There can be no question that television news reporting has played a key role in the cultural history of modern America. Since the late 1950s, any written historical narrative must compete in the minds of those who lived through the event with memories inspired by television footage. Yet that footage was not obtained in a vacuum: there have been documented instances of reporters interfering with events, and the presence of cameras clearly leaves a physical footprint on the event itself. In order to truly understand televised historical events, cultural historians need access to television footage. David Greenberg argues in his chapter “Do Historians Watch Enough TV?” that the largest reason television film is rarely used in the construction of historical narratives is due to the “difficulty of obtaining video copies of broadcasts.” He notes that major networks “restrict access to their tapes, and charge prohibitive rates” (1). I think this is just a symptom of a much larger problem, which is a lack of awareness about existent television footage that is available for research outside the control of the major television networks.
Five years ago, when I began my research in this area, my proposal to base a majority of my research on television footage was met with concern from my colleagues. They warned me that the source material I planned to use was not available. However, the results of my own research, these last five years, have proven that conclusion to be incorrect. The source materials exist; they are simply difficult to access.
My current project is an attempt to solve this problem of access. I am building a database that will register all of the television stations that were broadcasting in the southeastern United States between 1940 and 1960. The database will record all known archives storing the footage produced by those television stations. It will also include notations regarding the state of the video materials, including access. The website that will host this database will include a visual interface showing a map of the southeastern United States with markers noting the historical addresses of the television stations (see Figure 1).
Each marker will be visually linked to a database entry (see Figure 2) that will include all of the relevant information on the television station. That database entry will also include known bodies of archival footage and materials along with a description of how accessible the footage is to the public (see Figure 3).
My goal with this project is to dispel the myth that this footage is inaccessible; the fact is, the material exists, and in some cases, unless attention is paid to digitizing the footage soon, the film could end up damaged beyond repair. Ultimately, I hope to call attention to this material in order to help archives acquire funding to transfer this material into a digital format.
1 Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano ed. Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History that Talks Back. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012), 197.