I should probably state at the outset that this blog is not affiliated in any way with the BBC’s current campaign encouraging the nation to ‘get creative’ with all things digital, though byte-sized technology and the Corporation are very much my theme.

I simply needed a catchy title…

Readers of my previous blogs may have divined that I have a greater fondness for ‘old’ TV than ‘new’ media, but this week I will, happily, be focusing on a project that neatly combines the two. Academic Requirements for Pre-1989 BBC Archive Content (yes, the title could be pithier) was the result of a rather frantic four months I spent in late 2013 researching which items from the BBC’s archive notcurrently covered by the Educational Recording Agency licence (which took effect from 1989) academics would like to see made available, in digital form, for the purposes of teaching and research. I was jointly employed in this endeavour, part of the Research Education Space project, by the British Universities Film and Video Council and Jisc. What can I say? I was young, and I needed the money.

Actually, this was a project close to my heart. Several times in my teaching career I have been frustrated by the non-availability of archive material, and the need to ‘settle’ for what I could obtain quickly, easily and – to be blunt – at minimal personal cost. The BBC, whose Controller of Archive Development Tony Ageh and his team were extremely supportive of the project, were keen to discover to what uses the archive might be put by academics if both broadcast and non-non broadcast radio and television items could be made available online, and the resulting report demonstrates a clear interest in and desire for increased access to archival items in FE and HE.

Although the report was submitted at the end of January 2014, it only became available to download from Jisc’s site earlier this year, with little fanfare. This seemed a shame after the hard work of everyone involved, including several BUFVC staff and a hand-picked Working Group of academics, researchers and librarians, so two months ago one of our number, the estimable Professor Hugh Chignell, organised a public discussion at the British Library. I gave a brief presentation on the project methodology and recommendations, and did my best to answer questions. For those of you who were unable to attend (and it was nice to see one or two friendly faces present), what follows is a recap of the key points (there’s no space or time to reproduce the entire report, even in capsule form), which I’m posting in the hope that it will raise awareness and perhaps generate further discussion.

The project was designed to address three main points: firstly, the current availability of pre-1989/non-ERA covered BBC archive materials, and the use being made of them in academia; secondly, the items academics would like to see made available from the archive, and the use they would make of them if they were; and thirdly, existing barriers to access, and how these might be addressed. In addition to interviewing various personnel from the BBC, Jisc, the BUFVC, the BFI, the British Library and the AHRC, we also launched an online survey in November 2013, to canvass academics on the materials they currently use, and what they’d like to see made available. This was posted on MeCCSA, BAFTSS, Jiscmail Radio Studies, the Regional Film Archives and, thanks to the good graces of Kim and Debra, CSTonline. Of the 315 people who completed the survey, 175 full responses were received (and by ‘full’ I mean those who included specific requests for either BBC moving image or sound content).

What do you mean, you didn’t have time to finish it? I know, I know; you were too busy researching ‘quality’ TV on Netflix… Well, it wasn’t the best point in the academic calendar to post a survey, but I’m afraid time was against us. I would, however, like to thank all those who completed the survey, especially those who provided really detailed responses; these provided a fascinating snapshot of the variety of materials people would like to see made available, of which more shortly.

Okey-dokey; to findings. Firstly, the most common use of archive material in FE and HE teaching is, perhaps unsurprisingly, audio-visual, rather than written materials, which tend to feature more heavily in individual and project research. However, use of AV is not limited to media studies alone; television and radio material has in fact been used to teach everything from class and identity to customer service. Since comparatively few detailed responses were received it was difficult to detect particular patterns in terms of type or genre of content taught, but it was clear that in many cases educators are currently using what is available out of necessity, rather than what they would like to use. The majority of specific examples of online content utilised were limited to post-1989 items which are available on services like BoB National, the BUFVC platform which offers subscribers the chance to make and store digital recordings of broadcast TV, and create playlists and clips, etc.

Use of pre-1989 material derives from three sources: commercially released DVDs and CDs; material made available online by the BBC or other providers; and older material which has since been repeated since 1989, and so may be accessible via BoB (think Dad’s Army). This actually comprises a reasonable quantity of material, though commercial releases and television and radio repeats are, perhaps understandably, limited to more popular fare. However, the BBC has also made a number of news, current affairs, and documentary items available to researchers. In addition to the Written Archives Centre (WAC), where I’m sure a large number of us have spent many happy hours, there have been several online initiatives over the last decade. These include: the BBC Archive (which includes several WAC document scans, alongside AV material); The BBC Creative Archivethe Desert Island DiscsArchiveBBC Four Collections; and the Space. Corporation material can also be accessed at other organisations, such as the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service, while the BFI offers a number of access points, including BFI Collections, the screenonline website (oh, how I miss writing my little screenonline bios), Mediatheque, Inview, and the Research Viewing Service. Although a digitisation programme is in progress at the BBC for audiovisual material, no such process currently exists for written documents, as materials would require extensive vetting and redacting before they could be made available online. However, the WAC remains the Corporation resource of which the greatest use is currently made.

Now, there’s a good chance I’m preaching to the converted here, but the significant number of requests received in the survey for items which were already available would seem to indicate either that:

a) some people are not in fact aware of much of the material that is out there


b) they are unwilling (or unable) to pay for it

Interestingly, 21.5% of the television items specifically requested in the survey could have been obtained either on DVD/BluRay or online, while the statistic for radio was 24%.

Two problems thus emerge: availability and discoverability. Availability can be broken down into items which exist in the archive but are not currently available to the public, and those that are available but which teachers are not, for whatever reason, making use of. This could, in the case of commercial items, be due to cost. As a full-time lecturer I am now able, thankfully, to afford whatever items I may require for my teaching or personal use, and have access to a university library that is willing to accede to most AV requests. When working as an hourly paid tutor, I was not always so fortunate. With regard to online (but often unlicensed) material, there is also the problem of impermanence, i.e. programmes that are currently available via websites such as YouTube, but which might be removed at any moment. Dare I add Rudolph Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to my British TV Fictions curriculum when it could be taken down at any moment? A single, permanently available and affordable online archive (perhaps, like BoB, operated via subscription) would solve both these problems.

The problem of discoverability takes two forms: users not being aware of what is already available (as was the case with several of those surveyed for the project), and users not knowing which items still exist in the archives, but have yet to be made available. The former could again be solved by placing all our eggs in one searchable digital basket, while the latter has, since the report was written, been partially addressed with the launch of Genome, the online Radio Times archive. While this only provides an indication of what was planned for broadcast at the time the magazine went to print (schedules being subject to change and disruption), and does not actually tell us whether items are present in the archive, it at least presents a searchable starting point for what might still be there, and a workable basis upon which to make enquiries re access and availability.[1]

As with use currently made of archive materials, there was generally little crossover in terms of the items requested; a lot of different people wanted a lot of different things, again indicating the wide range of purposes to which archive materials could potentially be put. Full details of the programmes requested can be found in the report, but they range from Horizon and Animal, Mineral or Vegetable to The Black and White Minstrel Show and The Wednesday Play.

We now come to the question of how best to drag lovely old analogue TV, kicking and screaming, into the digital age – and what the related problems may be. The good news is that the nine-year digitisation plan launched by Mark Thompson in 2010 is still in place, and whenever audio-visual archive items are digitised for internal or external use, it is now BBC policy to digitise the entire ‘parent’ recording, rather than the specific segment requested. Digitisation is currently dictated largely by deterioration or obsolescence of format, so it might be advisable for the more sought after items to be given priority.

On the downside, rights issues are a major stumbling block. Contracts signed by original contributors to BBC programming before 1997’s All Rights provision did not envision a forum such as the internet, and the need for copyright and IPR reform has in recent years been recognised both in the UK and abroad. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013) implemented a legal framework that could be utilised to address these issues, though to date this has been largely untested. Possibilities include taking advantage of Extended Collective Licensing, a feature of IPR in several Nordic countries, under which an approach could be made to the Secretary of State to agree online, educational provision of non-broadcast materials. Other possibilities include using the Copyright Hub, an online resource providing pathways for copyright clearance, or creating a legal exception. Each of these was patiently explained to me by the BBC’s Head of Copyright, Rob Kirkham, and I have attempted to replicate his Ladybird versions of these thorny concepts in the report.

For broadcast audio-visual materials, the most practical approach would seem to be back-dating the existing ERA licence, in order also to include materials from before 1989. This was in fact discussed by the House of Lords in relation to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill (2012), when it transpired that an exception in Section 35 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) might mean that this is already technically possible, at least for post-1957 items (before which broadcasts were not recognised as a category of copyright work). Where off-air recordings of BBC materials do not exist, it may be possible to digitise original transmission tapes, provided these are as they would have been seen on original broadcast (i.e. without time-codes, studio countdown clocks, etc.), thus keeping to the spirit of the existing ERA licence.

Something to keep our fingers crossed for, surely?

I think I’ll end on that positive note, and not go into the breath-taking cost of digitising the BBC’s entire collection in any detail. This blog is simply a taster of a much lengthier report, which can be freely accessed via the hyperlinks provided. I’ve also made a copy available via my academia.edu page, and am happy to report that since the British Library meeting in May this has received several views.

In closing, I’d like to say how much I enjoyed working on the project. Everyone I spoke to, at the BBC and elsewhere, was extremely generous with their time and advice – and how else would I have learned that BoB National’s acronym did not originally stand for Box of Broadcasts, but was, in a moment of BUFVC jocularity, in fact named after Edmund Blackadder’s manservant-turned-fiancée?

So, there you have it: evidence that a lot of people want a lot of different things from Auntie Beeb, and there are potential ways and means of addressing this. I do urge you to take a look at the report; read it, embrace it, live it. And remember: online access to television (and radio) could mean so much more than binge-watching House of Cards.


Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed to The Journal of British Cinema and TelevisionThe Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TelevisionCritical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, will be published by Manchester University Press in 2016.


[1] They deserve more than a footnote, but Kaleidescope’s Lost Shows site offers a more than decent searchable database for missing TV shows.