Editorial: YouTube Is Not Suitable for Preserving Television

When Television Obscurities launched way back in 2003, video on the Internet, and more specifically on the World Wide Web, was primitive. These early video clips were made using the RealVideo codec. The quality was poor and the resolution tiny, perhaps 160×120 initially and later 320×240. At the time, most people who wanted to share video online had to have a website where they could host their own videos.

Enter YouTube in April 2005. The video sharing website originally only hosted videos with a resolution of 320×240 but today you can watch videos in 8K resolution (that’s 7680×4320 pixels). YouTube changed everything for online video. Viral videos became accessible to the masses. So too did television content ranging from commercials to full episodes, from bloopers and outtakes to opening and closing credits. Suddenly, anyone with an Internet connection could search for a forgotten TV show from the 1960s and potentially find videos to watch.

But YouTube is not suitable for preserving television content, for many reasons. It is not an archival platform, designed to appraise and maintain videos using proper standards and metadata. YouTube is a commercial platform meant to make money.

The one thing YouTube is very good at is providing access but that access comes with drawbacks. Most people reading this have likely come across an embedded YouTube video or a link to a YouTube video that has been removed. There is no security on YouTube. Videos can be removed at any time without warning, often due to copyright infringement.

I’ve personally started downloading select videos from YouTube that I may want to use for research in the future because they may disappear.

Quality is another concern. Far too many videos on YouTube are sourced from VHS tapes of questionable quality, digitized haphazardly, and encoded using outdated codecs. YouTube itself re-encodes most uploaded videos, resulting in a further loss of quality. For casual viewing and research, these videos may be adequate. For archival purposes, however, they’re garbage.

Many videos are uploaded to YouTube with little information or inaccurate information. That can lead to problems for historians and researchers using YouTube videos as sources. I’ve made mistakes with descriptions I’ve written for videos uploaded to YouTube but I try very hard to be as accurate as possible. Again, for someone who just wants to watch an episode of a TV show they remember from their childhood, errors and lack of detail probably doesn’t matter. But archivists live and breath details, best practices, and context.

I am not anti-YouTube. I often check YouTube when doing research on a specific TV show if I don’t have any episodes in my collection. It’s useful but not for preservation. No one should think that because a TV show has been uploaded to YouTube, it is safe and secure.

I’ve been frustrated numerous times over the past 15-20 years when I’ve read an e-mail, a post on a forum, or something on social media suggesting that if a certain TV show isn’t on YouTube, it doesn’t exist. That’s ridiculous. There are a lot of truly rare and obscure TV shows available on YouTube but there are so many more sitting in archives and museums that aren’t on YouTube.

For the record, I have similiar concerns with other video sharing platforms like Vimeo or DailyMotion, not to mention social media platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). Even the Internet Archive is not immune from many of these issues. There’s a lot of commercially available, copyrighted material uploaded to the Internet Archive.

YouTube can be used by archives and archivists as a tool to share properly preserved content with the world. The UCLA Film & Television Archive, for example, has uploaded episodes of U.S. Steel Hour and Insight, plus dozens of excerpts from the KTLA newsfilm collection. There are ways for institutions that preserve television content to utilize YouTube’s popularity and reach. But make no mistake, a video on YouTube is not preserved; it may be taken down suddenly, quality is not assured, and information about the video may be inaccuate or missing entirely.

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3 Replies to “Editorial: YouTube Is Not Suitable for Preserving Television”

  1. i begg to differ,,,, you tube’s infkuences are permenant for this planet*** …. in alll news referrals and forums i.m afraid.. copywrites are truly ineffective.*. its rapid efficiency transfers priceless info
    within seconds across the world!!—— SO GET USED TO IT.. as for copywrite infingements in the broadcast/ entertainment industyr;;s..* you cantr turn the clock back// let juries and bench trials determine that// lawyers arent frree by ay means.. so let this anatchy march on.. i adore the facility.. ps youtube debut was MARCH 2005// oi know i got my first lap at home then// they were all kiddie rubber –ducky shorts and were conveyed for that purpose only..!! pk

  2. YouTube is subject to copyright restrictions, so many things will get deleted if they violate copyright. But that tends to cover just about anything in the past 70 years, or since 1954. The Internet Archive is dedicated to being an archive but has to deal with people uploading things that aren’t copyright safe.

    The big problem with using any website is that it can go down forever without much notice and a lot of stuff gets lost in the process. Geocities was a good example of this, as many unique websites with a lot of information disappeared forever.

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