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The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 146-157

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Developing Preservation Appraisal Criteria for a Public Broadcasting Station

Mary Ide and Leah Weisse


The WGBH Educational Foundation is a noncommercial viewer- and listener-supported public radio and television station in Boston. It holds licenses for six broadcast operations and produces nearly a third of all PBS prime-time television and on-line programming including Nova, Frontline, American Experience, ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! and Victory Garden.

The WGBH Media Archives and Preservation Center acquires, manages, and preserves the editorial assets and administrative records produced and created by WGBH program series and stand-alone productions, interactive and multimedia projects, and business departments. The challenge the WGBH Archives faces is to effectively manage the acquisition and preservation of a legacy collection, the myriad of new production formats, and new editorial content created for broadcast and new distribution avenues.

This article is an overview of the policies and procedures for the acquisition of television production assets developed by the WGBH Archives and the preservation appraisal criteria that are being developed. The WGBH preservation appraisal criteria project is a work in progress and supports the concept that while selection criteria may be codified, their application will be unique according to each institution's specific needs.

The Significance of Broadcast Programming

Historian Thomas Cripps has said, "movies and television provide us with a mirror to hold up to society." 1 Broadcasting has heightened citizen awareness of our global community and its diversity. The broadcast industry's recordings and related production materials are primary source material for the study of the century's history and culture.

As a source of our cultural and social history, television is increasingly seen as both a primary and a secondary resource for the study and analysis of our society. William Murphy, author of the Report on the State of American Television and Video Preservation, has said that "as the most pervasive communications medium of the modern era, television has documented an extensive legacy of historical and cultural evolution over the last forty years....Understanding the medium is imperative if we are to be a critical and informed democratic citizenry." 2 However, there are two major problems associated with assuring the preservation [End Page 146] of these resources: first, most television programming resides on videotape, a fragile medium with a relatively short life expectancy; second, the acquisition and preservation of television programming is costly and requires a high level of technical management expertise. Its migration into the future is not always assured. Librarian of Congress James Billington warns that "at present, chance determines what television programs survive. Future scholars willhave to [rely] on incomplete evidence when they assess the achievements and failures of our culture." 3

The proliferation of broadcast content presents a staggering preservation problem for the institutions charged with this task. While numerous guidelines for acquisition have been published, producing stations, government agencies, and public and private archives are developing their own rational approaches to the preservation of these resources.

Early Television and Broadcast Formats

The first American commercial television broadcastwas of the opening of the New York World's Fair on April 20, 1939. By 1941, regularly scheduled television was being broadcast by commercial stations, and by the late 1940s, two networks, NBC and CBS, were dominating the broadcast marketplace. Through the 1950s, television broadcasts were transmitted live. In that pre-videotape era, if a copy of a live broadcast was made, it was shot on 16mm film directly off the television screen. These copies, called kinescopes, often had poor picture quality.

In 1956, Ampex produced the first professional videotape in a two-inch open-reel format. Due to the high costs, it was accepted professional practice well into the 1980s to erase and reuse videotape. This, coupled with the fact that videotape is not a stable preservation medium, accounts for the situation that most of the first thirty years of American television have been lost. 4

Brief Profile of the WGBH Educational Foundation

The WGBH Educational Foundation traces its origins back to John Lowell Jr...


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