BBC Archives - Wiped, Missing and Lost

BBC Archives has one of the largest broadcast collections in the world, but we don’t have every programme we have broadcast since 1922. The programmes we don’t have are often the focus of comment and scrutiny. The BBC can be in the spotlight on this subject - understandably as a publicly funded broadcaster - but all long established broadcast archives have a similar story.

There are many reasons why a broadcast radio or television programme or other BBC content may not have been permanently retained in the archives, and any number of these reasons may have applied simultaneously.

1. No recording was ever made

In the early years of radio and television, broadcasting was mostly a live activity and there were initially no, and then very limited, means of recording broadcasts.

2. Recordings were made for short term broadcasting reasons, not for the long term

When recording technology was more available, it was often used for a practical purpose such as for playing out a programme at another time or, when a recording had been made on location away from the studio. The idea that some recordings were important to keep for longer term re-use or historical reasons developed gradually and inconsistently across the BBC.

3. Making recordings was very expensive

In radio before tape was widely used, to keep a recording beyond immediate use, a temporary acetate disc of limited playing-life needed to be processed to a more durable format outside the BBC. The £5 per disc cost is the equivalent of £200 in 2018. In television, videotape recording began to be available in the 1950s; machines could cost the equivalent of £300,000 and 2” tape stock up to £2,000 each at today’s prices. These costs were an incentive to record over existing programmes.

4. There was no requirement to build an archive

The Advisory Committee on Archives, chaired by the BBC’s official historian Asa Briggs, reported in 1979. A key recommendation was that a requirement to keep archives was included in the BBC Charter and this was done for the first time in 1981. Although collections of recordings had built up by this time, before this there was no regulatory or legal requirement to keep archives in the BBC.

5. Changing views about re-use value and commercial opportunities

With more limited outlets to repeat programmes, there wasn’t necessarily the drive to keep programmes – even popular ones – to fill future schedules with repeats. Commercial exploitation such as overseas programme sales or the domestic retail market did develop but even when established, operations could be entirely separate from domestic broadcasting or fledgling archiving processes so recordings did not necessarily become available to retain in a library or archive. In recent years, private collectors have tracked down some significant programme from sales copies long forgotten in the stores of overseas broadcasters. With the advent of colour television, black and white programmes could be seen to have less value as audiences increasingly expected to see programmes in colour only. Recordings with a perceived reduced re-use value could be more liable to disposal.

6. Re-use rights

The BBC has not always been able to easily or cost-effectively re-use programmes because of contractual and copyright restrictions. The BBC has rarely owned programmes completely, with actors, writers, musicians, contributors and others retaining rights and needing to be paid for re-use. Generally, the longer ago the contract, the fewer and narrower re-use rights the BBC retained. Recordings of programmes that were expensive or difficult to re-use could be hard to justify taking up space and time to maintain in an archive and therefore not retained.

7. Lost, missing, stolen and damaged

In an operation of the scale of the BBC, with in TV alone many thousands of tape movements a week in pre-digital times, accidental loss and damage has sometimes happened. The once common practice of lending single-copy masters – the expense and space constraints meaning we only had one copy of many programmes, could mean an increased risk of loss.

8. Archive and Library policies and practice

Across the BBC, different departments had responsibilities for storing and documenting recordings so polices and practice could vary considerably. It was generally accepted that it was not possible to keep all programmes indefinitely. Selecting from the film, VT and audiotapes held for the permanent archive was a highly selective process – combining factors of understood re-value of the time; costs of processing; space; availability of recordings; the views and cooperation of production and ease or otherwise of re-use.

In a large and complex organisation like the BBC, the processes for making and managing recordings after broadcast were not always well defined, resourced or secure. This sometimes led to programmes not being received, or technical faults not spotted at an early stage. In some cases – Local Radio is one example - central departments had no remit to manage the archive, and with scant resources to spare in production teams, selecting output for archiving could be limited and rely on the personal interest of staff leading to some great collections, but patchy coverage in the archive.

9. External deposit

Some broadcasts have been deposited in other institutions – e.g. the National Film and TV Archive of the BFI or the British Library. Some production areas have deposited material externally directly, with or without the knowledge of the BBC’s archives department (e.g. Local Radio deposits with their local authority or regional TV News with regional archives; the German Service with the DRA German National Radio Archives)

10. Secure the Past for the Future

The BBC does however retain one of the largest multi-media archives in the world dating from the 1920s with over 15 million legacy items ranging across Television, Radio, Commercial Music, Documents, Photos, Sheet Music and artefacts. There have been a number of preservation and digitisation initiatives as the BBC transitions to a modern ‘open’ archive, fit for an internet first BBC in a fully digital world. BBC Archives’ mission remains to “Secure the Past for the Future” whilst looking after the BBC’s cultural memory and fulfilling our charter obligation.

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