Wednesday, 18 May 2016

TVAD talk on the Heritage of TV news

As a second year student on the DHeritage programme, I am still far from clear about my research question. So, when I was invited to give a TVAD talk, it was a good opportunity to think about where I was in the process, and how my research so far is beginning to collect around topics of interest.
As a professional doctoral student, my research is closely aligned to my practice as a corporate film-maker and broadcast journalist, so I tried to bring the two things together as a starting point, by looking at the heritage of radio and TV news.
From an outsider’s perspective, I would suggest that the heritage of TV news is its archive: the news broadcasts, on the spot reports and coverage of historic events, and this archive most definitely has a value. Every broadcaster has a department dedicated to selling the reuse of these assets.

But from my point of view, there is something just as important behind the scenes that is less obvious as ‘heritage’. The stories that have made up my career have come from production in the newsroom, using the most up-to-date technology available (and affordable) to bring the news to the radio waves and TV screen.

So, I started to look at the machines I used to work with every day.
What is interesting about looking again at these machines is that they sparked off memories about the way we used to make the news, and I started to think about the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t.

I remembered what it was like to edit using razor blades and splicing tape, and how everyone who has ever cut tape has the same semi-circular scar on their thumb from the time when they were in a rush, decided not to put the tape into the editing block, and ended up embedding the razor blade in their thumb, which resulted in even more panic as they tried to get their report on air without bleeding on it.

Or the time when the beta-cart machine chewed up a report on tape, leaving me with a minute-long black hole in my bulletin. To add to that, the autocue also failed while we were on-air. When the presenter tried to read the ‘spare’ stories from the printed scripts to make up the lost time due to the tape being chewed, he found that the printer was short on ink and had not printed them legibly. So, he had nowhere to go, and wrapped up the bulletin, leaving us sitting on the ‘end slate’ of the weather for a full minute – the longest minute of my professional career.

Those memories were attached to these obsolete machines, that are in themselves not valued in any way except by collectors of niche technology, and rarely exhibited as heritage objects. But to me, those machines are a vital element of the heritage story of me and my colleagues, as the technology we used shaped and affected the way we brought the news to the listener or viewer.

Because these machines are obsolete, my own heritage - news programmes I have worked on and reports I have done - are inaccessible, because they are stored on reel-to-reel tape, Beta SP and video tape, none of which I can access without seeking out someone who keeps and uses these technical relics of newsrooms past.

This led me to think that this will probably soon be true of CDs, and perhaps even USB sticks and hard drives. So, thinking about technology from a perspective of heritage collections, could it be that museums and archives are better off with pre-digital systems such as card catalogues, because these have remained accessible for many years without becoming obsolete, since we can simply copy the information onto new cards when they get old and hard to read. Is technology really helpful at all for holding and accessing data in the heritage sector?

And, thinking about the old technologies that are now considered obsolete, what formerly vital machines and technologies are mouldering away in the back rooms of museums and archives, no longer considered of any value? What heritage stories might be attached to these?

My research question centres around digitisation, looking at how putting collections online may have altered the work of the heritage professional, and the way they communicate with the outside world. I would like to look at the way technology has both helped and hindered heritage professionals with their work, and will ask them to reflect on how the rapid rise of the internet has changed their practice, and the way they present their collections. 

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