I’m not much given to ranking such things, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to rank my favourite sitcoms, The Likely Lads would easily make the top tier. It aired three seasons on BBC between 1964 and 1966—which, because it’s British television, means twenty episodes and a Christmas sketch—following Terry and Bob, two young men working in a factory in the north-east of England. It was commissioned because The Beatles were big and that made someone at the BBC want a show about young northerners, even if they ended up in Newcastle instead of Liverpool.
Terry and Bob are instantly, vividly realized: they are united in their shared ambitions of getting drunk, picking up girls, and watching football, but there is always a tension between Terry’s pride in being working-class and Bob’s ambitions for social mobility. Bob will always blame Terry for his bad behavior, but the phrase “pushing an open door” was invented specifically to describe Bob. While many 1960s sitcoms are warm, wholesome and full of wacky misunderstandings, The Likely Lads is vulgar, realistic and incredibly modern. Season one’s “Older Women Are More Experienced”—in which Terry dates an older woman and Bob dates a younger one—ends on a punchline that wouldn’t feel out of place in Peep Show. It’s a show I adore, that I will evangelise for any chance I get.
Of the twenty episodes produced, only ten survive.
The BBC had no official policy on archiving until 1978. Well into the 1970s, it routinely destroyed recordings of its programmes: to wipe and reuse the tapes, to free up storage space, or just because they thought it had no further value. Tapes sent abroad for broadcast in other countries were expected to be destroyed, or returned to be destroyed, after the programme was shown the number the times for which it had been licensed.
There was definitely a hierarchy to what was saved and what was destroyed, although one that’s only intermittently recognisable from fifty years’ distance. The BBC’s wiping of its own archives is a case study in not knowing what will turn out to be important. The Madhouse on Castle Street, a 1963 teleplay featuring a then-unknown Bob Dylan, was junked – in 1968, after Dylan had become famous. Most of the episodes of music programme Top of the Pops that aired before the mid-1970s are lost, including a 1966 performance by The Beatles. Most of Till Death Us Do Part, the sitcom that was adapted in the US as All in the Family, is lost.
According to Terry Gilliam, the only reason the BBC didn’t wipe Monty Python’s Flying Circus is because he bought the tapes before they had the chance. Peter Cook wasn’t so lucky: he offered to buy the tapes of his and Dudley Moore’s seminal sketch show Not Only… But Also, but the BBC wiped them anyway. What little survives of Not Only… But Also is some black-and-white kinescope copies—that’s when a film camera is synchronised to record the television screen—even though the show was originally broadcast in colour, as well as some 16mm film inserts. Around a hundred episodes of Doctor Who are missing—why would a sci-fi show meant to teach kids about history be worth saving, after all? These lost Who episodes exist in audio form, not because the BBC decided to save audio versions, but because of fans at home recording the audio off-air. The BBC even wiped their coverage of the moon landing.
But most of the programmes destroyed are not famous, or obviously important and worthy of preservation. Many black-and-white programmes—like The Likely Lads and Till Death Do Us Part—were deemed irrelevant with the introduction of colour broadcasting and destroyed to make room for colour tapes. Sitcoms and soap operas—the lowest, most ephemeral forms in the low, ephemeral art of television—were of course among the worst victims: no episodes survive of United!, a twice-weekly soap about a second-division football team, 199 Park Lane, a soap set in a luxury block of flats in London, or the sitcoms Abigail and Roger, The Airbase, and The Gnomes of Dulwich.
It’s easier to grieve for shows if you personally feel their loss. Saving The Likely Lads would be one of my top priorities if I had a time machine, but I can’t imagine watching United! even if every episode was free to stream in HD right now. But it’s not really about what shows I’d like to watch. It’s about huge chunks of television history that are missing, never to be recovered. If there were misunderstood masterpieces among the wiped, we will never get the chance to rediscover them. If there was dark, disgusting shit that reveals the worst of what was considered acceptable in society, we will never get to examine them with a critical eye. If all of it was bland, boring nonsense that doesn’t matter at all, we will never get to find out for ourselves. Not because of some tragic accident, but because the choice was made to destroy it. “Reams of paperwork indicated a large chunk of their content was rubber-stamped into destruction using just three words,” Jake Rossen writes, “’No further interest’.”
Wiping was in no way unique to the BBC. The UK’s main commercial broadcaster ITV operated by awarding regional licences to independent private companies, and the quality of archiving varied widely between regions. All of The Prisoner—Patrick McGoohan’s extraordinary and brilliant allegorical sci-fi about a British intelligence officer kidnapped and trapped in a mysterious village—exists, but even in the narrow field of “shows about spies that aired on ITV”, all but two episodes of The Rat Catchers and the whole first season of The Avengers are missing. All of Coronation Street, the long-running soap set in a fictional town in Greater Manchester, survives, but Crossroads, a cheaply-made but popular soap set in a Midlands motel, is missing 2,850 of its original 3,555 episodes. ITV wiped their coverage of the moon landing too.
Wiping wasn’t quite as widespread in the United States as in the UK, but a huge amount of television was still destroyed. Almost all of The Tonight Show under the reign of host Jack Paar as well as the first ten years hosted by Johnny Carson is lost, because NBC recorded over the tapes. Although footage—mostly from other sources—survives of the early Superbowls, the telecasts were all wiped until Super Bowl VII in 1973. Most of Walter Cronkite’s newscasts between 1962 and 1968 are lost, with a few exceptions, such as his coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination and his criticism of the Vietnam War. Game shows, soap operas and daytime television were routinely destroyed.
DuMont Television Network broadcast in the US from 1942, when television was in its infancy, to 1956. They aired what is considered the first TV sitcom—Mary Kay and Johnny—and America’s first TV soap opera, Faraway Hill. Jackie Gleason got his start there, debuting The Honeymooners as a recurring sketch on his variety show before developing it into a sitcom for CBS. They aired music programme The Hazel Scott Show, one of the first TV shows in the US to be hosted by a black person, during the summer of 1950: despite good ratings and critical acclaim, it was cancelled when Scott was named as a communist sympathiser in anti-communist pamphlet called “Red Channels,” and the show found itself without a sponsor. They also aired The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, starring Anna May Wong as a detective, which became the first US show with an Asian-American lead.
None of these shows survive intact. DuMont preserved most of what it produced as kinescopes, but money troubles meant they began melting down these film copies to recover the silver content. In the mid-1970s, well after its collapse, DuMont’s remaining library was loaded onto a couple of trucks and dumped in the East River. Of all the many, many programmes that aired on DuMont—roughly 20,000 episodes—only a small fraction, about 350, survive.
American and British shows have the relative advantage of being more likely to have been exported to other territories that might have held on to a copy. Broadcasts of the Oscars in the 1950s and into the 1960s were wiped by the American stations that aired them, but kinescope copies made for European broadcast survive. Many of the episodes of Doctor Who we have only survive because overseas broadcasters kept hold of their copies instead of returning or destroying them. But for most countries—lacking either the institutional expertise to produce television programmes on the scale of Britain and America, or the imperial cultural capital to export their media worldwide—overseas distribution was effectively non-existent.
It’s hard to describe the role of The Late Late Show in Irish society, but the death of Gay Byrne, its first and longest-serving host, sending the entire nation into mourning should give some indication. Ireland’s first television station—the public broadcaster Telefís Éireann, now called RTÉ—was launched in 1962, and The Late Late was one of its flagship programmes. Byrne was twenty-eight when it debuted, and would host it until his retirement in 1999. The show discussed subjects that were hugely taboo in Ireland, from contraception to homosexuality to divorce to the influence of the Catholic Church. He was an immensely talented broadcaster—famously handling a phone-in competition winner revealing that her daughter had just died with extraordinary deftness and grace—but his effect on the nation is far beyond any equally talented broadcaster anywhere in the world. For an entire country for nearly forty years, he was the man on television, practically television itself. And yet. RTÉ wiped almost everything for the first fifteen years of its existence. “TV then was live, ephemeral and disposable,” Hugh Linehan writes for the Irish Times, “so all the early Late Late Shows and much more got wiped.”
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had a policy of wiping and reusing tapes well into the 1970s, and so almost all their broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s are lost. According to Bob Ellis in the Sydney Morning Herald, a collector once posed as a silver nitrate dealer in order to buy kinescopes marked for destruction. The collector sometimes rented out these copies to schools, and when a student recognised her father, an actor, in a Shakespeare production, the actor lodged a complaint, believing that ABC still owned the tapes and was making extra money out of his performance. Warned that the police were coming, the collector destroyed almost all of the material, like the police raid in GoodFellas but with episodes of Six O’Clock Rock instead of cocaine.
Almost all Greek television from before the 1980s is lost. Only nine out of 185 episodes of Flemish sitcom Schipper naast Mathilde survive. A bunch of Japanese anime programmes are lost or incomplete. Destroying television was such a widespread practice all over the world that it seems like a hopeless inevitability. Sure, the BBC wiped their coverage of the moon landing, but NASA wiped the master tapes. The only footage we have of the moon landing is kinescope recordings. If the original tapes could be found, we could now yield a much higher quality transfer than was possible in 1969, since recording technology has always been ahead of playback technology. But they were wiped, probably in the 1980s.
Wiping basically never happens anymore. The cost of both recording and storage steadily plummeted, and broadcasters realised the value of reruns, then home video, then streaming rights. But the fundamental values and beliefs that enabled wiping remain unchanged: that art is the property neither of the public in general nor the artists specifically, but of copyright holders, free to do with it as they please.
All art rightfully belongs to the commonwealth of humanity: this is true when it comes to critical interpretation, but it’s also literally true. It is our heritage, our history, a lineage stretching back to when humans first told each other stories and sang each other songs and painted on cave walls. The function of copyright should be to protect the rights of artists as workers, ensuring they receive fair compensation for copyable works. It doesn’t really work that way—Taylor Swift is planning on re-recording her early albums because Scooter Braun bought up her back catalogue—but in theory, it’s a good idea, perverted by work-for-hire arrangements and ever-extending expiration dates that corporations like Disney lobby for. But regardless, copyright is about the right to reproduce and distribute a work, not about ownership. The ultimate destiny of all copyrights is to expire, and for the work to enter the public domain. Copyright holders are just temporary custodians.
And they have proven themselves unfit custodians. Capitalist economies are hostile to art preservation, because it’s expensive and time-consuming and provides little monetary return. When TV wiping ended, it wasn’t because everyone realized it was wrong, it was because the financial calculus of archiving changed. Although some of the worst offenders, like the BBC, are public bodies, the scarce resources they are provided incentivize the same kind of mindset, especially when there is pressure to perform along the same metrics as their for-profit equivalents. The BBC wouldn’t have needed to free up storage space or reuse tapes if they had sufficient storage and enough tapes.
Preservation isn’t just a matter of not destroying, it means actively saving. Physical media degrades, digital media becomes corrupted or incompatible. As Heather Alexandra wrote about video games, “It’s not enough to keep our old games in a box at the back of the garage. Exposed circuit boards and EPROMs are damaged by dust and bright light. Humidity eats away at magnetic media.”
According to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost. A big part of that is willful destruction—particularly of silent films, considered worthless in the talkie era—but a large part is that nitrate film, which was standard until the 1950s, can spontaneously combust if it’s stored improperly. A huge amount of culture has been lost in fires: the 1937 Fox vault fire, the 1965 MGM vault fire, the 2008 Universal Music Group fire in which the New York Times estimates between 118 and 175,000 master recordings were destroyed. Digitization can feel like a cure-all, but that has its own problems: when Toy Story was going to be put out on DVD, it was discovered that as much of a fifth of the original digital files had been corrupted, and a film print had to be used for the DVD instead. Even if digitization was a cure-all, the proportion of analogue copies of film, television and especially music that has been digitized is shockingly small. In 2013, it was estimated that “less than 18 percent of commercial music archives had been transferred and made available through streaming and download services.”
The other side of the preservation coin is accessibility. It isn’t worth much for something to exist if it’s locked away, misfiled in some giant warehouse, never to be stumbled upon again. Corporate copyright holders have always been hostile to accessibility, because artificial scarcity creates demand. Before the launch of its streaming service Disney+, Disney spent decades purposefully limiting availability of its animated films on home release to increase their market value, placing the films in the “Disney vault” for years at a time. On the flip side, tons of media has been buried because its existence is embarrassing to the brand—Disney refusing to release Song of the South in North America, or the Censored Eleven Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that Warner Bros. still haven’t released—despite announcing a decade ago that they would—or more often, because it would just not be worth the cost to release.
“Over in England, there are thousands of formerly-labelled tape boxes in warehouses that are now un-labeled because the Sellotape that was used to attach the track sheets to the boxes disintegrates after a few decades and the sheets fall off, leaving the boxes completely devoid of information,” according to music historian Andy Zax, “No one is ever going to spend the money to play the tapes back to find out what’s on them, so they just sit there.” But nothing that stupid and dramatic needs to happen for stuff to just sit there. After winning an Oscar for directing Rocky, John G. Avildsen made Slow Dancing in the Big City, an unabashedly corny romance that polarized critics and fared poorly at the box office. It’s never been released on home media since its run in theatres in 1978, even though its soundtrack was rereleased on CD in 2005. Fist of Fun, Stewart Lee and Richard’s Herring delightfully anarchic 1990s BBC sketch show, was only released on DVD and download because Lee and Herring bought the rights from the BBC. Their follow-up sketch-variety show, the gloriously strange and breathlessly funny This Morning With Richard Not Judy, has never been released since its original broadcast, and the only reason you can watch any of it is because of fans digitising and uploading their VHS recordings.
There are so many shows that aren’t lost or missing or destroyed, but just aren’t available. Tons of these were unsuccessful at the time but seem valuable in hindsight: a decade before The Sopranos, David Chase created Almost Grown, a drama following the same couple in different time periods from the 1950s to the 1980s. It got good reviews, but had poor ratings—competing directly with Monday Night Football—and was canceled after airing nine of its thirteen episodes. The show has never been rerun or given a home release, even after the opportunity came along to slap “from the creator of The Sopranos” on the box.
Asylum, a sitcom/stand-up hybrid that aired one season in 1996, seems to hold the seeds for at least half of British comedy in the 2000s. Most notably, it was created by Edgar Wright, who went on to direct Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, marking his first collaboration with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, three years before they would create cult sitcom Spaced. It’s never been released on DVD or streaming. The last time I checked, it existed in low-res YouTube uploads of VHS recordings, but they could disappear at literally any moment. Just because a copyright holder isn’t doing anything with their copyright doesn’t mean they won’t rigidly enforce it.
The argument is that there isn’t any real demand for these shows or films to be released. And that’s pretty much true: old television, especially, has basically zero cultural cachet outside of a handful of super-popular behemoths, almost all of which are from the last twenty years. But demand is something that’s cultivated. You can’t demand something if you don’t even know about it, and nobody is doing a multimillion dollar ad campaign and a media tour and a PR blast to promote The Dick Van Dyke Show. We’re constantly bombarded with the hot new shows you just have to watch, while the older and obscure programmes that are available quietly disappear.
One of the big reasons films and TV shows sit in warehouses gathering dust is the cost and complexities of managing the different copyrights involved. Frank’s Place, a character-driven dramedy about a black Ivy League professor inheriting a New Orleans restaurant, aired one season in 1987-88, and has never been given any kind of home release thanks largely to music rights: the show had a distinctive soundtrack of jazz and R&B. SCTV was unreleased for decades thanks to music copyrights. When it was finally released by Shout Factory, music had to be edited or even entire sketches left out. Daria originally aired with a soundtrack of contemporary pop songs, often with a particular relevance to the events of the episode, but on VHS and DVD almost all music was replaced.
We’ve been sold the myth that everything is available online. It’s a myth that buoys entertainment companies designing the market so they have complete control over access. If you buy something on DVD or Blu-ray, it’s yours to have and to own, but if you buy a film on iTunes, it can disappear without warning if it’s removed from the iTunes store. Entertainment is moving more and more towards streaming services, which means monthly subscriptions, which means paying a continual fee for access without ever actually owning anything.
We’re in the era of Peak TV. More and more television is being produced—channels formerly focused primarily on reruns of The Love Boat pivoting hard into original content and seemingly every entertainment company launching a bespoke streaming service—while less and less of it is released in any kind of “permanent” physical format. Netflix, for example, has moved more and more towards original content, with exclusivity as the primary selling point, not breadth and depth of catalogue. But if something is exclusively distributed by one platform, what happens if that platform ceases to exist? Some of Netflix’s early original series like Orange Is the New Black were definitely released on DVD or broadcast traditionally in international territories, but the vast majority of Netflix’s originals haven’t been. If Netflix collapsed, the rights to a lot of its programming would be bought up by other entertainment companies. But—though they mostly don’t release viewership numbers—Netflix pumps out so much content that there’s guaranteed to be a lot of stuff on there that basically nobody has ever watched and no-one would bother buying the rights to.
And that’s on Netflix, the aspiring monopolist. What’s going to happen to shows produced for Crackle or DC Universe when they collapse? Right in the river, next to DuMont.
So much of the history of television’s survival is the history of home recordings and eccentric collectors, of dusty mislabeled film canisters found hidden away or thrown in a skip. But in the streaming era, there are no archival traces. Pirated copies could survive—it’s how we held onto Nosferatu and the Star Wars Christmas Special and Todd Haynes’ experimental short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story—but quite apart from the ethics and legalities of it, piracy is an inefficient archival tool, generally privileging the popular and well-known that is least at risk anyway. What needs to happen is a sea change in values, in how we think about art and archiving and ownership.
In 2018, two lost episodes of The Likely Lads were discovered in a private collection. They hadn’t been seen since 1967. They weren’t aired on the BBC, or put up on streaming anywhere. They were included as a special feature on a restored DVD rerelease of the 1976 spin-off film. Both episodes are delights—“A Star Is Born” is about Terry and Bob entering a talent competition despite their lack of any discernible talent, and “Far Away Places” is ostensibly about the lads going on holiday but is mostly about them not having the money to go on holiday—but quite apart from the merits of the episodes themselves, they feel sort of miraculous. A window into the past that had long been boarded up. An hour spent with old friends I thought I’d never see again. A melancholy reminder of all that was lost but the joy of a lost thing found.
These lost episodes are a piece of culture willfully destroyed only to be rescued from the abyss by pure chance. The mass wiping of television history should be a cautionary tale, making us realize the value of maintaining a complete, accessible, universal public archive. But instead, the same attitudes that enabled wiping stay put. The lost episodes of The Likely Lads were released on DVD, a format fast becoming antiquated, as a bonus feature, by a niche distributor that specializes in restored classic television. It’s not hard to imagine a similar case where a kinescope recording might be found, and left on a shelf to gather dust, right alongside Slow Dancing in the Big City and Almost Grown.
Specific policy changes to ensure preservation and access—reform of the copyright system to the benefit of workers and the public, nationalizing broadband and ensuring full coverage in rural areas, making as much of existing archives as possible available online—are important, but more than that, we need a revolution in perspective on art. Too often, copyright is treated as a way to extract rents: intellectual property to be exploited, not public property to be protected. But public property is exactly what it is, and we need to start thinking about art that way: as something that needs to be decommodified. Something precious to human life, not just to the market.