That once upon a time in the media we didn’t realise the value of archives, of holding onto original programming and editions, never ceases to amaze me.
Of course, as the ongoing fallout from the devastating fire in 2008 at the Universal Music archive warehouse in Hollywood shows, it wasn’t just a media shortcoming and that even now, what we chose to store and how we store it is far from perfect.
Watching all the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing, I’m reminded how little of the original live footage survives, not only of RTÉ’s Apollo 11 mission television output but British television’s as well, which bizarrely perhaps included a live improvised-performance appearance by Pink Floyd. Apart from occasional brief British and international clips, nearly everything you’ll see in these Apollo 11 documentaries is from American coverage of the momentous voyage.
How much of this is NASA’s own footage, now worth a small fortune, and how much is actually from the US television networks on the day, I have no idea, though I’d wager NASA have preserved a greater percentage of the media they produced in the build up to and during the eight day mission than the networks did.
Why? Because until relatively recently most media producers had little reason to imagine that someday in the future long after their initial publication or broadcast their creations could not only potentially be of great historical interest but big money earners too.
I’m no expert on newspapers but I’m guessing that copies were originally only kept for historical reference reasons, whether by the publishers themselves or in local or national libraries. Even since the arrival of television, their value as on-air illustrative material probably covers little of the cost of storing and managing them. Likewise, I doubt selling framed anniversary front pages – for instance, as an on-the-day-you-were-born birthday present – is that big a seller either.
And cost is the most important factor when it comes to the preservation of much – particularly older and bulkier – media material. It’s not cheap.
Large cool, dry spaces have to be built or dedicated to storage. Personnel have to be hired to organise this storage and deal with queries about its contents. Systems have to be designed and implemented to file and retrieve it. Ongoing investment is needed for regular monitoring of its condition, for intervention when deterioration is likely, for updating when transferring the material to newer, more user-friendly forms, and so on.
Today an entire television series can be stored on a single hard drive but even these have to be kept somewhere safe and suitable with proper searchable systems needed to facilitate ease and accuracy of retrieval.
But it’s not just the cost of storage – there’s also cost of the recording media themselves. By the time we switched from tape to memory cards, the price of the former had fallen dramatically but in the early days, particularly video tape in TV, the big and bulky original formats were almost prohibitively expensive.
That they were also reusable was therefore just too tempting and vast swathes of it were recorded over, often multiple times.
At the very heart of this expense conundrum was that for too long we didn’t appreciate the value of archives. And I’m not just talking here about their cultural and historical value. Today archives are big business. If people knew this back in the day they’d undoubtedly have taken much more care of them.
As it was it way too much tape got reused, discarded, lost or irreparably damaged; film, apart from the recycling, likewise. Most live broadcasting was never recorded in the first place. It’s nigh on impossible to put a price on all of it that’s gone forever.
My own first real eye-opening encounter of the archive kind was while producing Reporters At War, a series we made at True Vision for Discovery on the history of modern war journalism in 2003. Good archive was pivotal to its success, due in no small manner to the great work done by our archive researcher at the time, Paul Bell (now a fully-fledged producer), not only in sourcing a huge range of brilliantly appropriate footage but also in negotiating a highly competitive deal with both ITN and the BBC that allowed us not to scrimp on using it.
Not that Paul found all the archive we ended up using. While researching the episode about the ever-changing technology of war reporting I came across a story somewhere of American cameramen in 1898 faking footage of a naval battle off the coast of the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Not only did I find a copy of this fascinating footage but I also dug up a short film of the crew 40 years later illustrating how exactly they had pulled it off. With hindsight I like to think of the original as possibly the first moving-pictures ‘fake news.’
A few years later while producing and directing a couple of documentaries (Sleep With Me and Curse of the Night Eaters) at October Films I witnessed a different aspect of the archives business. The current ubiquitousness of user-generated content (UGC) was in its early stages as mobile phones with cameras became increasingly common and October took full advantage with their Channel 4 commission, Rude Tube. It was while negotiating the rights of these non-professional clips with the amateurs who shot them who were unused to dealing with broadcasters that they spotted a gap in the market and set up a unit to licence them, not only for Rude Tube, but for anyone else who wanted to use them on air. A new archives business was born.
I’ve only once had hands-on experience sourcing archive and it was here while working on RTÉ’s one-off TV-archive quiz show with Mike Murphy at the helm, 2015’s Play It By Year, that I came face to face with the phenomenon of missing programmes.
I’d read of numerous cases of this happening in broadcasters throughout the world but this was my first time seeing it for myself up close.
For instance, we wanted to have the option of using old RTÉ quiz show clips in the programme. Sadly there were, if memory serves me well, only three episodes of the long-running 1965-1981 Quicksilver fronted by Bunny Carr in existence. The others are lost to eternity.
Likewise there were only a handful of Mike’s own short-lived 1980’s family friendly Murphy’s Micro Quiz-M in the vaults.
Thankfully by the time we got to everyone’s favourite 1980’s and ’90’s Sunday night quiz show, Where In The World?, fronted for most of its run by Theresa Lowe, people in RTÉ were far less inclined to hit the re-record button.
I’m sure more experienced archivists than me have a more thorough list of what’s missing from both RTÉ’s radio and television shelves.
As might someone like Greg Molloy who has dedicated way too much time to collecting, digitising and uploading to YouTube hours upon hours of VHS tapes of old RTÉ and British television broadcasts, many sent to him by members of the public who would have recorded them off the telly back in the day and then, as the format died, had no further use for them.
In fact Killian has many stories of TV production companies coming to him over the years looking for his archive footage to use in programmes they were making, usually for RTÉ, because RTÉ themselves didn’t have copies. The irony so of RTÉ last year taking legal action against Killian for violating their copyright by his uploading of their clips to YouTube is substantial.
One thing I know isn’t there – don’t worry, I’ve asked – is Palm Sunday Mass in 1974 on RTÉ television broadcast from one of their studios in Dublin 4. My educated guess is that because it was shown live it was never actually taped by the state broadcaster. I’m more certain that no one has a copy that they’ve forgotten about in their attic as no one in the country would have had a domestic video recorder – Betamax didn’t arrive until 1975 and VHS wasn’t introduced until 1976, so as you might imagine it would even be several years later before they become widespread household fixtures.
Which is a real pity as it’s where I made my TV debut, singing in the choir and reading a prayer of the faithful as a sweet innocent almost-13-year-old. Where was the internet then when you needed it, huh?
I’ve never investigated what of my RTÉ radio presenting output from the 1990s before I headed to London still exists. I know Access All Areas, my music business series from 1996-1998 must because episodes occasionally turn up on Radio One Extra and I’ve heard a couple of clips since I came back to Ireland in 2009 on Radio One’s Bowman Sunday. How many of them are still only in their original analogue quarter-inch tape format and how many have been digitised, I don’t know.
I assume the consumer series, Off Your Trolley, I made before that is still there, though I imagine little if any of it has ever been digitised. I’m open to correction here.
As for all the live shows I regularly filled in on, most notably for Dave Fanning on 2fm and Andy (no relation) O’Mahony’s Sunday Show on Radio 1, I seriously doubt any of the former still exist – no one thought DJs playing pop music would ever have any historical significance until much later – while I would hope all of the latter do, as that was serious, grown-ups’ radio so of course it was important. Yeah, right.
I have a few copies here on cassette tape if anyone really wants to hear them. Maybe I should ring Greg Molloy?
There’s another aspect to archive preservation which has always intrigued me and that’s, as well as keeping the master copies of the programme as transmitted, whether all the rushes – the footage recorded in the programme’s production, only snippets of which make up the end product – should also be kept. Traditionally they haven’t.
If space wasn’t such an issue – and even now on hard drives it still is, though to a much lesser degree – I’d argue that of course they should as who knows what rare never-broadcast gems they might reveal further down the line. But as well as storage issues I understand that the added work in logging these mostly hidden extras – and an archive system is only as good as it’s retrieval system – would ever be unlikely to covered by any income they generate so it’s unlikely to happen as standard.
I was reminded of this a while back when during an archives discussion on Twitter someone recounted how as a kid on work experience in RTÉ they had spent much of their time there erasing video tapes.
When was that? Masters or copies? And what format?
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) June 24, 2019
I remembered this was standard practice during the nineties, not with programme master tapes, but with rushes, which would be collected from production offices, bulk erased in industrial magnetic machines, re-labelled as blanks and recycled back to the programme makers.
I always thought it was a pity; and it may explain why I’ve hung onto a few outtakes bits ‘n’ bobs myself over the years on the off-chance that someday they may be of interest or value…or indeed, both. In the future these two boxes of all the full Access All Areas interviews and those A Eurovision Affair rushes from the Bord Gais Theatre of the final day’s rehearsal and the opening performance of the countrywide tour could be my pension.
Well something better be.
You might also be interested in this earlier post on why honesty in the media when discussing the media is a rare thing: https://www.patomahony.ie/2017/05/honesty-the-best-policy-off-message-37/