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4.4 Selection policy and selection standards for television archives

Sam Kula (Director, National Film, TV and Sound Archive, Canada)

Selection, or the appraisal* of documentation for archival purposes, is and always has been the most controversial aspect of archives policy. The literature is full of philosophical reflections on the nature of the archivist's responsibility in determining and implementing a selection policy, but there is very little in the way of practical guidelines. There is even less on standards.

We should first distinguish between policy and standards. Policy incorporates the decisions that have the widest possible impact on the archives programme and address the major questions such as whether the acquisition goal with regard to any particular aspect of programming should be comprehensive (everything is retained for an indefinite period) or selective. If the goal is to be comprehensive with regard to the totality of all programming by any one station or network, the policy can be simply stated and, of course, there is no need for selection standards.

If the goal, however, is only to acquire and safeguard all programming produced in the country then the policy is clearly to restrict acquisitions to domestic productions, and the key selection standard is then the nationality of the production. Similarly, if the policy is to acquire all news as broadcasts (but not necessarily all the news recorded for broadcast), the characteristic that distinguishes those news elements that meet the standard and that should be retained is the fact that they have actually been broadcast.

It is recommended that archives consult with others in the production organisation (if the archive serves primarily one station or one network) and with representatives from the academic and archival/museum/library community in developing broad policy. The final decision must be that of the archivist as the final responsibility rests with the archivist. Determination of selection standards and the timing on the implementation of these standards will reflect operational requirements and should rest with the archivists.

Policy can be very inclusive, at least in the short term. The FIAT recommendation on selection is that everything broadcast, and recorded for broadcast, be retained for a minimum of five years. This is to allow time for some historical perspective in assessing the long term archival value of the documentation. This is an excellent idea if the organisation can afford both the cost of the storage (and the cost of the videotape if some of the videotape would otherwise be erased and re-cycled), and the cost of servicing such a substantial volume of documentation. In fact there are those who would argue that the time delay should be twenty years, or roughly one generation before the selection standards are applied.

Policy can also be rooted in traditional archival practices that have withstood the test of time. One of these is that 'old age should be respected'. In practical policy terms this could signify that all broadcasts, and all material recorded for broadcast, before a certain date should be retained. The date will vary from one broadcast organisation to another, from one country to another, with determining factors to be found in the history of the country and the history of the broadcaster. Generally the date reflects a change in technology or in broadcast policy which places the earlier material at risk, or where the losses have already been so severe (the first few years of 'live' broadcasting before the introduction of videotape, for example) that everything that has survived is regarded as valuable for the history of broadcasting, if not for its content.

The development and application of standards is much more difficult when the policy incorporates such terminology as 'historical significance', 'national historic value', 'cultural heritage', etc. The intent may be clear, but when the recording is ambiguous the interpretation of the meaning will vary, and the policy will not be applied consistently. It is possible to argue, for example, that all television programming is part of the national cultural heritage because of the size of the audience, and its measurable impact on political and social development. The extreme view is that everything that is broadcast is part of the public record, and that just as most countries in the world have decreed by legislation that at least one copy of every book published in the country should be deposited in the national library, so one copy of every programme broadcast should be conserved in archive, organised for access and retrieval.

Another rationale for this extreme view is the one argued by Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Francaise. Langlois' thesis was that the archivist had no right 'to play God', to decide which moving images would live, and which would be lost to posterity. The corollary to this argument is that all judgements are rooted in contemporary cultural biases, that we are captives of our immediate social and political environment and incapable of objective assessments on long term value. That there is merit in this argument is attested to by the FIAT recommendations on postponing any selection for a number of years.

The problem with the position that the archivist has no right to make choices is that in the real world, in the absence of a systematic acquisition and conservation programme, the losses will occur, as they have in the past, only they will be accidental or arbitrary and probably much more damaging to the cultural heritage. In television, for example, losses have occurred through deliberate destruction in order to save storage space as well as through fire and flood, and through the indiscriminate wiping of videotape for recycling in the production process. If space and the human resources necessary to organise and protect the acquisitions are limited (and in every archive connected with FIAF there are limitations, sometimes severe limitations), only a portion of the total output can be safeguarded. In the absence of a selection policy, and workable standards, that portion will neither represent the range of programmes broadcast, nor incorporate the significant milestones in the evolution of broadcasting that document the history of the industry and/or the history of the nation. The argument here is that any selection, no matter how flawed by prejudice (assuming the policy and the standards are the consensus of several minds) is better than no selection and the hazards of chance.

In developing policy it may be helpful to categorise the output, with the understanding that the policy will differ from category to category, but with some key policy decisions, such as those on age or on national production, applying to all categories. Generally speaking there are two groups of categories; repetitive programming such as school broadcasts and serial dramas and non-repetitive programming, such as news and documentaries.

A good example of repetitive programming are the early morning broadcasts designed for young children. They tend to follow a rigid format, and although the style of presentation varies from year to year, the content remains roughly the same. Is it necessary to conserve every broadcast? If the policy is only to retain representative examples of such programming, the standard could be to select one broadcast from the beginning and one from the end of each broadcast season. Of course there is always the chance that the young man in the clown costume might go on to a very distinguished career in television, or in politics, but the archivist may have to accept that risk. The same policy and standard might apply to 'game' shows and to 'talk' shows, especially the type of early morning and late night broadcasts now common in North America. Presentation and format vary to some extent as does the subject content, but if the overall assessment is that such documentation is 'ephemeral' (a term used by librarians to refer to publications that do not warrant retention even though they are deposited by law such as product warranties, instruction booklets, advertising brochures, comic strips, etc.), then samples taken at the 'head' and 'tail' of each season should suffice. Serial dramas, whether prime time (1900-2300 hours) phenomena like DALLAS, or the 'telegrams' that every country appears to offer in the afternoon and early evening hours (known as 'soap operas' in North America because of the sponsor's product) are more difficult to assess. The successful series are accurate reflections of social issues, and they are arguably the most revealing commentaries on our times. Over the years they have dealt with issues such as divorce, child abuse, incest, abortion, environmental ethics, feminism versus traditional male/female relationships, etc. The problems for the archivist is that their real value lies in the subtle changes that occur from month to month and from year to year. A whole series is thus considerably more significant as a documentary of the way these issues were 'processed' by the media than the individual episodes. The policy might be, therefore, to conserve one series in its entirety, with head and tail examples of other series to illustrate the number and the range of subject matter. Which series to select should be determined after consultation with authorities in the field. It is important to note that where such programming is commercially sponsored, the commercials themselves may be more important in terms of sociological significance and cultural influence than the programmes they separate. They are also frequently at the leading edge of the technology, incorporating computer animation, electronic special effects, and image manipulation that will only come into general use in television production months, if not years later. Advertisements for phonograph companies, music videos, are probably now the most advanced in technique and are so popular in North America whole networks have been established to exploit them. Examples of all types of commercials and 'spot' announcements (the public interest messages sponsored by government authorities and social agencies) should be retained both as separate items and in the context of the broadcast schedule when a whole day's output is recorded. This is a policy recommended by FIAT to document the overall presentation of television both for historical purposes (how television was received by the general audience), and the history of broadcasting. The standard might stipulate that such opening to closing, all-day recordings be made at least once a year, and at more frequent intervals if the schedule changes more frequently.

Another aspect of recording for archival purposes is special event coverage (usually a mixture of 'live' on camera interviews/coverage and filmed or prerecorded inserts) that lasts for several hours. Election night coverage, for example, falls into this category, and special events such as major disasters, state funerals, coronations or presidential inaugurations, national day celebrations, sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cup football. The policy might be to conserve as complete a record as possible of such events, both as broadcast, recorded as it is broadcast, and the complete film and videotape elements that were edited for the broadcast.

Sporting events in general are much more problematical. The policy might be to retain only championship matches, and such regular season matches that the producers in the sports department designate as significant. The standard might then be matches in which records have been set, or which represent milestones in the careers of important personalities. Any sporting event which becomes a news event (a spectacular racing car crash, a death in a boxing match, a riot in a football stadium) should be appraised as a news event and processed accordingly.

The typical broadcast schedule will probably contain other categories that present the archivist with more difficult choices. The dramatic or comic series, for example, in which a group of established characters appear each week in episodes that are designed to stand alone as to plot, but which depend largely on a continuing audience identification with the leading players. If these series are being offered for sale abroad, or for re-broadcast within the country, the policy will certainly be to retain them all in support of these sales. This is an example of a policy imposed on the archives by external considerations. If there is no potential re-use, however, the policy may be to be selective, and the standard could then be to retain only sample episodes of each series selected at random (or the opening the closing episodes of each 'season'). Another approach, as in the case of continuing dramas, is to seek advice from the broadcasting and academic community and retain at least one series in its entirety, perhaps one that has been distinguished by awards, or a substantial quantity of serious critical comment. If the series continues for several years the way in which it evolves over time, the type of subjects that are treated, can be very instructive.

The policy with regard to the performing arts on television (theatre, opera, ballet, folk dance and music, etc.) could be inclusive, particularly if there is a potential for sale or re-use, and in many cases the broadcasts document the arts in a way that is unique (it is the way the 'performance' will be preserved) and should be retained for their 'documentary' value.

All television reflects the society in which it functions, and all programmes in some way document that society. They are all part of the 'public record', a concept that accepts the fact that while the record as presented in any one broadcast may be incomplete, inaccurate and biased, it is still part of the public perception of the issues due to the relatively large audience. Based on that concept, the policy with relation to documentaries, whether or not they are dramatised, should be inclusive. All public affairs broadcasting should be retained, in much the same way as complete files of newspapers are held by libraries.

This includes the news as broadcast, but it does not necessarily include all the news that is filmed or videotaped for broadcast. This is probably the most voluminous category of material available for television archives, and selection within this category is certainly the most contentious decision the television archivist can be asked by make. Standards for selection could concentrate on potential use. If the material is of such poor quality in terms of images and/or sound, for example, it is unlikely to meet the physical standards for broadcast and therefore should be discarded. This standard applies, of course, to news items of marginal value. Obviously footage of very important events such as presidential assassinations or major disasters would be retained regardless of the physical quality if it is the only footage in existence. If the archives holds superior footage of the same event, however, the redundant inferior footage may be discarded.

The real problem lies in news footage which is marginal in content although acceptable as to physical quality. 'Marginal' in this sense refers to events that are essentially ceremonial, formal rituals that take place periodically, like laying a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier, or the opening of the legislative assembly, or a review of the troops on the national day, etc. These are events that are normally very well covered by other media (photographs, journalistic accounts, etc.) and the 'public record' as broadcast may be sufficient. The same is true of footage that relates to national and international meetings in which arrivals and departures of delegates are recorded but nothing of substance as to the actual deliberation. The test here is whether the event is documented as well in other media.

A more difficult policy decision relates to news from outside the country. Most television broadcasters have contractural agreements with other broadcasters and/or with news services that result in the continual supply of foreign news stories, especially from areas of conflict. If such news is incorporated in a news or documentary broadcast it should be retained as part of the public record. If the policy is to be selective on foreign news that is not broadcast at the time it is received, the question is how much should be retained for its potential use at a later date. It can be argued that no selection standard with regard to news can be defined, apart from that of physical quality. This argument holds that it is impossible to assess the potential use of any news story, regardless of the content, and therefore everything should be retained. Every television archivist has had the experience of an urgent request for coverage of the most obscure official, the most innocuous event, because the sudden prominence of the person or the place involved. These demands are impossible to predict, and so everything must be retained in order to meet them.

This argument ignores the cost factor in storing, processing, and retrieving the material. The burden of adding foreign news may overload a system that is barely capable of the physical and intellectual processing necessary for domestic news. If choices have to be made it should be preferable to concentrate on domestic news on the understanding that the foreign news can be obtained from other archives or from central news services, as required. This may not be as rapid and as convenient. and may be more expensive, but this has to be balanced against the continuing cost of maintaining the foreign news on file in the archives.

A form of cost-benefit analysis should be conducted for all archival acquisitions. The potential for use in the medium and long term future should justify the expenditure involved in assessing, processing and servicing the material. This is, admittedly, extremely difficult to do for the reasons stated above (predicting potential use), but an attempt should be made to justify the costs. To some extent this is another external consideration that will modify the selection standards, and may affect selection policy. Budget and storage space can be constraints on the volume of acquisitions and may force changes in both policy and standards.

In the final analysis each archive must develop its own selection policy and its own standards. They must first meet the needs of the organisation the archives serve, whether it be one television station or the state, and be feasible given the resource with which the archives has to work in terms of personnel, space and money. It should be clear that whatever policy is adopted will be controversial. It should also be clear that if everything cannot be safeguarded by the archives it is better to apply a selection policy and standards so that the losses can be controlled, rather than place all the material at risk and allow chance to determine what resources will survive and which will be lost.

Footnote *Appraisal and evaluation are two roughly synonymous terms that refer to judgements on the archival value of documentation. They can also refer to an assessment of monetary value, but that is another issue. Appraisal (or evaluation) normally implies selection. There would be no point to appraisal if everything were to be acquired. In operational terms appraisal can be defined as the application of selection policies to assess the archival value of documentation.


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