here:

Organizing and Archiving Your Projects

John gave me the opportunity to write a differing opinion for posting on his website and here’s what I sent (thank you, John, for permission to reprint this).

– – –

John, I appreciate your comments, but I disagree with them.

I think your advice of using removable hard disks is a good option for short-term storage, say, the next two-three years. However, I think it is a seriously flawed idea for long-term storage for three reasons:

  1. Technology is built to become obsolete.
  2. The life of a hard disk, in practice, is shorter than the life of a video tape
  3. Image and capture technology continues to improve

Technology Becomes Obsolete

This, to me, is the strongest argument. The technology industry is built on the idea of rapid obsolescence and frequent upgrades. Look in your garage at all the old computer equipment you have stored there. How much computer gear do you own that is seven years old that you can still plug into your computer and use today? Virtually none of it.

Look at the hard disk technologies we’ve had over the last decade or two:

How many of these systems are currently working on computers? Virtually none.

Technology is good for current and short-term storage. It is not good for long-term storage.

You could argue that storing your media on DVD or CD provides long-term storage. I would agree. I think we will be able to read CDs and DVDs long after today’s current crop of hard drives bites the dust. But CDs and DVDs hold only a fraction of the media that one video tape can hold. Unless you compress your media, which then makes editing extremely difficult.

Look, also, at the current storage plans of broadcast stations and networks. They use servers to keep current and recent shows on-line. But the archives of CNN, arguably one of the largest and most profitable networks, keeps its news archives on video tape. Why? Because 20 years from now, they will still be playable.

Video Tapes Last Longer

The life of a properly stored video tape, assuming it is professional-quality and not purchased at “Jim-Bob’s Cut-Rate Video Tape and Fish Bait Warehouse”, is well in excess of 20 years.

Current research seems to indicate that the life of a magnetic hard disk is less than that.

Image and Capture Technology Continues to Improve

As technology continues to improve, so does its ability to capture, render, edit and output images. Recapturing from source tapes allows you to take advantage of these improvements. Simply reloading clips already captured locks you into the image technology of the past.


I agree with your idea of using removable storage to keep a current project available for a while. My disagreement is relying on this system for periods longer than five years. Nothing I’ve seen in technology over the last twenty years leads me to believe that hard disk, communication, or media technology is going to stand still.

Granted, capturing off video tape, especially cheap video tape, poorly stored and poorly cared for, can be a problem. But, I think basing your archiving plans on removable hard disk technology is even more of a problem.

– – –

After reading this discussion, one of John’s readers, Mickey Hough, wrote back, saying:

I currently use all methods both of you mentioned but I would like to only work off of hard drives because they are so much faster and easier to use. I am not quite sure what Larry is referring to about hard drives becoming obsolete? Hard drives have been around forever and if formats changed I would sure think that you could just transfer your media from the old format to the new? Anyway maybe some more input would help.

Larry replies: Here’s my point:

You can archive on hard disk or on video tape. I suggest video tape is the better choice.

  1. Video tape has a longevity of 20-25 years, under proper storage
  2. Video tape is cheaper, by a long shot, than removable hard disks
  3. There is no assurance that a hard disk you use today will be compatible with systems you use in 15 years. (Look at SyQuest or serial hard drives as classic examples of technology obsolescence). Video tape equipment today can be easily purchased or rented that will play tapes recorded 20-30 years ago.
  4. I just finished teaching a Final Cut class with representatives from Fox, CBS and NBC networks. In all cases, they have their current video projects stored on hard disk, but for long-term archives, they use tape.

Tape is cheaper, more flexible, more likely to work and lasts longer than hard disks.

Clearly, if video tape has a very short life, you don’t want to use it for archiving. So, I asked readers with experience in these matters to provide some additional input. This article is the result.

Steve Smith, Senior Editor of STAR TV in Hong Kong:

I was reading through your excellent newsletter and saw that you need some information on how long videotape lasts. I may be able to help with this issue.


I have been a videotape editor for the past 25 years and have handled every format of tape from early 2 inch and 1 inch formats through to today’s cassette based formats. I believe that when correct storage and handling are used the life of a videotape is almost indefinite.


In order to prolong videotape life there are a few key issues to always remember.


  1. Always rewind the tape after use. This was never a problem with 2 inch or 1 inch which obviously had to be de-spooled from the VTR before storage. Cassettes however can be ejected from a VTR at whatever position the tape is stopped at. This leaves about eight inches of the tape exposed to whatever environment it is stored in irrespective of whether it is put back in its case or not. The cases are not airtight. It will also leave the two spools inside the cassette imbalanced and this can cause the tape to go “slack” after storage. When completely rewound there is a two foot clear plastic leader at the head of the tape which means that none of the magnetic or ceramic tape is exposed. It also “repacks” the tape onto the supply spool and once in its case and stored upright (similar to books in a library) no slack will occur on the spool.

  3. The storage environment should ideally be “climate controlled”. Put simply a cool dark place not subject to fluctuations in temperature. An air conditioned tape library is ideal. Please note though,  I have numerous tapes stashed in my bedroom closet that are still perfectly OK after 15 years. Humidity is the biggest killer of  stored videotape. Moisture once inside a cassette housing is almost impossible to remove. Never get a tape wet, it is the kiss of death otherwise.

  5. Avoid dust and smoke at all costs. If a cassette is placed into a poorly maintained VTR i.e. dusty, dirty heads etc it is a given that some of this contamination will end up inside the cassette. Smoking near VTR’s is not recommended. Smoke particles are huge and easily ingested into VTR’s that are constantly sucking air in as coolant for the high speed heads. Dust and smoke particles pass across the heads and the tape in contact with the heads and are the biggest creators of dropouts and tape damage. A clean environment when working with the tape will prolong its life.

  7. While the cassette is in the VTR try not to leave it in “Pause”  or “Freeze” mode for too long. Press the Stop button on the VTR or edit controller so that the heads are no longer in contact with the tape. This will alleviate any attrition on the tape at this point

There are probably a million other more technical and scientific suggestions but these are my big four. Good housekeeping can save you untold grief. I hope this helps sort a few questions out. Keep up the great work in the newsletter!

Chris G. adds:

I just played a few old tapes to check this out. the oldest dv tape i could find on my shelves was from 2000 (sony premium shot in dv format). it looks perfect when played back.


A note on 8-13 year old VHS tapes. Although we are not that interested in VHS tape, just for comparison, here’s what I’m seeing: one of my 8 year old VHS tapes with footage transferred from dv footage stills looks great – even for VHS (must have been a quality transfer). another old VHS tape which is 13 years old with footage transferred from Beta SP is viewable but looks faded and pixilated, quite bad. Some of the poor quality may have been in the orig. transfer because another 13 year old VHS tape, Beta SP transfer still looks quite good, maybe some minor fading but still good resolution.


Last year, i think it was at DV Expo or similar trade show, i attended an informative talk by a sony rep about MiniDV / DVCAM tape stock. he went into great detail about the specs and longevity and durability of the various qualities of dv stock.


For starters, though, dv tape hasn’t been around long enough to really assess longevity, but if my memory is correct, i think the sony guy estimated more than 25 years for any of the quality levels.


The formula differences in Sony’s different tape stocks effect both reliability and durability. factors effecting this are the type of lubricant and how many layers are applied – the more expensive = more lubricant (not sure if that’s the right word, but that’s the gist of it). the recording mode, as we all know, is also a factor because more info is crammed onto a smaller space in dv vs. DVCAM, so the dv formatted would be a bit more vulnerable.


Obviously, storage method is a big factor.


The biggest new piece of info i got from the talk was that he recommended taking tapes out of storage every 3-5 years and “packing” them, i.e. fast forward and reverse all the way to redistribute the lubricant. this should also be done if you are shooting in an extremely humid climate before you put the tape into your camera to shoot. i had always known about packing to assure smooth alignment on the reel, but that was the first i’d heard about redistributing the lubricant.


Don’t know where your students got the idea that tape last only a few years, even VHS tape lasts longer than that.

Bill Turlock writes:

This concerns cleaning of the head drum.


A “professional” cleaning, whether you do it yourself or take it to an authorized factory service shop is absolutely necessary every once in a while. I’ve never found that you _must_ obey the owner’s manual’s recommendation about cleaning intervals, but when you can see the picture degrade, it’s time!


You can take the machine apart so you can get at all the tape path, and the heads, where great care must be taken to not break them. Or you can use a cleaning tape.


I’ve never ever used one of those ‘wet’ cleaning tapes where it didn’t leave the machine worse than when I started. Once long ago someone recommended that I use a particular kind of Scotch 3M brand of ‘Professional’ cleaning cassette which uses more or less normal tape inside, but it’s formulated to be about 5 times abrasive than an ordinary recordable cassette. This does a very good job of cleaning the heads, even to the extent of fixing units that have been rendered unserviceable by a ‘wet’ cleaner.

– – –

Larry again: I’ve also heard from long-time engineers, such as Patric Anderson and many others, all agree that when storing tapes properly — on edge, wound to one end of the tape or the other, with no temperature extremes — good quality video tape should last 20+ years.

UPDATE – 2006

Swami Yatidharmananda writes:

I am Swami Yatidharmananda From The Divine Life Society, Sivananda Ashram, India. It is a non-profitable, charitable and spiritual organisation. I came across your articles while searching for information about the life of video tapes. I need your advise.


I am here in this spiritual organisation. We have thousands of VHS tapes few hundreds of Hi8 tapes containing very amazing content since 1980s. But editing them takes a lot of time. So I am of the opinion that as it will take a lot of time to capture edit and finally put them on DVDs, we should transfer them onto DV tapes using the Sony DSR 11 DV recorder directly first so that the Tapes can be saved for the next 20 years. After editing I wish to make a DVD master and also print to tape using the Master DV tapes made by panasonic. I also feel that the MOV files also should be stored in some other format so that future formats can be handled like HD DVd or Blue ray. If I am only making DVDs, then the future rolling of the Data may not be possible to the other medias.


Is it the right understanding? Will it be the right way? Because many people in my institution do not agree. They are saying tape do not last longer. We should only store in DVDs. So I started looking up in the internet and found your articles. You being in the field and an expert, your opinion regarding this will be a great help. could you please give us your opinion regarding this. We have a Mac G5 and FCP. Also we have Sony DSR 11 DV Recorder.


Your advise is much appreciated in advance. Thanking you.

Larry replies: The issue of the life-span of video tapes versus optical media is complex.

SOME optical media will last longer than tape — however, the majority of DVDs last about the same as tape and some last only a year or two. Product brand has a lot to do with it, as do a large number of technical factors.

My recommendation is to take your VHS and Hi-8 tapes and transfer them through a Time-Base Corrector (such as the DataVideo TBC-1000) onto DV tape, using the DVCAM format on your Sony DSR-11 recorder. The Time-Base Corrector cleans up problems with your VHS video, such as chroma smear, drop-outs, tearing and other bad things. (DVCAM is better than MiniDV for the work you are doing.)

Buy “Mastering” quality video tape – such as Sony or Panasonic. Once you pick a brand of tape, stay with it; don’t change brands. Changing brands can adversely affect your recordings, as the tape wears the video tape deck heads in unique ways. Changing tape brands alters the wear pattern, decreasing the quality of your recordings.

Once you have made your DV tape dubs, store the tapes in a relatively cool, dry, dark place — avoiding extremes of dust, heat and light. Given reasonable storage, a good quality video tape should last 20-25 years, easily. This would allow you the luxury of waiting for optical storage media to stabilize in price, format and quality, so that the next time these tapes need to be dubbed, they can be copied to optical media.

However, now is NOT the time to do so, as my article earlier made clear.

Finally, because DV tape has a higher video quality than VHS tape, you won’t have a generational quality loss such as we used to experience when dubbing tapes in an analog environment.

UPDATE – May, 2007

Jesse Ritz sent in the following:

We have 1,000+ VHS and Beta tapes, many over 20 years old, prerecorded and commercial, mostly because that is what was available at the time. I’ve transferred Beta to VHS, with some loss, LD to DVD (some of those laser disks get worse and worse every year; you can see pinholes through the aluminum), and VHS to DVD with no loss that I can see on a 32″ 480i television. The Beta tapes seem to have deteriorated somewhat over the years, but I haven’t found a ‘two hour’ VHS tape that looks any worse than when it was made.


We store all our tapes ‘tail down’ – that is played straight through without rewinding. We try to view every tape within three years but some don’t get ‘retensioned’ for seven or eight years. I don’t think that re-tensioning is nearly as important when you store a tape with the nice smooth gentle wrap that you get with playing, vrs. rewinding. With audio the big problem with too tight wraps is ‘print through’ which you can hear in the leader, or between tracks, wearing headphones – the first few few seconds can be heard on the layer just before the music starts. Oddly enough you can hear print through on the lead-in of many LPs; from the master tapes I presume.


Digital tape storage has its own peculiar problem: bit creep – caused by a whole bunch of ‘ones’ being stored in a row; in NRZI recording anyhow. The pressure of each magnetized particle causes the bits to drift apart. The problem occurs when they get far enough off that they don’t align with the rest of the byte. I’m talking about 8 to 64 bit parallel recording.


Moisture and heat are deadly for most magnetic media. I threw away 800 20 year old floppies of my brother-in-law that had a tiny dusting of mould in the ‘windows’ of the floppies. On the other hand all of his backup tapes were readable. I transferred them all and scrapped the old tape cartridges. The biggest problem with heat that I’ve seen is my 1976 TR-7’s Lear 8 track tape player. The blasted foam pressure pads all fail within a few years, even though it is parked in a garage overnight. You’d think kept out of the sun they’d last longer than two or three years, but they don’t. I never tried saving the media, I just re-record tapes from a new batch of 8 track tapes. (I wish I could find those old berylium pressure pads.)


Media is a problem too. My step-father in-law insisted on Kodak VHS tapes. I believe they are acetate instead of mylar and they are a mess, jamming, breaking and just plain poor recording quality. But the 3M cassette tapes that we bought originally (that was before Dolby noise reduction) have all failed, some Fugi cassettes have had the lubricant dry out in their tape formula and created horrible scrape flutter. And digital media isn’t immune either.


When 1.2 Meg floppies first came out I was called to help a PC technician who had replaced a floppy drive twice, the controller twice and a system board. I looked at the back of a few floppies that had failed and said “These bad floppies are all Verbatim (brand). The customer said “But they are all IBM diskettes.” I showed them the Maxell heat seals on the ones that were OK and the Verbatim heat seals on all the ones that failed; they inspected every diskette that they had. Every Verbatim made 1.2 Meg diskette had errors. But Maxell isn’t immune to problems, their 1.44 Meg floppies failed left and right when they first came out; brutal when you need to restore a 30 diskette backup and RESTORE refuses to continue halfway through the restore.


Anyhow, I like tape storage for digital, audio (second to LPs which never deterioriate if you don’t play them much), and video. Will DVDs last 100 years as they claim? I guess we’ll find out. The thing is, if my VHS tape gets a few extra dropouts I can still watch it. But a blasted DVD just flat stops! And what is worse is watching an analog television picture and having it disintegrate into pixels or go black ’cause it is digitally sourced. Don’t get me wrong, digital broadcasts can be so beautiful that we can see a dramatic difference on our twenty year old 72″ projection TV. Even standard VHS tapes of digital broadcasts (we get 37 channels) look great. But digital dropouts are the pits; ain’t progress great?

Larry replies: Jesse, thanks for all this additional information.

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23 Responses to How Long Does Video Tape Last?

← Older Comments
  1. Tom says:

    Hi, just another question: Will dust in a VCR ruin the image quality of the VHS tape being played? Thanks.

    • Tom says:

      Wanted to add to my comment asking if sound quality is affected as well.


    • Larry Jordan says:


      Dust causes abrasion – scraping the oxide of the tape, causing drop-outs and signal loss – or scraping the heads, making them less responsive to the magnetic signals on the tape.

      Also, over time, the magnetic signal on the tap will start to fade, making it harder to recover the information recorded there.

      As for audio, dust and scratches don’t affect “quality” per se, they affect signal. If the signal isn’t there, or too week to pick up, the audio drops out for that moment of the tape.


      • Tom says:

        Thank you. But dust doesn’t affect the sharpness or colour of the image, right? It’s just grey streaks and dropouts?

        • Larry says:




          • Tom says:

            Thank you once again. Just the very last thing. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to fill up your page with my concerns but this is the very last thing I wanted to ask. If I put a VHS inside a dusty VCR, will the dust from the VCR stick to the tape?


          • Larry says:


            In general, avoid dust with tape.

            That being said, VHS tapes are inside relatively closed boxes, so whatever dust migrates won’t be a lot.

            Also, many VHS decks are covered with plates that unscrew. It would be worth while to take at the covers off and gently vacuum the interior. Don’t mess with the tape heads, but a general clean-up would not be a bad idea.

            Tape heads can be cleaned GENTLY with cotton swabs and denatured alcohol.


          • Tom says:

            Thanks again, Larry!

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