In the early days of television, most shows were broadcast live. If a network or station wanted to preserve one, they’d use a kinescope — basically, a film camera pointed at a monitor.
But many stations threw their film away when videotape was widely adopted in the mid-1970s, a decision that meant “some 25 years … of American state and local history were destroyed,” according to a Library of Congress report.
The situation didn’t improve much with video. Stations adopted the medium partly because tapes could be reused; saving earlier programming wasn’t a priority.
“Broadcast is a machine that needs to be fed,” said Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell television curator at the University of California Los Angeles Film and Television Archive. “A station’s main concern was to get the news on the air. Preservation was never really part of it.”
That’s where the home VCR entered the picture.
The machines were introduced in the 1960s and for more than a decade remained rare, ungainly and extremely expensive. Klein said the first Sony Betamax machine cost $2,495 in 1975 — the equivalent of $12,600 today.
But those who had them captured fleeting moments of Americana mixed into Sunday night movies and sitcoms — station logos that highlighted the era’s design sensibility, or commercials that illuminated sought-after products.
“These sorts of media bits and pieces, they tell us so much about what a culture values, what people are buying, how people relate to each other, even,” said Paul Booth, professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University. “Because they are so ephemeral, they have a way of communicating what a time was like in a way no other (media) can.”
Klein focuses on TV before 1984, scouring eBay, Craigslist and other sources for tapes. One find came from the estate sale of a physician who recorded shows on U-matic tapes, normally found in TV studios of the 1970s. Another was a cache of 850 Betamax tapes one of Klein’s collaborators, Mike Stockinger, discovered online.