November 6th, 2010 Update:
An expanded discussion of “lost” and “missing” television can now be found here.
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.