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Lost Television: Not Completely Lost
by Phil Gries

     Incredibly, lost broadcasts from the 1950's and 1960's total over 200,000 television hours. However, in some cases the audio track does remain as a broadcast record of a telecast which today no longer survives in any other form.

     Thanks to a very small group of TV Audio Aircheck recorders, a number of classic and not so classic television programs survive today only as audio.

Audio Sampler of Rare & Lost Content
from the 1950's '60s, and '70s

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     Let us go back four decades and examine what created this phenomenon. In issue #785 of TV Guide dated April 13-19, 1968, it was reported that, to date, 140 million television sets had been manufactured, 800 television stations had been developed and over 50 million hours of television broadcasts had been aired.

     On a 24-hour-a-day schedule, it would take 6,000 years to view all of television's first 21 years of broadcasting (1947-1967). Incredibly, more than half of all these broadcasts, many of them telecast live or on videotape, have been "lost", destroyed, or have deteriorated beyond repair. Back in TV's early days, few people saw much value in keeping copies of programs from such a disposable medium as television. Through the 1960's, television preservation was an arcane pursuit.

     It was not until the 1970's, as the television industry approached it's silver anniversary, that serious archival interest in television program preservation began to surface. On October 19, 1976, the U.S. Congress officially recognized television as an important aspect of American culture, advocating the need to create a permanent record of TV and to allow for it's access to historians and scholars without causing copyright infringement. Also, one month later, in November of 1976, The Museum of Television and Radio, in New York, opened its doors to the public. Their objective was to acquire a bit of everything that the broadcasting industry had to offer. Acquisitions came from the networks, private collectors, industry personalities and other sources. Television series photographed on 16mm and 35mm film were the easiest to obtain. Unlike reusable videotape, film prints could not be reused for new programming and acetate film stock, used in the 1950's, was more stable than it's volatile nitrate counterpart. Therefore, a large percentage of filmed television, series, specials and documentaries from the 1950's and 1960's exist today in excellent viewing condition.

     Live programs telecast during the 1950's had to be kinescoped (16mm or 35mm film camera recording a television monitor as the live telecast aired) in order for these broadcasts to be preserved. This technique was expensive and primarily done for delayed West Coast transmission. Also, kinescopes of certain programs such as the 1952 World Series, originally broadcast live, were sent to Korea for our servicemen to view at a later date. While the picture quality is marginal for most of these kinescope recordings, it is the only broadcast record of a specific live telecast. Only a modest percentage of good kinescopes survive from the first dozen years of live television broadcasting; most were discarded or misplaced after their delayed transmission or screening.

     In the late 1950's, the kinescope process was gradually replaced by videotape recording and playback transmission. The new era of magnetic tape television, marking the gradual end of black-and-white kinescope and color lenticular film, was implemented by NBC in the spring of 1958 at their Burbank studios in California. Initially, two inch quad videotape was somewhat unstable, and editing such material was a slow and awkward process. It was also expensive to purchase, and two inch quad required a lot of space for storage due to size. There was very little profit preserving network and especially local, live and videotaped programming. Many original and duplicated tapes were discarded, misplaced and erased by uncaring executives and employees at television broadcast stations and production companies. After a television broadcast had initially aired, and possibly had its telecast rerun, there was little incentive to hold on to such original videotape material when it could be reused for new programming. Most talk shows, news, public affairs, live and videotaped interviews and sports broadcasts aired only once and were never seen again. With the exception of 1940's programming and 1950's daytime programming, these live and videotaped broadcasts, from 1958 through the 1960's, are the telecasts most "lost" and most scarce of all in television's broadcast history.

     Practically all the sample television programming that has survived from the late 50's and early 60's have come from the archives of the CBS, NBC, and to a lesser extent from the ABC television networks. Even the network archives kept only a fraction of all their broadcasts and many of these, through the 1960's, were eventually discarded, erased, destroyed, or misplaced. In some rare instances, personal requests to record a program or to dub a videotape by industry professionals were fulfilled. But it was rare when independent local stations kept copies of their live/videotaped programs. Economics came first. Tape was reused over and over again and hundreds of thousands of broadcasts were never seen or heard again, after their initial airing.

     Thus, if it weren't for a handful of professional and amateur recordists who personally recorded TELEVISION AUDIO, thousands of lost TV shows would be completely lost forever. When only the audio aircheck remains, we have an opportunity to at least be in touch with our nostalgic past, our memories, the political and social events of our time and our heritage. It is a form still revealing and memorable; it is illustrated radio with the visuals left to our imagination.

     Still, the efforts of these recordists, for the most part, continue to go unnoticed and unrecognized by the general public and by most archival broadcasting museums. As the 21st century unfolds, most of our early surviving kinescopes and videotapes will be accounted for and circulated. Perhaps then, inquisitive minds will at last come to recognize and revere the treasures which have been and remain overlooked... the audio track links to a bygone era representing the golden and silver age of television.


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UNIQUE in the WORLD audio air check recordings by 20-year-old Phil Gries, archiving the first, second bulletins & initial NBC TV broadcast coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Not recorded by NBC or any other resource in the country.

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