Hands On TV History

John Ellis, Royal Holloway University of London

8 March 2019


Huge amounts of TV material are now becoming available for historical researchers, thanks to digitization. Digitization makes old programming visible, but at the same time it obscures how those programmes were made. As access gets easier, understanding the footage as source material is getting harder.

The proliferation of potential sources range from the carefully curated to the anarchy of YouTube:

  • Learning on Screen’s Box of Broadcasts (BoB) contains thousands of hours of analogue-originated programmes
  • The substantial amounts of ITN news material, once curated by Learning on Screen for Jisc, is now available again through Proquest’s Alexander Street subsidiary: https://alexanderstreet.com/products/mediaplus 
  • Organisations as diverse as Kaleidescope, BBC Archive, Ident Central, Talking Pictures TV and Network Distributing are all actively engaged in making old programming available
  • Europeana, the European Digital Library has over a million TV items from the EUscreen project
  • National broadcaster archives, inspired by the vast resources of France’s INA, are increasingly making their factual material visible to academic or even public users
  • YouTube contains vast amounts of analogue TV, much of it posted from digitized VHS tapes

How TV got made in the analogue era has now become an urgent question for anyone wanting to understand or use this footage, whether for teaching or historical research or even for its value as data. Making TV used to be a rare and difficult activity. It used expensive and cumbersome technologies that required teams of skilled individuals to work them, and the resources of large organisations with the funding to afford them. The TV footage we have from the last century (and the earlier years of this century) are profoundly determined by the affordances of analogue technologies and the systems that went with them. TV tended to record what was convenient or accessible, and in forms that were manageable and predictable. This has determined the nature of the visual record of that time: what was chosen to be shown and how it was shown.

So how do we find out how TV used to be made? The television industry itself provides only clues. There’s only so much that you can learn from looking at old equipment, and even less from photos of them. Broadcaster archives contain very few programmes explaining how TV used to work. Fortunately, many of the professionals from the fifties onwards are still around, and there is an international network of collectors who still maintain “obsolete” equipment in working order.

For the ADAPT research project, funded by the European Research Council, we seized this time-limited opportunity to reunite working equipment with the professionals who once used it. We challenged them to make a programme as they used to. We used contemporary ‘fixed rig’ video methods (14 cameras for one shoot) to produce over 160 videos in all. Our  promotional video gives a good idea of the scope of this work.

They show how TV professionals in the UK filmed and edited using both video and 16mm film. The processes of both video and film are explained at www.adapttvhistory.org.uk, and all the videos can be downloaded from the repository at https://figshare.com/collections/ADAPT/3925603

We have extraordinary revelations: how quickly and economically a film crew used to work; the sheer difficulty of getting a live show on air; the crucial importance of repair and maintenance; the time and effort it took to line up cameras.

We see how the 16mm Éclair camera and Nagra sound tape recorder revolutionised what was possible. We see how one (energetic) person can run an entire film lab. Our footage enables a comparison between film and videotape editing, as well as an appraisal of AVID’s early digital system.  

It shows the combination of many different items of equipment that were required to make the simplest of sound and image material, the heavy cables, the cumbersome tapes, the long waits for equipment to warm up.

We concentrated on the everyday production of everyday TV, to present examples that were as typical as possible. The equipment used is mainly British or European and the professionals involved had all once worked for the BBC. But the work routines and the basic arrays of equipment were similar even then. Many of the crews interact in ways that are startlingly similar to those reported by Beth Bechty in her ethnographic studies of US freelance film crews in the early 2000s. They show the same rituals of exaggerated politeness and mutual respect. The biggest difference is in the social composition of the professional group we were calling on: they were overwhelmingly male and white.  

The equipment (and some attitudes) may be retro, but this work is no exercise in historical recreation akin to a Civil War battle recreation. Instead it is a combination of hands on history and memory work. These professionals recall past actions that, more often than not, are deeply embedded in body memory. The additional challenge to create again brings forward all their professional skills.   The participants are ‘playing’ their younger selves, encountering long abandoned equipment: “Come to Daddy” says one of the cinematographers unselfconsciously on picking up the Éclair camera.

Our videos are edited to different lengths: a bitesized two minutes that can be used in a lecture; a medium length for seminar use and full length versions for research and concentrated study. [See the playlist on YouTube here]. Taken together they show clearly why archival TV is as it is: they reveal the strengths and limitations of a whole, lost, era of television production. It was an era when filming was not the commonplace activity it is now: it involved scarce resources, large expenditure, individuals with highly specialized skills. The decision to film was a weighty one that involved considerable planning. When you watch these professionals at work, and see their demonstrations of the equipment they wrestled with, it seems remarkable that they achieved so much.    

This material can serve as a guide for those students and researchers fortunate enough to have access to hands on collections of old equipment. There is a growing network of ‘hands on history’ collections which allow students to handle old equipment, the better to understand its limitations and capabilities. This is not yet common in the UK, but there are interesting initiatives at Groningen, Colorado and Humboldt universities. 

The videos can help decode the mysteries of circuitry and reveal the industry work-arounds. It is also a miracle that this equipment is still in working order, and this is due to the dedicated private collectors, the owners and maintainers. Museum display equipment may look spectacular, but if it is not maintained, it loses its ability to speak to us. Our material is intended to restore at least some of that ability, to bring the  back to life.

The ADAPT project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 323626).


John Ellis has been Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London since 2002 and was the principal investigator on the ADAPT project. He began his career teaching film studies at the University of Kent, and published Visible Fictions in 1982. That year, he set up, with two other producers, the independent TV company Large Door www.largedoorltd.com and produced TV documentaries for the next two decades. He is now the chair of Learning on Screen and an editor of View, the online peer reviewed journal of European TV history www.viewjournal.eu His other books include Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (2012) and Seeing Things (2000). The ADAPT project was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 323626).


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Call for Papers: IAMHIST Conference 2019

 

XXVII IAMHIST Conference

POWER AND THE MEDIA (Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 16-18 July 2019)

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

James Curran (Goldsmiths, University of London)

J. E. Smyth (University of Warwick)


Papers and panels are invited for the 2019 conference of the International Association for Media and History. The conference theme this year is POWER AND THE MEDIA.  Scholars of media history have not just been concerned with analysis of the individuals, institutions and elites exerting control, but also with how the media has represented, perpetuated or challenged power structures. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, the conference invites scholars and practitioners from all relevant disciplines to take part in a timely conversation about the relationship between power and the media, from the film and broadcasting industries and the press, to new media, social media and advertising. In addition to keynote presentations, the conference will include film screenings, events geared towards PhD and early career scholars, social events, and a roundtable on the subject of academic power relationships.

Proposals are welcome on, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • Histories and evaluations of media power elites and institutions, and the exercise of control.
  • Media representations and responses to power relationships and inequalities of, for example:  gender, ethnicity, class, region, nationality and disability.
  • Blacklists and exclusionary policies in Hollywood and beyond.
  • The role of alternative or oppositional media and the challenging of power.
  • Freedom and Democracy:  Globalisation, neoliberalism and resistance.
  • Censorship, regulation and offence.
  • The media and soft power:  public diplomacy and international relations.

The deadline for proposals is 14 January 2019, to be sent to iamhist2019@gmail.com. Individual paper proposals should consist of a title, an abstract of 250 words, and a short biography.  Panel proposals (of three papers) require the same detail for individual papers plus a general outline of up to 200 words. We also welcome proposals for artistic or multimedia projects; you are welcome to discuss their suitability with the conference organisers in advance of the deadline.

Notifications of decisions will be sent by early February 2019. Registration will be open by February 2019. Conference attendees are expected to be members of IAMHIST, and there will be an opportunity to join at the time of registration.

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