The Archivist, The Scholar, and Access to Historic Television Materials
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The Archivist, the Scholar, and Access to Historic Television Materials

It is my hope to be able to prove that television is the greatest step forward we have yet made in the preservation of humanity. It will make of this Earth the paradise we have all envisioned, but have never seen.

—Professor James Houghland, in Murder By Television (Cameo Pictures Corp., 1935)

Professor Houghland could have been a television archivist. He had devotion to the medium and hope for the future, and he even believed television could preserve humanity. Seventy-two years later, the question is, can humanity preserve television? As an archivist, I say the answer is yes, though the full scope of the work may be unknown to scholars. Those seeking more television programs to study may ask, "Why isn't this series on DVD? Does this episode still exist, and can I view it?" The truth is that a great deal of television's history has been lost over the years, but, despite this, more programs exist than you may know of, and many areas of television remain unexamined. Archivists are eager to guide you through their holdings and explain why not all of television is necessarily easy to get to, but that efforts expended in this direction can benefit both archivist and scholar in the twenty-first century.

To turn the old adage around, "the more things remain the same, the more things change." Television remains television, but the vehicles for content delivery have changed radically from television sets with rabbit ears, a rooftop antenna, or cable, to computers, iPods, and cell phones. Television archivists must keep up with the changes not only regarding what programs will come to the archives, but in what formats they will arrive.

Television historian William Boddy astutely states that "contemporary television studies struggles to come to grips with new academic contexts and a shifting object of study."1 The archivist must come to grips with new institutional contexts (such as changes in mandate, in location, or place in institutional priorities), and a shifting object of funding to obtain and maintain the materials scholars seek to study. For the amount of television programs extant and those being discovered every day, there are not enough resources available to preserve this heritage.

Since its invention, television has been and remains one of our most fragile cultural assets. To highlight this fact, the Library of Congress published in 1997 a five-volume Study of the Current State of American Television and Video [End Page 129] Preservation.2 The study includes testimony from television pioneers, archivists, and scholars offered to a Library of Congress panel in March 1996 in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. These television scholars and archivists discussed how little preservation of television programming has been undertaken to date and elaborated upon an assortment of problems that complicate preservation efforts: chemical and physical problems with the carriers on which programs were recorded, the devastating loss of news footage and entertainment programs, difficulty with access, lack of preservation funds, and equipment obsolescence. Since the publication of the five-volume study, image preservation has improved tremendously and archivists are facing the challenges inherent in preserving and providing access to this mechanically dependent, chemically based historical product.

The fragility of the material is a significant problem. Unless a kinescope recording on 16 mm film was made of an early live broadcast—and that reel of film saved—that program no longer physically exists. Two-inch videotape debuted in 1956 and was so expensive that networks repeatedly reused tapes to save money, erasing thousands of early programs (e.g., Johnny Carson's early Tonight Show tapes). Yet unique kinescopes and programs on two-inch videotape do exist in archives as valuable windows into early television programming. Three-quarter inch U-Matic videotape, long a staple of broadcasting for its economical and portable nature, was used in thousands of TV stations. It is now one of the most ubiquitous and simultaneously most endangered broadcast formats in archives due to its inherent fragility—it was never designed to be stored long term. As local television stations and network affiliates expanded in the...