Armies of robots won’t save our television heritage from ruin.
The race to preserve vintage TV has come down to man vs. machine. Robotic input systems have reduced the transfer costs, but there simply isn’t enough life left in the old machines to handle all the videotape that needs to be converted. So the question now is what to save.
There are already large gaps in the smallscreen legacy. Many early news, sports and gameshows weren’t preserved because they were considered old news after they aired, with no secondary potential. Other pivotal televised moments are missing: Early installments of “The Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle (which bowed in 1948) are considered lost. Same goes for early “The Tonight Show” airings with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, and the first two Super Bowls.
Studios and networks regularly assess their archives to determine what needs triage as they complete their ongoing digitization process. Nonprofit preservation organizations, meanwhile, are doing their best to prevent orphaned shows from falling through the cracks.
Karen Herman, director of the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, considers the next 10 years crucial to preservation. Vintage TV not saved in that period will likely be lost, she says.
“We can’t save it all — we know that,” says Media Matters CEO Jim Lindner, an evangelist for preservation ever since he witnessed firsthand in 1990 how much videotape copies of Andy Warhol films had already degraded.
A self-described “geek before being a geek was cool,” Lindner started a company that transferred video-tape manually in 1992 and eventually developed a robotic system used by the Library of Congress; he also has worked with NBC News, Children’s Television Workshop and the National Archives. Pleased with the progress certain organizations have made, he’s nonetheless frustrated that others didn’t do more when they had time on their side.
“It’s an urgent situation, and there’s always something else to spend money on,” says Lindner, a consultant for Front Porch Digital who spends a portion of each year in Nova Scotia. “Now they’ve got to figure out who’s going to give them a life raft. It’s not just that the ship is tilting — there’s a lot of water in the boat.”
The earliest TV broadcasts weren’t recorded on any media, just beamed into the airwaves. Networks began recording them on kinoscope so they could ship the tape west for later viewing. A number of videotape formats followed: 2-inch videotape, and then 1-inch and 3/4-inch videotape, and so on. To make matters more complicated, certain tapes could be played on certain players only; Europe had it own standards.
Early on, videotape was expensive so, to cut costs, networks would reuse it as long as possible before tossing it away. Or they threw it out to clear space in their studios. Archiving shows for future monetary gain wasn’t part of the equation back then.
“The first year of Johnny Carson was dropped into the Hudson River because there wasn’t space for it,” Herman points out.
“Certainly there are large gaps,” says Ron Simon, television and radio curator for the Paley Center for Media, who says there is a pretty good record of primetime programming, but “nightly news programs were not saved as assiduously as we would have liked.” Most surviving civil rights footage comes from newsreels, for example, and there’s scant footage of Vietnam. As for sports? “Not systematically saved until the early ’70s.”
The move toward filming TV shows in 35mm became more popular as more B-movie directors migrated to TV and this helped create a legacy for them. The UCLA Film & TV Archive recently received a large collection from the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson family in 35mm, says the org’s director, Jan-Christopher Horak.
Networks and studios have since become savvy about the value of maintaining a viable library. They store archive copies of TV and film in various secure locations, including former limestone mines and salt mines, and are digitizing existing libraries.
Warner Bros., for example, has had a preservation and restoration organization for well over a decade, and is in the middle of formulating a companywide digital strategy. According to Darcy Antonellis, president of Warner Bros.’ technical operations, the studio is digitizing its library in stages, with priority given to particularly marketable assets and those in need of immediate care. The latter are placed in “triage lane.”
For instance, Warners fast-tracked the 1950s series “77 Sunset Strip” and the ’60s Efrem Zimbalist Jr. starrer “The FBI” as assets that quickly needed preservation to avoid deterioration of the originals.
The studio’s policy is to make copies of assets at the highest-resolution possible off the native format. That way, it’ll have the best material possible should it revisit the show as technology evolves. There have already been a number of digital formats.
Antonellis says the studio takes great care — and spends tens of millions of dollars — on preservation, because it is so important to its future.
“We can’t haphazardly transfer what are really the most important assets the studio has,” Antonellis says.
NBC News likewise takes great care to properly tag archival programs as it digitizes them. The network has also launched an effort, called Project Little Falls, to convert programming to high-def. During the five-year effort, 250,000 hours, representing roughly 25% of the NBC News archives, will be converted, with priority given to “The Nightly News” and “The Today Show” as well as marquee clips of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the Kennedys.
According to Mel Weidner, NBC VP of content and media management, the network’s news archive dates back to the late 1940s and includes footage of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.
“From the ’70s through now, we have complete records of all aired shows,” he says.
Project Little Falls, he says, will help the company monetize the archive and provide better news coverage. Its cost: $1.6 million per year, with half going to labor and half in capital costs.
“Having the ability to access archives on an almost immediate basis would enhance sales,” Weidner says. “The archive sales team certainly has a seat at the table.”
Preserving older TV programming for the digital age certainly isn’t cheap. The Paley Center has a library of 150,000 programs, and a mere 15,000 of them are digitized.
“It’s very time-consuming and it is expensive,” says Simon, adding, “We do get grants for it.”
The cost becomes especially problematic for so-called orphaned programming. Vintage shows have a much better chance of being preserved if someone stands to gain from their preservation.
This is where nonprofit orgs come in.
UCLA spent a year preserving “The Goldbergs” after Cherney Berg, son of creator Gertrude Berg, donated episodes of the pioneering show about Jewish family life to the archive. The archives acquired the missing episodes from private collectors and CBS, the network that yanked it from the air in 1951 amid accusations that co-star Philip Loeb was a Communist.
“It’s a historically important show,” says Pauline Stakelon, digital media and copyright strategist for the archive. “We thought it was really important to put out.”
She spent a full day to a day and a half cleaning up each episode saved on kinoscope reels, taking care to retain the flavor of the original recording. Shout Factory released the collection, the biggest restoration project ever for UCLA, on disc in March.
The org also is working with “Honeymooners” producers to restore “lost” episodes. Horak says he would love to see other programs revived, such as “The U.S. Steel Hour,” but rights issues are holding them back. (There are more than 300,000 shows in the UCLA archive, including Emmy kudocasts.)
The TV Academy Foundation also has collaborated on DVD releases of “What Makes Sammy Run” and “Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus” with E1 Entertainment. Its main focus, however, is on pro
viding context to shows through interviews. Herman is working with archives such as UCLA to gain online access to clips that accompany interviews.
“Preservation’s been great the last 10 years,” says Herman, who credits the Internet for helping collectors find each other online.
“A lot of stuff we thought was lost, we now have, thanks to the Internet,” she says, citing “Mary Kay and Johnny,” which became television’s first primetime sitcom in 1947.
Other shows considered lost keep popping up as relatives discover them. That’s one reason why the Paley Center devotes a section of its site to its most wanted.
“Things do turn up at estate sales,” Simon says. “You’d be surprised.”
Meanwhile, the networks and studios keep churning out new shows to join older programs in their archives — and finding new digital platforms to try and monetize them. It’s a challenge for even the most dedicated to keep up.
“It’s impossible to collect everything,” says Simon, citing the growing volume of online programming in addition to the expanding cable universe.
“In some ways it’s gotten better. In other ways it’s gotten a lot worse,” Lindner says. “The window is fast closing.”