How Was Early Television Preserved?

Regular television service in the U.S. was officially inaugurated on April 20, 1939, when NBC telecast the opening ceremonies of New York World's Fair. Other television firsts quickly followed suit: the first newscast (1940); the first network link (1941, New York to Philadelphia); the first sponsored series (1946, Hour Glass); the first televised World Series (1947). While these milestones were presumably captured by other visual media, the actual electronically transmitted broadcasts were not preserved.

From 1947 onward, when commercial network television began in earnest, broadcasters used motion picture film to make copies of their live broadcasts. Known as kinescopes, these recordings were achieved by filming a studio monitor; the resulting film print would then be synchronized with the audio track, which was recorded separately. During these early days of television, when the industry was largely based in New York, kinescopes were used for time-delayed rebroadcast to the West Coast.

By the midfifties, the networks were using more film stock than all the Hollywood studios combined. Storage was always an issue and, in many cases, kinescope prints were simply discarded after a one-time use. The kinescope recordings that survive today are, for the most part, 16mm film reels—caretakers of the earliest days of the medium. A good number of the programs in our collection from 1947–60 are preserved in this manner. Some examples include episodes of the dramatic anthology series Kraft TV Theatre, Edward R. Murrow's seminal news program See It Now, and Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre. Unfortunately, the live-to-air programs from this era which remain missing and are presumed lost number in the thousands.  

While television remained live through much the fifties, some television companies favored producing their programming directly on film, an economically advantageous technique whereby a program could be rerun an infinite number of times (thus anticipating the syndication and home video markets). It is for this reason that many of the notable filmed series from the fifties and sixties, such as I Love Lucy, Dragnet, and The Twilight Zone, continue to be enjoyed by audiences today—yet they represent but a fraction of television that has survived from this era.