Culture

The television canon is based on what we bothered to preserve

Untold numbers of important television programs have been lost to time.
Culture

The television canon is based on what we bothered to preserve

Untold numbers of important television programs have been lost to time.

In 1977, a radical show called All That Glitters aired on American television. Following a set of recurring characters working at a corporation called Globatron, the show poked fun at then-contemporary soap operas. The comedy imagined a world where women and men swapped positions in society — the women went to work and earned money; the men were sexually harassed, and expected to take charge of household duties and parenting. One of those characters was Linda Murkland, a transgender woman played by actor Linda Gray. Murkland, a model, was the first transgender character on American television, though her time there was short-lived, as All That Glitters only lasted one season.

The Norman Lear production sounds like an important one in the history of television — and yet episodes are unavailable to critics, scholars, and casual TV junkies alike. If you want to watch more than a few surviving scraps, there is only one way: by making an advance appointment for onsite research at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Though the internet is considered a boundless repository of pop culture, many of the programs that may give us insight on our cultural history are unavailable to the public. Some are stored in archives; others are left forgotten in studio space storage; still more are simply lost because no one decided to preserve them. Television has only recently been viewed as a valid means of cultural production similar to books, plays, and films. Everything we know and perceive about television today is inherently limited by what’s been made available to us in the digital age.

A 1977 promo for *All That Glitters*.

When television as we know it began in the 1940s, programs weren’t regarded as culturally important enough to preserve. “TV was always considered a lower object culturally, where cinema may have been a little bit better protected,” Mark Quigley, Television Archivist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, told The Outline. “Television was considered more ephemeral in that the long term preservation of television programming wasn't really considered important until maybe the 1980s.” According to Quigley, television’s prolificness is one factor that kept producers looking ahead rather than back at what might be culturally meaningful someday. Since the FCC granted its first commercial license to NBC in 1941, an incalculable number of shows have been made in the U.S. alone, from low budget local-access shows to nationwide network TV productions. And whereas film scholars estimate that 50 percent of all sound films made before 1950 are now lost, Quigley says there is no comparable statistic for television, as the total number of programs ever made is almost impossible to pin down.

Additionally, limited technology proved an obstacle to preservation. In television’s earliest days, shows could only be preserved on kinescope, a cost-prohibitive technology for many producers at the time. The arrival of videotape in 1951 meant easier preservation, but there was little financial incentive to do so. Instead, studios took advantage of videotape’s other feature: reusability. “There's many two inch videotapes, which is the original format size, that were just completely wiped out time and time again,” Quigley said. “Sometimes you have a log with a two inch tape that survives and you might see 30 or 40 programs that existed on that tape until you get to the one that you have on there now. And sometimes it's very distressing because you may see some very interesting or important programs crossed out that just simply didn't get saved and that was all to save money.”

“Internet streaming has now flipped the expectations completely so that you as a viewer now expect to be able to find whatever you want.”
Walter J. Podrazik, adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Communication

Whereas shows today are created with streaming and potential rights violations in mind, old shows are not easily adaptable to our means of modern television consumption. In an email to The Outline, Walter J. Podrazik, adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Communication, stressed how much the evolution of the business of television also affects availability, and consequently which shows are remembered by the general public. “Internet streaming has now flipped the expectations completely so that you as a viewer now expect to be able to find whatever you want,” he wrote. “That’s not the revenue/production model that supported the original creation of pre-twenty-first-century shows, so they are not automatically queued and ready. They have to be prepared technically and with the appropriate new business model in place… So any kind of access to such material OUTSIDE the safe harbor of on-site educational archives will require a fundamental rethinking of just how these cultural touchstones can be viewed and preserved, and at what payment to creators and costs to consumers.”

In some cases, readying older material for today means fundamentally changing parts of the original program. A Muppet Family Christmas fans have long asked for a modern release of the original broadcast, as the versions available on DVD and VHS omit a number of scenes held dear by fans of the original 1987 broadcast, due to music rights issues. Some fans have gone so far as to frankenstein their own “original” versions from various home videos and segments found online. Even more recent shows can’t escape rights alterations. The original soundtracks for the late ‘90s/early ‘00s MTV show Daria included carefully curated, contemporaneous pop and alternative rock songs, giving the show a specific, of-the-moment feel. DVD and streaming versions of the show omit nearly all of those songs, replacing them with generic, instrumental music.

The stakes are high for companies that get it wrong. In 2011, Kling Corp. Inc sued CBS and Paramount Home Entertainment for including a jingle it owned the rights to in DVD versions of the ‘80s show Family Ties. The song was important to the plot of the episode, but the original rights deal for did not include DVD sales. The case ended in a confidential settlement between the parties.

Changing social standards also play a factor in what shows get preserved and remembered and which don’t. Podrazik noted that The Cosby Show’s availability has been intentionally pulled back following revelations that Cosby drugged and raped women for decades, though the show’s importance in the history of American television remains. The early ‘50s show Amos ‘n’ Andy has also deliberately been made unavailable. As TV’s first show with a majority black cast, Amos ‘n’ Andy is an important show in pop culture history, but not often recognized as such. The show premiered in 1951 but was cancelled by 1953, largely due to protests by the NAACP for its racist, stereotypical portrayals of black people. “Somewhere the by the mid ‘60s it was pretty much pulled from any circulation,” Podrazik said. “[Unavailability is] actually a policy. It’s not that they don’t exist. It’s just that officially we don’t want them out there.” DVDs of Amos ‘n’ Andy were only recently made available for sale on Amazon.

An undated clip from ‘Your Show of Shows,’ a largely unavailable but pivotal 1950s variety show.

With all of these factors to consider, the incentive to modernize is low for studios and rights holders that do have access to original material. Academic institutions carry most of the burden of preserving and archiving television history, meaning many gems of television history can only be accessed with institutional membership or in-person visits to archives. Understandably, the commercial demand for old TV shows no one can remember is low, no matter how much early programs like the ‘50s weekly variety show Your Show of Shows may tell us about current programs like Saturday Night Live. “You actually are not going to be able to binge watch every episode of Your Show of Shows like you could binge watch every episode of I Love Lucy and then make your generalizations [about the era],” Podrazik said. “So it definitely changes what is considered canon.”

Today, more reporters and critics are covering television than ever before, meaning shows that may someday be “lost” will still be preserved as long as blogs, message boards, and social media are. Still, others like Rod Serling’s appearance on the 1960s talk show The David Susskind Show or All That Glitters — two holy grail items for Quigley and Podrazik, respectively — are still yet to be found or made widely available. Meanwhile other shows, such as mega-popular ‘90s sitcom Murphy Brown, are trapped in licensing and rights purgatory, much to remaining fans’ chagrin. While the landscape of television grows richer every day, everything we base our “best shows of all-time” lists on is ultimately informed by a history replete with gaps.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the inaccessibility of All That Glitters.

Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.