Commentary

Upload It And They Will Come

For television historians, it used to be that the only way to view long-gone television shows was to venture to university libraries, the Museum of Television & Radio, or, if you were lucky, buy or rent a video.  For more obscure programs, you might have to track down a private collector (think Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons").  Biographical information was culled from books, in libraries, sometimes through inter-library loans. The horror! 

From a preservation and dissemination viewpoint, the recent online availability of historic television content is a good thing for all of us. The fact that content owners and public domain archives like Internet Archive allow embedding onto educational platforms like our Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television makes for a much richer learning experience. Anyone with high speed Internet service can enjoy footage of Carl Reiner relating how he created and starred in a little-known pilot called "Head of the Family" where he played himself as a TV comedy writer. It turns out that Carl was miscast as himself, the show was recast, and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was born. Both pilot episodes are watchable and embeddable courtesy of advertiser-supported Hulu. Finally, media studies students and aspiring writers and producers can easily witness for themselves that TV shows aren't made in a vacuum, there's an evolutionary process at work. Case in point: isn't Tina Fey's "30 Rock" about a TV comedy writer, created by a (not-so-miscast) TV comedy writer?

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The last ten years have yielded fantastic discoveries of works previously thought lost or very difficult to find.  Many of the early Johnny Carson "Tonight" show tapes were dumped into the Hudson River because of a lack of storage space.  Fortunately, not everything was lost; witness the recently revamped JohnnyCarson.com, where clips from Carson's "Tonight" shows have been digitized, catalogued and are now ready to be enjoyed by all.  

As more historical TV gems come to light, we see that not everything in the "Golden Age" was "golden." Some productions were laughable (see one of the only Matinee Theatreepisodes available online); some were surprising (see Humphrey Bogart guest-starring on "The Jack Benny Show"); and others were historic (see CBS News breaking into an episode of "As the World Turns"to report on the shooting of President Kennedy).  But all are informative about how television reflected and shaped American society in the second half of the 20th century.  It's a cultural victory that these significant moments in television are now widely available.

Thanks to the rise of digital content, the ubiquity of Web video, and "long tail" thinking, the notion of selling old television content one-view-at-a time, but forever, is catching on with program owners.  Previously considered worthless or not worth the legal efforts, some of this content can now turn a profit -- especially with revenue -haring deals that cover hosting costs.  A show may get just a few clicks a week, but it all adds up, and there's no physical inventory to manage.  The last major obstacles to hosting this content online are the myriad rights issues that plague those of us in the field of media education.

While it is a public service to put this historic content online, it's win-win if content owners can make a viable business model out of making old video new again. In the next few years, especially with the decline of DVD sales, more and more owners should take a chance, open their vaults and let the hostages out.  Even releasing one or two episodes can whet the appetites of the many TV history fans out there who will talk them up, embed them, and keep those play arrows (and pre-roll ads) pressed. Ka-ching.

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