The first and most primitive method of recording television programs, production, or news story, a kinescope is a film made of a live television broadcast. Kinescopes are usually created by placing a motion picture camera in front of a television monitor and recording the image off the monitor's screen while the program is being aired. This recording method came into wide use around 1947. Before videotape, this process was the standard industry method of creating a permanent document, for rebroadcast and for archival purposes. The term "kinescope" comes from the combination of two words: the Greek "kinetic," meaning of or related to motion, and "scope," as in an observational instrument such as a microscope.

Actually, kinescope is the name for the cathode ray tube in a television receiver which translates electrical signals into a picture on a lighted screen. The use of the word "kinescope" to describe a filmed recording of a television broadcast was derived from this piece of equipment. Originally they were called "kinescope recordings" but, due to repeated usage in spoken language, the term was usually shorted to just "kinescope," and then often shortened again to just "kine" or "kinne." The picture quality created by kinescopes was admittedly and understandably poor--they appeared grainy, fuzzy, even distorted--yet they were the only method for documentation available to stations and producers at that time. Though their poor picture quality generally prohibited any extensive reuse, many programs were rebroadcast from kinescope in order to save money, allow them to be broadcast at a different time or, more frequently, to expose the programs to a wider audience. Cities and locales outside of an antenna's reach and without wire or cable connection, had no way of seeing programming produced in and broadcast from New York City, programming which constituted the majority of television at the time. In order for a program to be seen in outlying areas (either beyond the city limits or elsewhere across the country), kinescope films were shipped from station to station in a practice known as "bicycling."

For many stations the airing of kinescopes (despite the very poor picture quality) was a necessary way to fill the programming day. This was especially true in the early days of educational television which had high goals but little money to achieve them. Though kinescoped programs could never be very timely they could be educational and, in this case, they were the best way to fill a void. The National Educational Television and Radio Center (later NET) in Ann Arbor, Michigan was the country's largest clearinghouse for kinescope distribution until the late 1950s.

Because kinescopes were considered so unsatisfactory many companies early on attempted to find more efficient, cost efficient and more aesthetically pleasing methods of recording their programs. Singer Bing Crosby, who was seeking a more convenient way of producing his television specials without having to perform them live, had his company Bing Crosby Enterprises operate and demonstrate the first magnetic videotape recordings in 1951. The RCA and Ampex companies would also display electronic videotape recording methods before the end of the decade with the Ampex standard eventually being the adopted method of the TV industry.

But the true demise of the kinescope (at least as far as entertainment programming is concerned), like most things in television, was ultimately driven by an economic concerns and can be attributed to I Love Lucy and its stars and producers Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. When beginning their landmark show, the couple insisted on producing in California, their home for many years. Philip Morris, the cigar and cigarette manufacturer, already signed on as the show's sponsor, wanted the program produced in New York because more potential smokers lived east of the Mississippi: Philip Morris would not settle for inferior kinescopes playing on the East Coast. In response Arnaz and cinematographer Karl Freund devised a method of recording performances on film. Their system used three cameras to record the live action while a director switched among them to obtain the best shot or angle. The show was later edited into the best performance in a manner much like a feature film. The result not only was a superior recording good for repeated airing throughout the country, it also presaged the move of the TV industry from New York to the West Coast, where fully equipped film studios eagerly entered television production and recouped some of the losses they had encountered with the rise of the new medium. Moreover, the new filmed product created, almost accidentally, TV's most profitable byproduct, the rerun.

The kinescope, the one and perhaps only method of television recording technology to be completely obsolete in the industry today, is now of use only in archives and museums where the fuzzy, grainy texture often only adds to their charm as artifacts and antiquities. Fortunately, for those who would understand and present the history of television programming, that charm ismatched by the historical value of even this partial record of an era all but lost.

- Cary O'Dell


Gross, Lynn Schafer. Telecommunications: An Introduction to Radio, Television, and other Electronic Media. Dubuque, Iowa: Brown, 1983.