Preserving the News: The Vanderbilt Television News Archive

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By Steve Zalusky

In 1968, Vietnam War protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching," outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Indeed, Americans were watching, gathering information on their evening news.

And on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, others were not only watching, but also taping the evening news broadcasts.

The Vanderbilt Television News Archive is the world's most extensive and complete archive of television news. 

Since it turned on its first tape machine on Aug. 5, 1968, the archive has been preserving and providing access to television news broadcasts of the national networks.

At present, the archive contains more than 1 million records in its database, said the archive's director, John Lynch. It includes broadcasts - and descriptions of those broadcasts - from the three major networks, as well as shows from networks like CNN and Fox.

The idea for the archive was spawned by a local politician and Vanderbilt graduate named Paul Simpson, who was an independent mayor of one of the towns that comprise Nashville.

"He was also interested in the news," Lynch said. "And on a business trip to new York he went to the three networks. And toured the three networks. And, he is not sure which one, but at one of them, he asked if he could see an old news show from a week or two before. And they told him that they were routinely at that time erasing the tapes and reusing them.

"And this is where he differed I think from most of us in that that upset him. He thought that was not right. And something needed to be done to keep those shows."

When he returned, he began floating some ideas, such as setting up a foundation. Talks with Vanderbilt led to a three-month experiment.

"The experiment started on Aug. 5, because that was the first day of the Republican convention," Lynch said.

The recording equipment was borrowed from Ampex and handled by two volunteers, Simpson and the director of the Vanderbilt library.

The experiment, obviously, was a success, and the recording is still happening to this day.

"We’re in a facility that is owned by Vanderbilt, which is across the street from what most people see as the campus but which is still a Vanderbilt-owned building," he said. "We record the way you would record at home, basically, except that we do it with, probably, a little more professional equipment."

Over the years, there have been many significant moments preserved.

"The biggest moment captured is the (first) Gulf War, which extensively televised, especially on CNN," Lynch said, who added that the archive was basically able to record 24 hours a day for the entire run of the war.

"We did the same for the Iraq War as well, but the coverage that the networks did was different," he said. "CNN didn't make the same kind of commitment to that one," mainly because the fighting was structured differently.

He said the archive also has an extensive collection devoted to the Watergate hearings and the Iran-Contra hearings.

The collection also shows the progression of stories as they have been covered by the evening news, such as the AIDS epidemic. He said it demonstrates not only how AIDS was viewed by the press, but also by the public.

In a lighter vein, the coverage of computers has changed over time as well, with computers viewed as good in some instances and evil in others.

"The news is sort of about us," he added, which applies not just to the big stories but to small ones like a report from CBS' Charles Kurault on a man building his own castle.

The timing of the start of the recording - 1968 - was good in terms of being able to capture the chaos that was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

"I remember (Chicago) Mayor (Richard J.) Daley saying things during one of the evenings of the convention, where you can read his lips," Lynch said. "That one we have."

It also has newsman Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach when trying to ask a question.

He said the archive accesses the programs via cable, but in the past it has recorded off satellite.

In 1968, the archive was using Ampex one-inch Type A equipment. That was a black-and-white format. 

In the spring of 1979, it switched to three-quarter inch tapes, moving to color for the first time that year.

In 2003, the archive moved to digital recording in an MPEG-2 format.

Clips are available to the public, via the RealMedia player and DVD. However, there is a caveat, because of copyright restrictions.

A couple of the networks, CNN and NBC, allow streaming to subscribing colleges and universities.

For a fee, members of the public can go to the website and place an order for the material, which is placed on a DVD and shipped as a 30-day loan. The fees vary, with academics paying $17 per item and non-academics $27, with a $10 setup fee for everyone.

The individual clips range from 10 seconds to seven or eight minutes. Most items are two or three minutes.

A cheaper way is to visit the archive and pay $10 per viewing hour.

Up to 100 people visit the archive in a year, with visitors including not only academies, but those in the midst of massive research projects.

The website gets a few hundred hits every six minutes.

The archive receives three to five orders a day, seven days a week.

The website contains a bibliography showing how the archive's material has been used in research.

As for the holdings, there are more than 40,000 DVDs produced, but easily 60,000 shows, since not everything has been converted.

However, despite that recording has been taking place constantly since 1968, Lynch warned there are holes in the collection.

"In those early days, we didn't get a lot of weekend shows here (in Nashville). And in some of those early days, we didn't have weekend staff, so we don't have weekends for some of those early years, from 1968 to around 1971," he said.

Also in the early years, if the local station didn't show a program because it was pre-empted by local program, the archive didn't capture the national programming.

Nowadays, however, if the archive cannot obtain the show locally, it will procure it from another market.

Still, he said the archive easily has the most complete collection from the three networks.





































Image credit:

Photo of David Brinkley (on screen) and Chet Huntley from the news program ''The Huntley-Brinkley Report''.

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