How many old programmes survive?
As a general rule, after 1978, most Television programmes survive. Prior to this time, a representative sample of programmes exist from both the BBC and ITV companies. The first decade to fully benefit from the introduction of recording techniques was the 1960s and the survival rate for programmes from that decade is not much more than 8 to 10% of the total programme output. The reasons for this are varied and there is no simple, single answer. The expansive use of video tape recording is certainly a major factor. Until autumn 1958, there was no videotape recording available to the BBC or ITV. Programmes were mostly broadcast live. Prior to 1958, the only way a programme could be recorded was by using film. It was known that only 35mm-cinema film had the required resolution and quality to record the British 405-line standard. Unfortunately the cost of recording Television pictures on 35mm film was prohibitive and only the BBC and two of the early ITV companies used this recording method. 16mm film was eventually used as an acceptable standard, but mostly for making copies of programmes for overseas sales or internal use.
Videotape brought a revolution in that the physical tape could be re-used. This meant that the cost of a single tape (which in the early 1960s was approximately £200) could be subdivided by being re-used. It was estimated that a typical tape could last up to ten re-recordings (in practice this was often much less). At that time, the cost of making a 35mm film recording negative and one print was roughly the same price as videotape. Simple economics meant that there was no impetus to keep programmes recorded on tape. If a programme was kept for posterity, it was thought that the film recording was superior to videotape. In practice, this meant that film was more durable. For this reason, the majority of deliberately archived programmes exist as film recordings. 35mm film prints were therefore a common standard for archival storage.
Surely an effort could have been made to keep reference copies of programmes?
Most Television companies had no further use for old programme material. Primarily, agreements with the actor’s union - Equity, restricted the number of repeats. This effectively meant that the commercial value of a recording was minimal. Other programmes had agreements written into their contracts which ordered the wiping of recordings after a certain date. Despite this ruling, some programmes in this category have survived (for example, both the BBC’s ‘Maigret’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ 1960’s series originally had this form of contract). The introduction of Colour Television in 1967 led the way for a gradual purge of black and white programme material. Both the BBC and ITV companies were faced with the likelihood of a back catalogue of programmes that were unlikely to be repeated. They mostly decided to destroy out of date material, keeping key recordings for posterity, rather than for commercial needs. The old videotapes with 405 line recordings were either junked or re-recorded with the new 625-line standard. Film recordings were easier to replay and a representative number of these survive to fill in the gaps left by the junked videotapes. Added to all these factors was the thought that most Television was ephemeral and therefore unworthy of preservation.
What about the National Film Archive, didn’t they save programmes?
Budget restrictions prohibited the number of programmes required. Ironically, when money was available, it was often too late. One example was the difficulty in obtaining copies of BBC videotapes. This problem was only addressed in 1972, by which point a good many programmes had been lost forever. It is worth noting that most copies that did exist of BBC and ITV programmes were either single prints or a single videotape. Therefore, the cost of copying for another archive was an added difficulty and expense.
When we watch old programmes, do they have the same quality as seen on their original broadcast?
Unfortunately in most cases the quality is poor. Because of the current 625 line picture standard the remaining 405 line videotapes (of which roughly only under 1000 survive) have to be converted. Film recordings only record part of the original picture information and effectively loose the live feel of the original broadcast. Recently some promising work has been achieved with a view to restoring this live ‘look’.
Programmes still seem to ‘turn up’. Where do they come from?
The most obvious source is from the broadcasting companies. Some programmes have been mislaid rather than truly lost. Other sources include Production staff who kept examples of their own work or took home prints marked for destruction. This has led to a fruitful source of material. It has been possible for dedicated enthusiasts to locate prints, which were usually made for export on 16mm. A good many programmes have been saved simply because these export prints have found their way into private film collections. A good many of these prints had their main or end titles removed to make them commercially worthless. Luckily for us, they survive to tell the 21st Century viewer what Television was like in its infancy.