Preservationists Working Frantically to Save Videotaped TV History from Disappearing

The Washington Post reports on efforts to save TV history by digitizing shows, programs and news coverage first recorded on quad videotape.

It’s an interesting article that gives a little insight to how careless TV networks were with their past. Considered endlessly expendable, those videotapes were apparently reused constantly, erasing TV history when first recorded in favor of new shows, which were then erased. Preservationist Jim Lindner of Media Matters runs down some of the heartbreak:

Much of our video heritage is already lost to history. “A lot of things happened culturally because of TV, but in many cases we no longer have those tapes,” Lindner says. “What we have now is just what was left over” after routine erasures and discardings.

For example, the Vietnam War played out on nightly network news shows, but “we have very few [tapes of those shows] today,” according to Lindner. Did late-night humorists contribute to changing social mores in the ’60s? Hard to say, since episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from 1962 to 1970 have almost totally disappeared. “It was only after Carson secured the rights to the show from NBC that he insisted on keeping copies for subsequent clip licensing,” says Mike Mashon, who heads the moving image section at the Packard Campus.

Carson might have saved them for licensing, but at least he knew of some value to them. It makes me wonder about the networks wanting to grasp on to the rights of old shows when they have little intent on releasing them–and this is true for videotape or filmed formats. It’s not like film is any less susceptible to the destruction of aging.

There are companies trying to release even obscure TV shows on DVD. Shout Factory, for instance, does a very good job. There are a surprising number of  bootlegged DVDs out there with old programs, many of which I’ve never heard of. However, there are others about to practically disappear from the face of the Earth unless they are uploaded digitally and seen.

Take for instance the clip of the show Mr. Adams and Eve that I included at the top of the post. TV Party, a great website covering old and rare TV, uploaded clips of the intriguing comedy on its site and was contacted by CBS lawyers. What for? Was CBS planning a Mr. Adams and Eve marathon we didn’t know about?

This is what’s so frustrating about the media companies’ piracy rules. There may be folks sitting on old and rare TV shows, hidden in their attics or basements wasting away. Some of them will be junk, for sure, but others will probably be revelations once they are rediscovered. I, for one, am certainly interested in watching Jerry Lewis play it straight in his version of “The Jazz Singer,” first recorded in 1959. If he’s successful, Lewis’ son Chris will be able to present it to us for the first time in over 50 years. It’s rediscoveries like these that will excite and inspire future viewers and content creators.

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