Gone, But Not Forgotten

June 25th, 2008

Inside Thirteen blogger: Nan ‘otek’ Rubin, Project Director, Preserving Digital Public Television

Recently, a huge fire ravaged several back lots of the Universal Studios, and you might have watched a blazing roof collapse into billows of thick, black smoke as reporters told us a New York city street scene and other bits of Hollywood scenery were gone.

For the moving-image archivist community, it was far more alarming. The building that collapsed housed the Universal film library, and it was 40,000 plastic video and film boxes reduced to ashes that released all that toxic smoke.

Universal sent out word that “…the fire destroyed nearly 100% of the archive prints kept on the lot. Nothing irreplaceable was lost, but many of these films will never be seen publicly again.” Even though these were only copies, they were shown at public programs and screenings, and now all of us have lost access to thousands of iconic films that have lived in popular memory for generations (except on Reel 13!).

Like me, you may have also gotten important formative images from television. Added to movies, my early view of the world was indelibly shaped by Ernie Kovacs, CBS Reports with Edward R. Murrow and Great American Dream Machine, all in black and white.

Now is this kind of history being saved?

It’s easy to assume that, if you went looking for an old TV show, it would be right there on a shelf, waiting to be viewed. But it takes money and planning to create a media archive, a long-term investment that has to be maintained and supported over time.

Losing the Universal vault was just another reminder of how important it is to preserve what you have. The video Archive was established 10 years ago, and though many programs were thrown out, taped over, lost from age, or never recorded in the first place, this collection has close to 35,000 videotapes, including many early programs and historical broadcasts. As Thirteen continues to produce, we’re adding outstanding new programs each year.

But even though these shows exist, it may be very difficult to view them. Most older programs are on videotape formats that we can’t play back without specialized expertise and equipment. At the same time, new programs are increasingly taking the form of video files, which themselves may not be viewable in a few years without planning their playback now.

Safely storing Thirteen’s programs is crucial, but that’s not enough to keep them viewable. Over time, we also need the extra commitment of restoring them. Then not only will we be saving our television history, but also guaranteeing that copies will continue to live and be seen well into the future.