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AMERICAN ALBUM

Nation's only TV news archive may fade out : Little-known library at Vanderbilt houses rare tapes for research. But a shoestring budget is badly frayed.

September 20, 1993|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NASHVILLE — Are TV newscasts a form of history or just momentary sketches in the sand of what was once called the vast wasteland of U.S. television?

In the turbulent summer of 1968, when television was being accused of helping undermine the war effort in Vietnam and the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Nashville insurance executive Paul Simpson, on a tour of CBS News facilities in New York, asked to see a newscast from the week before.

It was gone, he was told. CBS did not keep any record of its work.

Simpson was stunned. Within weeks he organized here at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, one of the "best-kept secrets in America," a videotape archive of every nightly network newscast and many special news broadcasts in the United States since August, 1968.

In the 25 years since, the Vanderbilt Archive has "virtually given birth to the academic study of television news," said Robert Lichter, the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington watchdog group.

It is the nation's only library of TV news broadcasts that is open to the public, and it has made possible innumerable books and helped produce a number of the nation's communications scholars.

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz used it to write his memoirs, and both political parties use it extensively to study each other and history every four years.

Despite its usefulness, however, the archive operates on a fraying shoestring budget that is about to break. It is housed in a modest Nashville office building--its 28,000 hours of tapes stored on homemade shelves in the basement--and it operates on old, carefully tended equipment. Beset by a decline in revenue, it is struggling to survive, and many scholars fear it will not.

Its troubles hint at the larger question of an American culture--how to redefine history for a new information age.

At the end of 1992, Vanderbilt University considered closing down the archive because donations and other revenues did not meet its modest operating expenses. Between 1985 and 1992, it had lost $1.6 million, $380,000 in fiscal 1992 alone, and that on expenses of just $600,000.

For the moment, the university has put off the end--choosing, instead, to trim its budget to $400,000.

But even with that, the archive would still lose $180,000 in 1993, more than the university can sustain, says Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor Jeff Carr.

"It seems incredible to me that in the multimedia age there are no centers around the United States where people can go in and see newscasts, let alone that this national treasure, the only one in the country, is in trouble," said Cecilia Tichi, author of the "Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture."

"Given that libraries have an obligation to maintain a public record of the culture and public affairs, somehow there hasn't been a mental crossover to other media besides print. Now as print crosses over to new media, the question is: Will it begin to be lost too?" she said.

When Vanderbilt began the archive, "it was supposed to be temporary," Carr said, until the Library of Congress or someone else took it over. But no one did, to his continuing surprise.

Until the mid-1970s, the archive was largely self-sufficient. In 1976, however, CBS sued for copyright infringement, threatening to kill the archive. Vanderbilt fought and, in 1978, finally won a clause in copyright law allowing for duplication of media as long as it was not for resale.

But about that time, a few key donors, due to changes in their family trust, began to cut back on their support.

Since the archive won its reprieve at the beginning of this year, the Freedom Forum in Rosslyn, Va., donated $25,000 and a private foundation offered another $75,000. But the projected losses for 1994 are $125,000, still too high for the university.

The archive has also just announced a one-time $95,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to computerize its abstract onto a database, adding a crucial modernization to its operations.

But even this step, most of its advocates say, is only treading in rising water, not a move toward firm ground.

"I fear it may take more time than the archives has before people start taking this kind of material more seriously," Lichter said. "I hope I'm wrong."

Months before the archive was conceived in 1968--and two days after telling a shocked nation that he would not seek reelection as President--Johnson mused about television's role in the unraveling of his own life and his Great Society.

"Television writes on the wind," he told TV executives. "There is no accumulated record which the historian can examine later. . . . I think we all owe it to history to complete that record."

A quarter of a century later, permanently attaining that goal remains uncertain.

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