Television Programs – Lost, Missing or Unavailable

November 6th, 2010 Update:

An expanded discussion of “lost” and “missing” television can now be found here.

Original Post:

Many of the e-mails I receive are from people asking where they can find their favorite obscure television show on VHS or DVD. I get so many of these e-mails, in fact, that for the most part I’ve had to stop replying to them. The simple fact is most of the shows I write about here at Television Obscurities aren’t available commercially on DVD and probably never will. (A few were given VHS releases in decades past but are now long out of print.) Still, the fact that a certain show isn’t out on DVD doesn’t mean the episodes are lost.

A distinction should be made between television programs that are lost, missing and unavailable. I’ll attempt to lay out just what that means in the following paragraphs.

Although the vast majority of the shows I write about aren’t commercially available, meaning you can’t go to a store or look online and find them on DVD, many do circulate among private collectors. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to include video clips and images taken from episodes.

Plenty of shows that have never been released on VHS or DVD (or Laserdisc or Betamax, for that matter) were recorded during their original broadcasts (beginning in the late 1970s) or later local and/or cable syndication by fans with the right equipment and access to the proper cable channels. The New People, for example, has never been released commercially in any format. It isn’t lost; all 17 episodes are part of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, as 16mm safety prints, and may exist elsewhere as well (perhaps even the original film elements, although not being an expert on television production I can’t say whether those would be 35mm negatives or something else).

But only the pilot episode exists in the hands of private collectors. So it is an example of a show that is commercially unavailable and, for the most part, simply unavailable. To say a given television show is lost, in my mind, means it was broadcast live and never recorded in any format. It is quite literally lost. Prior to 1947/1948 when the kinescope was introduced in the United States, there was no real way to record live television.

NBC’s Hour Glass, broadcast in 1946, is an example of a lost show. So is Thrills and Chills Everywhere, broadcast on DuMont and NBC from 1941 to 1944, or any of the shows included in my article Television Programs in 1941. I don’t know the exact date when kinescopes became common but 1948 works well enough as a cutoff.

Programs that are missing, then, are those that were either filmed to begin with or recorded in some fashion, be it a kinescope or video tape, and have seemingly disappeared. This is where things get confusing. Here in the United States there has never been a concentrated effort to document the whereabouts of decades worth of television episodes. At least, not that I’m aware of. The Paley Center for Media does have a section called “Lost” Programs at its website but it is far from comprehensive.

Scattered between a variety of museums, archives, production company warehouses and random basements or attacks, are tens of thousands of television episodes. The Library of Congress has 80,000, the Paley Center for Media some 140,000 and UCLA’s Film & Television Archive a combined 220,000 films and television episodes. I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap. But does the Library of Congress, for example, know what the Paley Center for Media has in its collection?

The Missing Pieces of Media History article at the Paley Center for Media states that “A 1969 pilot about a Queens, New York, family headed by a grouch named Archie Justice–later known as Archie Bunker–has disappeared as well.” Both pilots for All in the Family have been at UCLA’s Film & Television Archive since the mid-1990s and are now available on DVD as well. So they are neither missing nor lost.

Perhaps one of the reasons there isn’t a central database of which television programs exist where and in what condition has to do with the staggering amount of television produced here in the States. Four television networks from 1948 to 1955, not to mention independent syndication, pumping out thousands of episodes per year. That’s a lot of television to keep track of. Things appear to be a little better in the United Kingdom, where for many years there were only one or two networks available. The BBC, for example, has its own Treasure Hunt for missing programs and websites like Missing-Episodes.com provide extensive information about what’s missing, what’s found, and where to look next.

To sum up, there’s far too much television in existence and far too little effort has been put into cataloging it. Lost programs are those that aired live and were never recorded. Missing programs were recorded and then went missing. Unavailable programs are known to exist but have either never been released on VHS/DVD or don’t circulate among private collectors.

Questions or suggestions? Hit the comments. And be sure to let me know if I haven’t made sense.


6 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I take the findings and “research” done by the Paley Center For Media on “lost” and “missing” programs with a grain of salt; what else can you say about an organization whose mission is supposed to be the serious preservation of TV [and radio] programs, whose greatest achievement on broadcast television this year was the embarrassing “TV’s 50 Funniest Phrases” for NBC?
    Fortunately, there are private collectors who KNOW where some “missing”, “lost” and “unavailable” programs are….you just have to know WHO to ask.

  • Phil Gries says:

    Some additional points I’d like to add regarding such topic, relating to my archive of television audio air checks (atvaudio.com), and to clarify somewhat, regarding the history of “kinescopes.”

    During the year when approximately only 44,000 television sets existed in the United States, Eastman Kodak and NBC developed and announced on September 13, 1947 details regarding a film camera designed for shooting off a TV screen, permitting and recording (16mm or 35mm) copies of a live broadcast, later to be used for distribution, sale, or archiving. These films were to be called “Kinescopes.” However, original kinescopes were initially not preferred much or used until 1949. The picture quality was much inferior to a live broadcast picture, and the sound from early kinescopes were very marginal and inferior.

    In a VARIETY review, dated September 1, 1948, KINESCOPE RECORDINGS NO SUBSTITUE FOR LIVE LEGITS, NBC TESTS SHOWS,” it states, “…won’t replace live studio shows. That point was proved conclusively last Sunday (Aug. 29) with NBC – TV’s airing of a one-act play, “A Dangerous Man,” directly via its film transcription system. NBC staged the program strictly as an experiment in an attempt to ascertain whether advantages inherent in the recording process would make it worhtwhile to stage the majority of legiters in that way. Show was done live in the studio, in advance of the actual broadcast and transcribed on film for the subsequent airing.” The article goes on to state, “…fuzzy quality was apparent duing the entire 40 minutes of the presentation and the SOUND kept fading in and out.” And concludes, “Further attmpt to substitue the Kine process for live productions, however, should be forgotten.”

    It is interesting to note that the first “Toast of the Town” (later called the Ed Sullivan Show) was kinescoped on Dec. 12, 1948 (reviewed by VARIETY, Dec. 21, 1948), six months AFTER, it premiered (June 20, 1948). The following week, Dec. 19th, 1948, John Garfield appeared on the show and this oldest surviving Sullivan Show kinescope showed up again on Ed Sullivan’s 20th anniversary celebratrion show (Dec. 10, 1967) which I audio taped at that time. The entire kinescope is retained by the Paley Center for Media…the earliest video example from this series (However, I do have an audio air check from Aug. 8, 1948…Peggy Lee guests). It is another example of how LOST televison programming can still survive as a broadcast record, as AUDIO ONLY, when an original TV broadcast no longer survives as video because it was never recorded and archived as a kinescope (1948-1977), or on video tape or other media (1956 – present).

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    …and Phil is certainly one of those collectors. Thanks, Phil!

    You’re right about the quality of some “kinnies” in the late ’40s and early ’50s: some looked “washed out” and “harsh”, and the sound quality on most would be considered “below standard” today. But those are the only known recordings of live TV shows that otherwise would have been “lost” if someone didn’t take the time to film them off a TV monitor in the first place….

    {And by all means, visit his website!!}

  • Judy says:

    I would like know if Marcus Welby MD is on dvd anywhere? The only thing I have found are bootleg dvds and I was told that some copies are so bad they can’t be watched. Love the show and would buy the entire box set. Don’t want to spend over $100 and be stuck with something useless. Can anyone help?
    Thanks

  • RGJ says:

    No, Marcus Welby, M.D. has yet to be officially released on DVD.

  • ejp says:

    Marcus Welby is coming to DVD now! Early May for Season 1.