Tip #503: Why Timecode Starts at 01:00:00:00

… for Codecs & Media

Tip #503: Why Timecode Starts at 01:00:00:00

Larry Jordan – LarryJordan.com

It all comes down to finding what you seek.

A sample timecode setting displayed as: Hours, Minutes, Seconds and Frames.

Topic $TipTopic

Back in the old days of video tape, all programs originating in North America (and, perhaps, elsewhere) started at timecode hour 01. A tradition that often continues today for broadcast, mostly out of habit. Why?

NOTE: Programs originating in Europe, I discovered many years ago, tended to start at hour 10. This made it easy to quickly see which part of the world a program originated from.

Back in the days of large quad videotape machines, each of which could easily cost a quarter-of-a-million dollars, the tape reels were 15-inches in diameter and weighed up to 30 pounds. The tape flew through the system at 15 inches per second – all to create a standard-definition image!

Setting up a quad tape system for playback required tweaking each of the four playback heads on the machine and adjusting them for alignment, color phase, saturation and brightness. (It was these machines that first taught me how to read video scopes.)

The problem was that getting this much iron moving fast enough to reliably play a picture took time. Eight seconds of time.

So, the standard setup for each tape required recording:

  • 60 seconds of bars and tone (to set video and audio levels)
  • 10 seconds of black
  • 10 seconds of slate
  • 10 seconds of countdown

If timecode started at 0:00:00:00 for the program, that would mean the setup material would start at 23:58:30:00. Since 23 hours is after 0 hours, sending the tape machine to seek the starting timecode – an automated feature that was used all the time in the high-speed, high-pressure turnaround of live news – means the tape deck would scan forward to the end of the tape.

To prevent this, all programs started at 1 hour (or 10 hours) with setup starting at 00:58:30:00.

And now you know.

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7 replies
    • Larry Jordan
      Larry Jordan says:


      Truly. It was a different time. I still have very fond memories of it, though we would have KILLED for the image quality we have today.


  1. stu aull
    stu aull says:

    egads. Flashbacks to my first TV job back in the VTR Room as a VTR Op at my local TV station. Throwing (heaving) 20lb quad 2″ open reel video tapes onto RCA players the size of a large freezer…


  2. Geert Kistemaker
    Geert Kistemaker says:

    In the Netherlands we used 2:00:00 as a starting timecode for programs. Colourbars and tone would apply at tc 0:00:00 from the beginning of the tape. Most of the tapes lost their first meters due to the folding and tearing when the tape was wound around the receiving reel.


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