Contact: Craig D'Ooge (202) 707-9189

October 16, 1997

Library of Congress Releases Landmark Study on Preservation of American Television and Videotape Heritage

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington today released the first comprehensive five-volume study on the present survival status of American television and independent video productions. Two years in the making, the report paints a picture of losses already sustained and looming problems for an important part of America's cultural heritage. "Television affects our lives from birth to death" said Dr. Billington. "Most Americans inform and entertain themselves through it. Sadly, we have not yet sought to preserve this powerful medium in anything like a serious or systematic manner."

Among the problems described in the report:

  • The audiovisual record of the first few decades of American television and video history is nonexistent or fragmentary at best, the result of programs never being recorded, being recorded and then erased or being subjected to inadequate storage conditions;
  • America's audiovisual history and culture has been primarily entrusted to videotape the past several decades, yet videotape was never designed as a permanent preservation/recording medium. Videotape is subject to a wide assortment of damaging chemical and physical problems. Format obsolescence also remains a real danger. More than 100 videotape formats have been introduced into the marketplace since 1956 and archivists do not have enough financial resources to copy the many valuable programs found on obsolete formats;
  • The nearly complete loss of almost three decades of local television news footage, primarily from the 1950s through late 1970s. As a result, no substantive moving image documentary record exists of many American cities, communities, events, locations, and personalities during this era. Local television stations discarded or routinely erased the material during this era to save storage space;
  • The access difficulties faced by educators in finding and using television material in the classroom; and
  • The financial inability of video artists and independent video producers to preserve their work.

To remedy these problems, the report recommends several key actions, most notably:

  • Exploring new avenues of funding through means such as allocating shares from FCC broadcast-spectrum auction proceeds to benefit preservation efforts at nonprofit archives;
  • Creating of a private sector organization to raise funds and distribute grants to aid television and video preservation projects at nonprofit archives and similar institutions throughout the United States;
  • Raising public awareness by establishing a national registry of historically and culturally important television and video programs, similar to the Library of Congress National Film Registry;
  • Establishing a Study Center for Video Preservation to collect and provide technical information to institutions across the United States and to maintain equipment able to copy obsolete formats;
  • Continuing dialogue among educators, archivists and the entertainment industry on ways to improve educational access to American television programs; and
  • Urges the nation's largest television archives, the Library of Congress to use the full extent of off-air taping authority it possesses under the 1976 Copyright Act.

Information for the report was gathered through hundreds of interviews, public hearings and written statements from 100 individuals and organizations, and the deliberations of three task forces. Volume 1 contains the report; volumes 2-4 contain transcripts of six public hearings; and volume 5 reproduces the written statements. In releasing the report, Dr. Billington thanked the hundreds of broadcasters, industry officials, archivists, educators, artists and others who testified at public hearings, submitted written comments, served on task forces, and otherwise contributed to the report. He singled out for praise the report's chief researcher/author, William Murphy of the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists, the nation's largest and most important body of moving image preservationists.

The report will be available for purchase from the Government Printing Office in a few weeks. Ordering information as well as an on-line version of the report can be found at the following World Wide Web address: For additional information, contact Steve Leggett (202) 707-5912; fax: (202) 707-2371.

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PR 97-177
ISSN 0731-3527

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