The official Johnny Carson website now features a searchable database of the existing 3,300 hours of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which aired from 1962 to 1992. There's a catch: at the moment the database is only available for those hoping to license clips for commercial purposes. You can, however, watch a video that depicts the database in action and a press release announcing the database can be found at the Wall Street Journal. The database will eventually be opened to the general public as well, according to Frazier Moore of The Associated Press, who quotes Jeff Sotzing (president of Carson Entertainment Group and Johnny Carson's nephew) as saying "in the near future, we'll offer them the ability to search and select from the full library of shows."
According to an article in The Los Angeles Times by Matea Gold, the database is complete from roughly 1973 to 1992. NBC recorded over the video tapes from 1962 to 1972 and only the occasional black-and-white kinescope footage is available from those early years. Here's how Deluxe Archive Solutions went about digitization the Carson library, per Gold's explanation:
The video footage was trucked securely from where it had been stored in an underground salt mine in Kansas to a facility in Burbank, where a high-speed "tape robot" transferred each tape to a digital format. Then a team of transcribers logged more than 1 million words of dialogue and tagged each show by key word, guest and musical number.
It took nine months to get through those 3,300 hours. According to Gold, during the digitization process some original video footage believed to have been recorded over was uncovered, including "a famous 1973 clip of Carson pretending to eat dog food during a live Alpo commercial after the dog refused the meal, before thought to exist only in grainy kinescope."
The Johnny Carson website will be hosting a rotating block of video clips from the show and a variety of DVD compilations have been released with more in the works. Once the database is open to the general public I'm sure fans of Carson and his version of The Tonight Show will have a field day searching for their favorite interviews and jokes. According to the demonstration video, users only get a limited number of minutes of streaming per month, so its unlikely full episodes will be viewable any time soon. That's understandable. This database is a huge step forward for access. It's one thing to have a collection preserved properly (in a salt mine, no less) but making it available to the public is even better.