TV’s Lost & Found: Lost or Missing?


In my opinion, a distinction should be made between television programs that were never recorded at all and those that were recorded but for which no copies are known to exist. Admittedly, the terms “lost” and “missing” are in many fairly interchangeable but in my mind, to say a certain program is “lost” implies that it is gone for good. It doesn’t exist. It is lost forever. A missing program, on the other hand, may have simply been misplaced. Or forgotten somewhere. It isn’t lost but instead is waiting to be found. A third category, “unavailable,” refers to programs that are known to exist but cannot be viewed by the general public.

“Lost” Programs

In September of 1947, the kinescope process was introduced in the United States, allowing for the first time live television broadcasts to be recorded on film for later reuse. At the time, the vast majority of television programs were aired live. But prior to the kinescope, the only way to record live television was to point a traditional film camera at a television screen and hope for the best. The resulting recording, however, would not be much to look at. Grainy and silent, it would also likely appear distorted due to synchronization issues between the camera and the television set.

Thus, most television programs broadcast live before September of 1947 can be considered lost by virtue of the fact that there was no way to record them. There are some exceptions, of course. The Paley Center for Media has an 11-minute excerpt of a live television program broadcast in New York City over NBC’s experimental station W2XBS on August 31st, 1939. It was filmed by an unidentified individual using the method described above and is believed to be the earliest existing television footage from the United States. Similar recordings from the late 1930s through the mid-to-late 1940s may also exist, as do audio recordings and photographs.

“Missing” Programs

The advent of the kinescope meant that television programs could be recorded and then sent to other stations for rebroadcast at a later date. However, especially during the late 1940s when television was still in its infancy, there was little interest in saving kinescopes simply for posterity’s sake. Countless programs that were recorded live no longer exist because the kinescopes were destroyed once they had served their purpose. However, the simple fact that they were recorded at one point differentiates them from programs that were never recorded.

When videotape was introduced in 1956, it was also not considered a way to save television programs forever but rather a new, better method of recording programs for later use. Furthermore, videotape could be reused, meaning many programs were erased so that new programs could be taped. Keep in mind that television has always been a business. For decades, it was understood that many television programs had no repeat value: game shows, sporting events and newscasts, for example. The very first Super Bowl, broadcast on both CBS and NBC in 1967, was videotaped by both networks but no copies are known to exist today.

“Unavailable” Programs

Most of the television programs I’ve written about aren’t commercially available, meaning they’ve never been released on VHS or DVD (or Laserdisc or Betamax, for that matter). But many do circulate among private collectors. Starting in the late 1970s when VCRs became available, television fans have been recording, saving and trading their favorite programs. Hundreds of programs that have never been commercially released were recorded either during their original broadcasts or later when they were aired in local/cable syndication.

Scattered between a variety of museums, archives, production company warehouses and random basements are hundreds of thousands of hours of television. The Library of Congress has some 80,000 individual episodes, the Paley Center for Media approximately 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 between these institutions. Some percentage of the programs they hold have been made commercially available or circulate among private collectors.

Furthermore, The Paley Center for Media’s collection is open to the public at its New York City and Los Angeles locations and the Museum of Broadcast Communications has thousands of hours available on its website. Still, there is a huge number of television programs that exist but are simply unavailable to the general public. The New People, for example, has never been released commercially in any format. It isn’t lost or missing; all 17 episodes are part of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and may exist elsewhere as well. But only the pilot episode exists in the hands of private collectors.


The line between the a “lost” program and one that is “missing” is somewhat abstract. The fact that NBC’s Hour Glass is “lost” because it was broadcast in 1946 while the aforementioned Super Bowl I is simply “missing” because there are no known copies doesn’t really matter. The end result is the same: the programs can’t be watched, studied and enjoyed. However, there is one key difference: “missing” television programs can be found.

It is highly unlikely that footage from Hour Glass is ever going to surface. Could someone have pointed their camera at the television set and recorded a few minutes of grainy, silent, black and white film? Anything is possible. But television historians, archivists and enthusiasts would be better served spending their time, money and effort trying to track down “missing” programs like Super Bowl I. That’s not to say “lost” programs should be ignored; those 11 minutes of footage from 1939 at The Paley Center for Media prove that additional recordings of live television from the 1930s and 1940s may still be out there.

As for “unavailable” programs, more needs to be done to make them accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, simply digitizing collections and putting them online is not the quick and easy answer. Financial considerations and questions of copyright remain a hurdle.

Last Updated November 6th, 2010

11 Replies to “TV’s Lost & Found: Lost or Missing?”

  1. Actually there are photo shots made from the live inaugural broadcast of “Hour Glass” (May 9 1946) as featured in extended article on the show’s debut in the May 27 1946 Life Magazine. Also, audio of the entire first program (but without video) is available at the Library of Congress, in its SONIC audio archives.

  2. I am interested in the dramatic anthology series, such as Kraft Television Theater, Westinghouse Studio One, Philco Playhouse, etc. Do you, or does anyone, have a list of which episodes of these series survive? An example was a mammoth (for the time) two hour version of A Christmas Carol broadcast by the BBC in December of 1950.

    Does anyone know about them, comprehensively?

  3. There was an NBC game show, “Baffle,” hosted by sports legend Dick Enberg, that premiered in 1973. I believe the show ran only one season. It is believed that all the studio masters were “wiped” a common practice of networks at the time. Any possibility of a pilot episode in existence?

  4. I would guess that the 1964 CBS series My Living Doll starring Julie Newmar
    and the late Bob Cummings–that is, the remaining 15 episodes original film
    negatives that have yet to be located–would qualify under the “lost” category.
    Last I checked, a representative of Jack Chertok Productions–the owner of
    the rights legally–was still searching worldwide for these last 15 prints (16 mm.
    as the original 35 mm. film negatives of all 26 episodes were reported to have
    been destroyed in the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake according to Wikipedia) which are still missing. The first 11 episodes was released in a set by MPI Home Video back in 2011. A second release is depending on the location of the remaining 15 episodes, some of which were Bob Cummings last
    appearances on the series before his departure and the rest with his
    co-star the late Jack Mullaney taking over the male lead role. I hope the
    Chertok Productions company can eventually locate them.

    Any information about their existence would be appreciated. I have the
    My Living Doll DVD set from MPI and would love to see the other 15
    if they possibly still exist today in some form.

    1. The earthquake story is a falsehood spread by a person who has a proclivity to tell tall tales. The more accurate truth is that Jack Chertok had all of the elements destroyed back in the 70s. He couldn’t do anything with the show and got tired of paying the storage fees. No one wanted it and this was before the cable boom and the advent of a home video market. He also trashed the negatives for My Favorite Martian as well. The remaining 15 episodes may survive somewhere in private hands, but who knows if they will ever surface.

  5. A kinescope was offered an ad agency of the January 16, 1949 premiere telecast of KNBH Channel 4 – NBC Hollywood. Apparently the variety show segment “On With The Show” was filmed. Is this rarity available in any archives either LOC or UCLA? Love to research that one.

  6. Has anyone here ever heard old stories about “Reinhard the Collector”? My late (German) grandfather was an antiques dealer in (I think) Bavaria and he told me several tales about this very eccentric and very very wealthy man who sometimes did business with him. By this time my grandfather had retired and moved to America and he told me many tales which may or may not be true. This Reinhard was very reclusive and supposedly lived in a huge mansion somewhere in the mountains but nobody knew where. Apparently the Nazis used his land in the war and blasted out an existing cave to make a labyrinth of steel-doored vaults. Nobody knows what they stored there and they only traveled to and from the location by night. Some say they left behind gold and stolen art and jewels after the war and that is how Reinhard got so rich, but others said he was already rich before the war. My grandfather said Reinhard was Jewish but the Nazi commander at the vaults would drink and play cards with Reinhard and they often dined together.

    After the war Reinhard traded in paintings and other rare items and often paid for things with gold which probably led to the rumors about Nazi treasure. He was fond of collecting telescopes, cameras, movie projectors and later became interested in electronic gadgets. The strangest story was that he became obsessed with television, especially British television even though he had no reception in the mountains. He purchased tape equipment in the early 1960’s (I’m not sure if tape equipment really existed then) and had multiple people in London record television programs on reel-to-reel tape, supplying the equipment and paying them very well. He had a courier who would collect the recordings and deliver blank tape reels, and the tapes were delivered to him for viewing. He always had two recordings made of the programs he liked in case one didn’t turn out, and he stored them along with the rest of his treasures in the mountain vaults. He was quite proud of his collection of early television which included pop music shows, comedy shows, and science fiction shows including a virtually complete collection of early dr. who episodes.

    My grandfather passed away a few years ago, but shortly before that an old friend in Germany had told him that Reinhard had died and his land had been taken over by his even more eccentric son about whom nothing is known except that he is a wealthy businessman of some sort. Whether any of this is true or just tall tales told by an old man to his grandson I can’t say but I always believed his stories. I’ve read that lots of television shows from the sixties are lost and that there are several missing doctor who episodes so I wonder what has become of those tape recordings if they really did exist.

  7. The Trans Lux TV series of Felix the cat had twice as many episodes originally as are now available. The available ones have Felix’s magic bag with a dot cross pattern on it. The missing episodes had a different pattern on it, “Houndstooth” pattern. Nowhere can any of these can be found. Was there a lawsuit? Copy-write issue?
    Another FYI, Felix was the first image projected on a TV screen as per the Life mag story on the first 50 yrs. of TV. Trans Lux was the studio that worked on the creation of TV.

  8. I would think that videotapes of early network space coverage (especially color tapes starting in 1965) would be of much interest.

    Supposedly, color tapes of most of NBC’s space coverage from 1965 until 1973 are missing, as are color tapes of some of ABC’s and CBS’s space coverage of that era (but a lot of those networks’ space coverage does exist).

    There are some kinescopes of NBC space coverage from the sixties, originally broadcast live and in color, that do exist.

  9. Always interested in locating people who audio taped their television (1950’s thru early 1970’s) like yours truly. A remarkable brief window of time representing historic TV broadcasting during its infant beginnings.
    Phil Gries

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