Saturday, January 5, 2008

Video catalog

I've been a TV time-shifter since the early 1980s, when my family purchased our first VCR. My early-adopter dad got a top-loading VCR in 1981, right around the same time my mom and I were hearing so much talk about this Luke and Laura and this General Hospital. We decided to check it out, as we could videotape the show during the day and watch it after school/in the evening. The rest of that tale is a history for another time. But I soon began to videotape and time-shift my viewing of most everything I watched, a practice that became a full-fledged part of my life when I went off to college later in the '80s. I wasn't particularly concerned with archiving most of what I taped; I time-shifted then (as now) for convenience and efficiency of viewing, and to avoid commercials (no, I am not one of those DVR users who still watches the ads). But I did begin to save tapes of some of my favorite episodes. As I began to study television more formally in college, some of this taping-and-saving was for particular uses--a paper I was writing, etc. But most of my archival practices were still fan-motivated. I kept this up during my few years between college and grad school. By this point, however, I was pretty clearly a media-scholar-to-be and so I began to get more serious abut what I saved. With graduate school, I continued to tape and save, though still selectively. Unlike at least one of my graduate school colleagues, I did not save everything I recorded. Still, over the years I built up a nice library of tapes, including some off-the-air recordings from the '80s and early '90s.

Over the last few years, I've been working on transferring all of these tapes to DVD. It is still, of course, an imperfect archival medium, but schlepping boxes and boxes of tapes from move to move was seeming more and more ridiculous with the streamlined world of DVD there for the taking. I have reluctantly disposed of the VHS tapes as I've gone along, but it is always a bit painful to let them go. The dubbing project is going somewhat slowly, in large part because I'm always doing some sort of over-the-air archiving at the same time. My biggest ongoing over-the-air effort is saving all of the Ryan's Hope episodes airing on Soapnet (the channel runs the soap's episodes from its debut in 1975 to the end of 1981. Though RH aired until 1989, I have been told that music rights issues keep Soapnet from airing the post-'81 eps). But I've been archiving lots of other soap material, as well, and have saved full or nearly full runs of various prime-time series, too.

All of this may seem somewhat futile and old-fashioned in an age of YouTube and TV-on-DVD, but so much material remains unavailable in these formats, so much of it still seems fleeting (on YouTube today, gone tomorrow), and so much of it is partial (either clips of episodes or less than full runs of series) that I remain a tenacious archivist. I seem to get more and more serious about this as I get older. Perhaps it is nostalgia for the past; perhaps it is an inherent suspicion of new technologies; perhaps it is just experience that has taught me how devalued most TV still is.

The best part of these efforts has been my simultaneous creation of a video catalog that allows me to find whatever I need quickly and easily, and that gives me a collectors' geeky pride whenever I look at it. I'm getting close to having a thousand disks (most of which have from 2 to 13 TV episodes on them) and this darn catalog is as much a point of pride for me as is my book, or my child (OK, OK, I'm pretty much kidding there, but I do love my Excel spreadsheet beyond reason). To love a thing like television is to be protective of it--little boxes on a spreadsheet and a line-up of disc carrying cases is one of the best ways I know to preserve a piece of my own connection to the tube.


Jason Mittell said...

Wow - you're far more organized in your archiving than I! Can you post your "holdings" online? Is there a way us academic TVphiles can develop a shared list of holdings to be able to access each others' resources for teaching & research (and fun, of course)?

And welcome to blogging!

Anonymous said...

Like Jason I love your anal retentive archiving obsessions *bg* I often think it comes with the trade, though, doesn't it?

And I love the idea of a shared space to find things not easily accessible (fans, of course, collect and share their fannish materials, but what of that TV show that died after a couple of episodes and noone would ever put on DVD for sale).

I just went and threw out a lot of my tapes that I'd since bought on DVD and realized that I was losing commercials and tornado warning and, my favorite, the first Bush elections and the recount underlying The West fact, I recall rewatching it during the last election and had a bizarre triple political feedback going...

Eh...sorry for the rambling and I'm looking fwd to talking more in blogland!

Emily said...

Hi. I have been a huge fan of Ryan's Hope for years. Would you be willing to sell a copy of your recordings that you have? I have been searching FOREVER and I would be SO thrilled if I could have this!

Elana Levine said...

Emily-email me at and we can see about sharing RH episodes.