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November 1-7, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

TV Is History

By Annalee Newitz

THE MOST INTERESTING social experiments are often the least flashy. A researcher at UC-Berkeley's School of Information Management, Jeff Ubois, proved that last week with the release of his meticulous study on an odd topic: Why researchers can't research TV.

Ubois found that studying one simple event in recent TV history was impossible. Copyright rules and poor archive access meant that even after months of work, he was unable to gain copies of a single primary source related to former Vice President Dan Quayle's 1992 speech blaming TV character Murphy Brown for the nation's decline in family values.

In a 1992 speech at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, Quayle claimed the Rodney King riots were spurred on by TV characters like single mom Murphy Brown, who made single motherhood into "just another lifestyle choice." At the time, the speech was intensely controversial. Many suggested that the Bush administration was blaming television, not the brutal police beating of a black man, for the L.A. riots. As Ubois points out, it seems reasonable that future TV scholars will want access to original speeches and media reports of the incident, as well as footage from the show Murphy Brown where the character responds to Quayle. But when Ubois tried to get access to Quayle's speech in storage at the Hoover Institute, librarians told him that copyright and contractual obligations to the Commonwealth Club prevented them from making a digital copy of the speech for educational use.

Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Murphy Brown, refused to give Ubois copies of the show. Absurdly, Warner Bros. did tell Ubois he would be permitted to show lawfully obtained episodes to students, even though they wouldn't give him any. How generous! Of the TV networks that aired news of the speech, only ABC would allow Ubois to digitize and show segments of their newscasts in the classroom. None would give him those digital copies, though. He would have to purchase them from third-party sources like the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The cost for getting roughly two hours of news clips ranged from $800 to $5,000, depending on the source.

Ubois concludes that a typical historian, who has little access to money, would be unable to complete a simple study of primary sources in the Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown incident. Some of this is a result of copyright madness. In 1982, a New York judge found that archiving news clips for educational purposes was unlawful because those clips are "readily available" from rights holders. What Ubois discovered was that they weren't available in any form for educational use. The basis of this oft-cited decision is simply wrong.

Because copyright laws gum up the process of archiving TV footage, nobody is tracking and indexing TV the way librarians do books and movies. This means scholars can't access materials, simply because they aren't findable. As Ubois points out, "No single comprehensive catalog of television broadcasts now exists in the United States."

In an age when digitization technologies would allow us to store all of TV history in a server room, as well as making it fully searchable and accessible to the public, this is simply ridiculous. Ubois cites a recent European video archiving study that found that TV tape storage begins to degrade after 20 years. That means 70 percent of existing TV footage will be gone by 2025. Imagine if 70 percent of existing books were going to be burned by 2025. This is quite simply an atrocious situation—not just for scholars, but for all U.S. citizens whose freedom of thought requires access to their own history.

For inspiration, networks and rights holders should look to the BBC's media archives, which aim to make most of the broadcasting company's footage available in digital form to the public online. Ubois notes that there is little evidence that networks will suffer a loss of revenue from making footage available that is not currently accessible. They're not making any money on it right now, and therefore they won't lose any money by giving the public access to it.

The current state of U.S. TV archives is so poor that brilliant media historians like Ubois are forced to produce research on what cannot be researched. Misguided greed and poorly interpreted copyright law are the only things standing in the way of a people's history of television. I look forward to a day when the people will write it. Scratch that—I look forward to a day when the people can research it.

Read Jeff Ubois' paper here:

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who misses 'Murphy Brown.'

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