Why is it important to preserve public television programs?

“The impact of television on our culture is. . . indescribable. There’s a certain sense in which it is nearly as important as the invention of printing.” — Carl Sandburg

Worldwide, more than 30 million hours of unique television programming are broadcast every year. Yet only a tiny fraction of this vast output is preserved for future reference — and only a fraction of that preserved footage is publicly accessible. Most television broadcasts are simply lost forever.

For better or for worse, television has transformed our lives. Since its invention more than 50 years ago, television has joined books, magazines and newspapers as a major keeper of our cultural and historical record.

Television has produced and reflected much of our shared cultural, social and political experience since the last half of the 20th century. The medium brings us sound and moving images, distracts us with made-up stories, shows us true events, takes us to real places we may never see in person, and introduces us to the sounds and images of actual people, giving it a power and emotional impact that has the ability to educate us, move us, and touch us deeply.

And almost as long as television has been around, archivists have been working to preserve selected programs so we can see the popular images and events of our past that have been captured for the small screen.

You may have heard television commonly described as “a vast wasteland…”, a phrase used by Newton Minow who was Chairman of the FCC when he made this remark in 1961. But in the same speech, he also said that ”“when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — is better.””

Public television is a major part of this landscape. Created with a mission to educate, enlighten, engage and inform, public television has been broadcasting since 1950’s initially with a focus on instructional and scholarly programs. Soon, it branched out to a more general public service mission that featured cultural performances, lectures and political discussions, news reports and programs specifically for children.

“Non-commercial TV … should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.” — E.B. White

That legacy continues today, where the vision for public television is to …“be a unifying force in American culture, a lens through which we can understand our diverse nation and the world… by challenging the American mind; inspiring the American spirit; preserving the American memory; enhancing the American dialogue; and promoting global understanding ….”

Through such national programs as ”Great Performances, Frontline, Wide Angle, American Experience, American Masters, NATURE, Nova, Masterpiece Theatre”, and many, many others, public television has had an indelible impact on shaping our collective identity. That is why the Library of Congress sees public television as an important representation of the values and issues we cherish over time.

“Public television has been responsible for the production, broadcast and dissemination of programs which form the richest audiovisual source of cultural history in the United States.” — Report to the Librarian of Congress

With the rapid ascent of digital media and the ethereal environment of the internet, saving these programs to make them accessible to future generations is especially critical.

What does it mean to ‘preserve’ a program?

In archival circles, there are three terms that generally describe efforts to protect and preserve materials —

Conservation – an umbrella term generally used to describe having the responsibility for caring for the ‘objects’ to be protected. Conservation includes both Preservation and Restoration.

Preservation – since all objects deteriorate, preservation means taking actions that will keep an ‘object’ from deteriorating. This often involves trying to stop, slow down or limit damage through controlling temperature and humidity, storing the objects using proper shelving and handling, and similar practices.

Restoration – are activities that try to return a damaged object to its original form, or reproduce it as it was created.

In terms of preserving public television programs, we try to save a program just the way it is broadcast. For decades, programs were recorded on videotape, so virtually all television archives today are comprised primarily of collections of videotapes, many going back 40 or even 50 years.

These materials can be surprisingly fragile. Videotape degrades, formats change, machines to playback old tape fail. Ensuring that material in the archives doesn’t decay over time is a major challenge, as is restoring materials that have decayed.

To preserve these videotapes and help keep them from deteriorating – shedding magnetic coating, glue getting moldy, and similar damage — we try to keep them in climate controlled storage, stored in plastic boxes and shelved on their edges like books. These conditions will help conserve the tapes and slow down the deteriotation over time, but they won’t totally arrest it.

At the same time, we have tapes in many formats that are totally obsolete and they cannot be played back on current tape recorders – the tapes are very fragile, and the old machines that can play them back also need special maintenance. Aging videotape itself can’t really be restored – but in many cases, the images on the videotape can be recovered.

Instead, the process involves remastering the videotape. The tape is played back carefully to get the best possible image, and a new copy is made in the current format providing the highest quality with the most (projected) longevity. Then the original tape is put back in storage and all new copies are made from the new master copy of the program.

Preserving programs produced in digital formats presents a different set of problems. The major issue in saving digital video files is being able to play them back accurately. Video files are large and complex, with a lot of extra information attached like closed captions, that also has to be properly preserved.

What with the proliferation of non-standardized file formats, and the constantly changing hardware and software for video recording and editing, digital video recordings can become unplayable in a flash. It is a major challenge to figure out how to save these files over time and still be able to play them back even a few years later.

The goal of this project – Preserving Digital Public Television – is to design a digital environment that will safely save the files, let us find them, and then let us look at them again. To do this, we are focusing on storing the files in packages, and putting them in an open-source storage application that can be maintained and periodically refreshed.

Keep checking this site for regular reports and updates on our progress as we test this approach.

Who has the responsibility to save these programs?

Within the public broadcasting system, no single organization has the responsibility to “save” public television programs.

Once the broadcast rights to a program have expired, the public television system is generally uninterested what happens to it. By default, responsibility for long-term preservation reverts back to the institution which has an investment in the survival of the work — which generally means the program producer, be it a station or some other organization.

Congress has given The Corporation for Public Broadcasting responsibility for supporting program preservation, but CPB has not yet invested any money in it. Some interest rests with PBS, which controls the progams when they are sent out to the national network, and has an agreement to transfer these programs to the Library of Congress. But it is an ‘unfunded mandate’ with no actual budget.

WGBH, and Thirteen/WNET produce a majority of the programs seen nationally on public television. They each maintain their own formal program archives to conserve their own productions. Other stations often, but not always, keep copies of the programs they produce, and most individual producers also keep copies of their own programs. But these are rarely kept in proper ‘archival’ storage or conservation conditions.

One of the goals of this project is to develop a cooperative model for operating and maintaining a long term preservation facility that can benefit all these different public television interests.

Doesn’t public television keep its programs on videotape?

Most programs have been stored on videotape, but there is no single location in PBS where programs are preserved.

  • PBS itself is storing more than 150,000 tapes in a warehouse.
  • The WGBH Media Archive manages nearly 500,000 editorial assets, which includes documents, computer discs, graphic materials, and similar materials, as well as audio and videotapes.
  • Thirteen has more than 40,000 videotapes in its collection, along with promotional materials, administrative information and legal records.
  • At hundreds of stations and production offices around the country, tens of thousands of tapes are sitting on shelves, stuffed in drawers and stacked up in closets.

Saving even a portion of this rich resouce is a huge and costly challenge — one that will take a lot of education, commitment, and public support.

How can I see these old programs?

Viewing old broadcasts is much more difficult than it should be, given that many of these programs were produced with public funds. The lack of accessibility partially reflects an ongoing debate between commercial organizations concerned with protecting their intellectual property, and non–commercial archives that wish to provide broad public access. But it also reflects the high cost of making new copies of programs from old videotape.

  • Many programs have legal or contractual agreements that restrict their use after the broadcast rights expire, and getting new permissions can be prohibitively expensive. This can be especially problematic with older programs, which were produced long before DVD’s and the internet and where contractual records may be incomplete or missing.
  • Older programs are recorded on fragile and obsolete videotape formats, and you can’t watch them until they are cleaned and remastered. This can cost upwards of $500 per hour of tape. We can only afford to remaster a few tapes at a time, so many collections will remain in storage until we have enough money to remaster them.
  • Even so, public libraries often have collections of PBS programs; some programs can be seen in museums, like the Museum of Television and Radio, and the Museum of the Moving Image; and occasionally programs can be purchased through the program’s producers, individual stations or commerically in stores or on-line.

    Many archives, including Thirteen and WGBH, allow people to view archival programs by appointment and on site. But with so many older programs existing only on old, obsolete tape formats, this can be costly – before you can look at a program, you might be charged the costs for making the ‘viewing’ copy made!

    What does ‘born digital’ mean?

    Programs that are created entirely with digital systems for shooting, editing, and distribution are considered ‘born digital.’

    In contrast to material in the archives, which may be on film or in a variety of analog formats, born digital materials can be archived without additional processing at the time of broadcast. In addition, born digital outtakes and other materials can be saved in the same systems.

    But unlike the long-established procedures for preserving analog videotapes, there are no standards yet established for preserving ‘born digital’ program files. Consequently, by archival standards, digital video files are considered very high ‘at risk’ collections.

    Material in the archives

    Why is preserving ‘born-digital’ programs different from keeping analog tapes?

    In a relatively rapid period of time, digital technology has radically transformed the nature of television program production — from a linear, sequential analog process, to a non-linear, random access, totally digital environment. Consequently, standard preservation practices that have served (and continue to serve) to protect analog productions on videotape no longer apply.

    We are rapidly approaching the “tapeless environment” – where programs will live solely as “disembodied” assets, attached to their metadata, distributed and stored in a totally digital environment. This introduces an entirely new set of issues and problems relating to long-term program preservation, for which no coordinated strategy yet exists in public television.

    While digital material is generally easier to duplicate, it is also more fragile. Hard disks fail at the rate of roughly 2 percent per year, which means that digtal materials must be constantly checked, backed up, restored, and migrated from older to new disks.

    On the other hand, born digital materials, stored on disk rather than on tape, and on Internet-accessible servers rather than in vaults, can be made much more accessible to students, historians, scholars, and the public. This promise of expanded access is one of the most important changes in the world television archiving, ever.

    What kind of programs are you preserving?

    The PTV Digital Archive is a work in progress. Currently, we are working to preserve a very limited number of programs in ways that can be expanded to cover most PBS broadcasts.

    Our initial set of programs includes Nature, Frontline, Great Performances, and Religion & Ethics, in both standard and High Definition formats.

    Can’t you just put the programs on a DVD?

    DVDs are suitable for some types of program distribution, for example, to libraries and video stores. Though some archival types of DVDs, designed to remain chemically stable for decades, are now on the market, DVDs are not an ideal archival medium for a number of reasons. One of the most important is that DVDs don’t offer the possibility of creating large scale archives that are searchable online.

    Why is the Library of Congress investing in preserving digital public television programs?

    The Library has been charged by Congress in the the American Television and Radio Archive legislation to create and maintain archives of radio and television broadcasts (see http://www.copyright.gov/fedreg/2004/69fr62411.html). The Library’s television archive has accumulated through a combination of legacy acquisitions, and the collection of depository copies made for purposes of copyright registration. The LC currently has over 1.1 million moving image items in its collection, and over 314,000 television titles.

    The Library has a legal agreement with the Public Broadcasting Service that stipulates that PBS shall act as an agent for all public television producers by allowing the LOC to have a copy of any program it wants, one year after the broadcast rights have expired. However, neither the LOC nor PBS has had enough funding to keep the program donations flowing as regularly as imagined when the agreement was signed in the early 90’s. Consequently, the costly transfer of analog tapes has been slow. PBS simply does not have the resources to create new plans for transferring digital materials as well.

    Will I be able to see them at the Library of Congress? Who will be able to see them?

    Viewing will eventually be possible, but taking materials offsite is likely to be difficult.

    Libraries with print collections rarely prohibit the use of Xerox machines, but because of copyright law and contractual agreements with donors and program owners, video libraries are typically unable to allow or provide onsite reproduction, or offsite consultation via the Internet. Videos that can’t be legally reproduced are not typically usable for other purposes such as classroom showing.

    What about putting them online through something like Google Video, YouTube or Open Media Network?

    A number of programs, such as Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series, have been made available this way. PBS is also working closely with the Open Media Network to make past broadcasts Internet accessible.

    Again, copyright law and contracts with producers, performers, unions, and others involved in creating each program results in very different limits being imposed.

    Who elso is involved?

    Lead Institution: Educational Broadcasting Corporation, Thirteen/WNET, New York. EBC, one of America’s premier public television institutions. will be the lead institution in this partnership and will have primary responsibilities for managing and administering the grant. Its flagship station Thirteen/WNET reaches more than 4.5 million viewers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Thirteen has an operating budget of more than $150 million dollars and a staff of 450, making it the second largest station in the public television system. EBC inaugurated broadcast service in 1962. In the forty years since, the station has earned a strong reputation for producing thousands of hours of award-winning cultural affairs and community programming for both local and national broadcast. Today, Thirteen produces many of the signature arts and cultural affairs programs aired over public television, including such important series as American Masters, Great Performances, Dance in America, EGG The Arts Show, NATURE, and Cyberchase.

    WGBH: Media Archives & Preservation Center. WGBH in Boston is the largest station in the public television system. It traces it origins back more than a century and a half, when a bequest from John Lowell, Jr. in 1836 created the Lowell Institute to provide free public lectures for Boston’s citizens. In the mid-1940’s, the Lowell Institute spearheaded a cooperative venture to broadcast the Institute’s lectures over the radio. By 1951 WGBH/FM Radio was launched, followed by WGBH/TV in 1955. Today WGBH holds the licenses for six broadcast operations; three radio and two television stations and is the largest station within the public broadcasting system. It provides one-third of all prime-time programs seen on PBS nationwide and is a major supplier of programming to the public radio system as well. Major national television series produced by WGBH include: Antiques Roadshow, The American Experience, Arthur, Between the Lions, Frontline, Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! The New Yankee Workshop, NOVA, Victory Garden and Zoom.

    PBS — The Public Broadcasting Service. PBS, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, is a private, non-profit media enterprise owned and operated by the nation’s public television stations. Founded in 1969, PBS provides quality TV programming and related services to 349 noncommercial public television stations serving all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa. In its mandate, PBS oversees program acquisition, distribution and promotion; education services; new media ventures; fundraising support; engineering and technology development; and video marketing. As the primary repository of the nation’s public television programs, the Public Broadcasting Service maintains a tape and film collection dating back to the mid-1950s, including National Educational Television (NET) as well as one or more broadcast versions of nearly every program distributed by PBS. The current collection includes over 115,000 videotapes, the bulk of which are 1-inch or 2-inch analog or in a variety of digital formats. To date, PBS has transferred approximately 22,000 2-inch videotapes or 16mm film reels—representing the entire NET collection and the bulk of the PBS 2” format era–to the Library of Congress as part of a 1993 donation agreement.

    New York University. Founded in 1831, New York University is one of the largest private universities in the United States. From an initial student body of 158 and a faculty of 14, today NYU has more than 3,100 full time faculty members, more than 48,000 students, programs in 14 schools and colleges. NYU is also home to the renowed Tisch School of the Arts, a center for the study of film and television. Tisch has recently established its ground-breaking program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation, a new Masters Degree program which is one of only two such programs in the United States. Launched in Fall 2003, this two-year course of study will train future professionals to manage preservation-level collections of film, video, new media, and other types of moving image works.

    For Potential Users

    I’m a producer. Will I be able to use any of these materials in my own productions?

    The archival process itself does not change the rights associated with the work, but we do expect to make the easily licensable material more accessible first.

    I would like to stay informed.

    We will be posting our major announcements at www.ptvdigitalarchive.org. If you are looking to learn more about television archiving generally, check out our resources section.

    I am a teacher, and would like to show PBS programs in my classroom.

    The website Teacher’s Domain has a selection of clips from past PBS broadcasts. See www.teachersdomain.org.

    Related Projects

    What is NGIS?

    NGIS– the Next Generation Interconnection System – scheduled for 2007-2008 is an entirely digital system for program distribution based on stations and producers submitting their programs to PBS in digital form, and then PBS sending them out nationally as digital files for each station to cache for local broadcast. PBS is now in the process of setting a series of standards for the various file formats to be specified for final program submission, for distribution and for station storage and play-out.

    NGIS has been in the planning stage for a number of years, but in our original proposal, it is mentioned only in passing because its focus was exclusively on distribution.

    Over time, NGIS will transform into “NGI&PS” – that is, the Next Generation Interconnection & Preservation System.” Instead of treating those requirements needed for preservation as unrelated to those needed for distribution, we would attempt to alter the actual architecture of NGIS — to see if we can embed digital preservation elements into the entire production and distribution workflow – starting at the beginning, from the time program content is first created, through the distribution process and into a preservation package. It will take some effort for this to be successful, but it is too important an opportunity for us to pass up.

    How do efforts in the U.S. compare with those in other countries?

    Public broadcasters appear to be less intent on monetizing public access to and use of their holdings, and thus more willing to make collections available online for free. Several have begun work to make their catalogs and portions of their holdings directly accessible on the Internet:

    The BBC is in the process of making its entire catalog of more than one million items available on the Internet. Its Open News Archive, accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/calc/news/, provides clips of major historical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen protests of 1989, that film makers, educators, and others can re-use in new creations.

    The Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA), created in 1975 by the French government to retain all audiovisual material broadcast by national broadcasting companies, recently launched “Archives Pour Tous” (see http://www.ina.fr/archivespourtous/index.php). The INA is adding about 5,000 hours per month to its collection, about 80 percent of which is free; the 20 percent that is copyrighted is available €1 to €12 for full downloads. See http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/05/17/business/ptend18.php.

    In the Netherlands, where several member-based public broadcasting networks are supported by a mix of government funds and advertisements, parliamentarians have discussed (and largely agreed) that most footage should be made available online and considered as part of the public domain. See http://www.dmeurope.com/default.asp?ArticleID=3911.

    In Japan, the government is considering making 550,000 programs from the archives of NHK fully available online. NHK currently supplies footage worldwide via NHK International (see http://www.nhkint.or.jp/ and http://www.archival.tv/2006/05/10/nhk-to-put-entire-archive-online.)