Slew of state-backed national archives take the past seriously

If anyone ever finds a copy of “Madhouse on Castle Street,” a 1963 BBC play featuring a fresh-faced Bob Dylan, or TV studio coverage of the 1969 moon landings, the British Film Institute would like to know.

They’re among the “most wanted” items on the Institute’s list of missing, and presumed lost, TV treasures.

Other items in the category include scribe Dennis Potter’s first TV drama, “The Confidence Course” (1965); the Alan Bennett comedy “On the Margin” (1966); and the first three seasons of seminal Britcom “Till Death Us Do Part,” which kicked off in 1965.

Until the late 1970s, tapes of shows were routinely wiped so that the then-expensive videotape could be reused.

Fortunately, a huge amount of TV from the 1950s to the present day, both in the U.K. and across continental Europe and elsewhere, is safely stored in national and private archives.

Across Europe, TV preservation is a serious pursuit. Pubcasters RAI in Italy and RTVE in Spain are among those using government funding to help their efforts. Similarly, the French government-backed National Audiovisual Institute has 2.5 million hours of material. But like their counterparts in Germany, Russia, and even Mexico, these works still face huge challenges.

Many preservationists consider the Brits to be pre-eminent in the field. The BBC and the British Film Institute, endowed by John Paul Getty Jr., are responsible for two of the world’s most important TV archives.

The pubcaster has approximately 600,000 hours of TV, much of it housed in a former greeting-card factory near London’s Heathrow Airport.

For the past three years, the BBC has been digitizing this vast resource so auds can view parts of the collection online.

More than 50,000 hours of film and video — less than 10% of the total — have been converted to digital files, with more than 30 themed collections available to browse. They range from the BBC’s coverage of Nelson Mandela’s trial in Pretoria in 1963 and 1964 to a “Doctor Who” retrospective, “The Changing Face of Doctor Who.”

Inevitably, there are rights issue relating to making archived programs publicly available.

“The key fact is that the public own some, but not all, of the amazing programs in this archive,” says BBC director of archive content Roly Keating. “In many cases those rights are shared with the authors, musicians and performers engaged in the original creation of those works.”

The BFI, funded mainly by the state, is obliged by law to record and archive shows broadcast by commercial broadcasters ITV and Five, and hybrid pubcaster Channel 4, but not fare shown by pay webs such as BSkyB.

“Our criteria for recording and archiving a program is that it must be significant and/or exemplary,” says Steve Bryant, senior curator of television at the BFI’s national archive.

“The aim is to have at least one example of everything. We don’t record U.S. shows, apart from a few of the ones that feature British actors, because they are not part of our remit.”

Italy claims its state TV archive is Europe’s second largest after the BBC’s.

Pubcaster RAI’s Teche unit has kept every broadcast RAI has made since 1980. Gradually it is working to fill in the gaps and, where necessary, restore content from earlier decades.

“RAI has been making TV programs for nearly 60 years, and radio programs for nearly 80, so there’s a huge and valuable patrimony to collect and preserve,” says RAI Teche director Barbara Scaramucci. “We already have millions of hours. But there’s much work to do.”

Coin comes from RAI, which is funded by a license fee and advertising. “Digital has changed RAI’s approach to archiving,” adds Scaramucci. “It’s brought commercial value to the process, with the possibility of not just providing TV channels, but also content on the Internet and DVD sales.

“I think the public appreciates the work we do. The politicians don’t seem to show much interest — unless they appear in the old programs themselves,” she says.

In Spain, the main TV archive belongs to pubcaster RTVE, which bowed in 1956. RTVE’s Documentation Center manages a vast film and TV library across all formats, including 2 million hours of video.

The big German broadcasters archive their own programming, because the Federal Film Archive doesn’t handle work for TV.

But there are a number of smaller archives, such as Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek.

The Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv contains everything produced for TV in the former East Germany from 1952 until reunification in 1991. The collection has some 100,000 titles, including TV movies, series and news reports.

Additionally, there are privately owned archives such as Taurus Medien, which houses the vast library of the now defunct Kirch Group, owned by Kineos, part of Jan Mojto’s Eos Entertainment group.

In France, the bulk of TV programs are archived by government-backed National Audiovisual Institute (INA), which was launched in 1974.

INA has been archiving more than 300,000 hours of TV, cable and satellite programs a year since 2006. Today, INA has more than 2.5 million hours of archives. As part of a safeguard and digitization plan initiated by the government in 1999, the org has been working to digitize all the programs that are in bad condition: some 835,000 hours of programing. It hopes to complete that task by 2015.

Russia has a long tradition of safeguarding content — the government provides funding for both archives and preservation. TV materials are cared for by the State Television and Radio Archive, Gostelradiofond. Founded in the 1930s, the Moscow-based collection has an active digitization program and collects material from TV and radio stations via bilateral contracts.

State and commercial TV stations in Russia also maintain programing libraries.

Outside Europe, Mexico’s Televisa, the Spanish-language production giant, runs the Protele TV archive. Its director, Salvador Rocha Cito, notes that unlike many countries, Mexico does not have government-run TV or film archives, so the effort falls to the industry itself.

First founded in 1979, and having moved to its current location in the capital in 1981, Protele is fully climate-controlled and houses 736,000 tapes featuring more than 893,000 hours of content.

Mexico’s No. 2 web, TV Azteca, has a smaller collection in its Videoteca Television Azteca archive, located at the web’s Ajusco facility in the capital.

Overseen by archive director Gabriela Barba, TV Azteca took over the location in 1993 from state-run weblet Imevision, which started it in 1979.

The library began digitization in 2003, focusing on news and sports. That part of the collection can be accessed by anyone working on Azteca’s corporate network.

Michael Day in Milan, Emiliano De Pablos in Madrid, Ed Meza in Berlin, Elsa Keslassy in Paris, Nick Holds-worth in Moscow and James Young in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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