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The Past Is Never Dead: News Archives Keep History Alive

By Ron Deutsch

Aftermath of hurricane Sandy in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, October 2012. Courtesy of NBCUniversal Archives

In the aftermath of the recent Boston Marathon bombings, authorities were able to sift through hundreds of hours of video footage shot by attendees with their smartphones, multiple security cameras and professional news camera crews. But a decade or so ago, whether it was a cultural, political or any major event, the primary footage available was shot by local, national and/or international news organizations.

For many years, documentary filmmakers seeking access to historical or even recent news footage from television news divisions typically faced a two-pronged problem: Either the organizations weren't really interested in licensing their footage, or they weren't really interested in preserving and maintaining an archive. But all that's changed. Now, with just a click of a mouse or a phone call, documentarians can tap into the entire recorded history of the 20th century.

"This isn't dead material; they're living museums," says independent archival researcher Rosemary Rotondi, who's been at this for over two decades, working with documentary filmmakers like Albert Maysles and Charles Ferguson. "These archives are interwoven into who we are in the world and are reflective of where the world was at in those times.

"And I think of the people who work at them as curators," Rotondi continues. "I don't think of them as just running the archives, making sure everything is preserved, well kept up, organized and easily accessible in the database. They're curators of this history."

"It's a very hard business," admits Max Segal of HBO Archives. "You put a lot of time into trying to work out a deal for seven seconds of footage. But besides that, people are into this business and have been in this for a long time—and it's not because you just want to make money for the company. It's something more than that. It's a special DNA. There are some people who are into it like it's a job, but for those people for whom it's a love or career, they're into it for all these intangible reasons."

HBO Archives houses over 40 years of HBO programming and also maintains four decades of The March of Time documentary newsreels dating back to the 1930s, as well as the Time-Life Films collection. According to Segal, Time-Life produced nature programs and documentaries from the 1950s to the 1970s.  

"We also have a contemporary stock library that is basically harvested outtakes from HBO Sports, HBO Films and Miniseries and HBO Original Series," Segal adds. "That's all movie studio-quality stock footage. We also have an entertainment news collection, which is kind of unique. When HBO started in the late '70s and early '80s, it created this entertainment news division that went out and did whatever it wanted to do. So if someone was interested in comic books, for example, he went out and talked to Stan Lee. If someone was interested in comedians, she sat down and talked to Milton Berle. They were across the board—music, TV, movies, comedians, writers, high art. They were just putting together these five-minute featurettes to fill time. So we have that library."

A great example of the kind of "special DNA" Segal refers to at the core of these news archivists comes from Anthony Perrone, director of ABCNews VideoSource. One day, Perrone was driving to work and heard Hong Kong action movie star Jet Li on The Howard Stern Show talking about how he was part of a Chinese contingent who came to America in 1974 and met with President Nixon. Perrone said to himself, "'There has to be footage of that!' So I came in to work and I looked in our database here and there it was. Now, it just so happened that Jet Li was also on The View that day, which is shot in our building here. So I transferred the film and went down and met with the producer there. We asked Jet Li if it was him. We popped in the tape and there he was, and he said, 'Oh my gosh, that's me!' He was only nine or ten years old in the shot and he'd only seen it once before in China. And that afternoon, it was shown on the show and was a big deal. Those situations are rare, but when they happen, it's magic and it's wonderful. And I like to make that happen for other people."

The ABC News collection dates back to around 1964. It is complemented by the British Movietone library, which ABC licenses and which begins in 1896, running through to the end of the 1960s. ABC News VideoSource also houses The AP News Archive and a substantial sports footage collection from Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football and other flagship programs from ABC Sports.

"We also have some ABC affiliate footage," adds Perrone. "We represent WPVI in Philadelphia and we work a lot with WABC in New York and KGO in San Francisco. For example, for the new documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the police confrontation with the black liberation group MOVE, we were able to turn the filmmakers on to the WPVI team." All three networks news archives can help connect researchers with local affiliates.

On the key to mining the archives and making the most of one's film, archivists, researchers and filmmakers all agree on two essentials: partnerships and relationships. "It's so important to develop relationships with the archives," says Rotondi. "It's wonderful for them to get excited about your project as well. It feels more creative for them, not just doing their work on a daily grind. It's being collaborative. It just helps if people remember that these people really work hard—it's often a very thankless job—and they are as creative and intelligent as any artist or filmmaker."

"Because I used to be a feature producer on the sports side, I understand the struggle of not having the right footage or right images," notes HBO's Segal. "So there's a satisfaction, for me, in helping someone from the other side. I know what you're going through; let's try to solve your situation. And I have a love of footage and history. We see ourselves as partners with documentary producers, or any producer. They need us, but we need them too."

 "Archives are essential to what we do," explains David McMahon, co-director of The Central Park Five, who has worked with just about every film archive on various projects with Ken Burns' Florentine Films. "It's the people and the way that they help us navigate their collections, and the suggestions they bring up as we go along," McMahon asserts. "We think that these relationships that we create are as important as the footage itself. We enlist the people at the archives as partners in our process.

"I'm standing in the CBS vault right now, surrounded by 12-foot-high shelves full of tape," McMahon continues. "And that's where we like to be—in amongst the material."

All of three of the network news archives are based in New York City. They welcome filmmakers to come into their offices and screen footage that isn't up on their websites. However, T3Media, which manages licensing for many international news archives, is not set up for in-house viewing—with the exception of the aforementioned CBS News Archive, which T3 Media licenses. But, says Jackie Mountain, senior vice president of North American sales, "While we do have about one million clips available online, we have about 10 million hours of content that sits offline; it's usually documentary filmmaker's dream to comb through the offline collection, to look at the screeners and really immerse himself in a topic or story that he's trying to tell. We can order up screeners, which arrive in two to three days, from all of our different media partners. Because we have 450 different media partners, it just depends on where their locations are."

In addition to the CBS News collection, some of the highlights of T3 Media's offerings include the archives of BBC News, NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Company) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). As with most of the news archives, they also include a variety of sports and nature programming footage, including collections from National Geographic and NCAA.

"We love documentary makers because they're so passionate and there's usually a thread of their story that is very, very personal to them," Mountain observes. "So that's one of the things I find most moving. When people come to us, it usually starts with what is very literal, and then, when you build that trust, you become the creative partner on a project and they really expand their search and give you the latitude to give them other storytelling pieces. Those are the things that really amaze me about this job—helping them tell a different angle of the story."

"Just today, we ordered 25 different stories from the CBS News Archive," says Florentine's McMahon, who is currently researching a new documentary on Jackie Robinson. "We came across a 400-foot roll of outtakes [from the 1963 March on Washington] that had never been transferred before. They weren't used in the story, and no one has looked at them since. We had talked to Rachel Robinson [his widow] earlier, and she had described going down to the Washington Mall to be a part of the March on Washington as a family—that it would be a meaningful thing for the kids, and all five of them would be there together. We got three-quarters of the way through this wonderful close-up footage of people just standing on the Washington Mall, waving and carrying signs—and there is Jackie Robinson with his arm around his son, and he's just there taking in this event. This will no doubt make it into the film and it is because we can come here and put these reels up and look at them, and get the guidance of the folks who work here, that we can turn up these gems."

"One of the more moving projects I was involved in was Rory Kennedy's documentary on her mother Ethel," says Mountain. "And while we were able to help pull together the pieces that held the framework, we also had some really moving moments from the CBS collection with Edward R. Murrow inside the family home, footage that Rory had never seen. So through footage like that, she was able to shape and tell a different story."

In a 2012 interview with ABC News, Kennedy noted that initially her idea was "to do more of a balanced film, present day and the past. But we went through all the archival material, and it was so evident—with Jack's campaigning to the McCarthy hearings [Robert Kennedy was briefly counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy] to the civil rights movement to all these international trips—my mother is there. I really felt like exploring that territory and understanding what it was like to live through those times." If it weren't for all the archival footage she was able to find, Kennedy wouldn't have gotten to the story she wound up telling.

"We've often had filmmakers come in, screen a lot of material and then find that their stories change, or discover more than they ever expected, or uncover stories that no one ever knew exised," concurs Clara Fon-Sing at  NBC News Archives. "That is something that is always very exciting—when researchers or filmmakers are digging through the material and discovering images. We offer use of the screening room free of charge, even though we have to maintain it all, because we want to open the archives. We have to find a way to encourage people to find the materials."

NBC News Archives launched in 1948 and, in addition to the evening news programs, Fon-Sing explains, "There's all the Today Shows going back to the '50s, also Meet the Press, which is the longest running television show. So there's all the NBC News programs, but also MSNBC."

Fon-Sing gives an example of what makes her job worthwhile: "We had an Italian filmmaker who came all the way from Rome doing a documentary on American filmmakers in Italy during the '60s and '70s. And in one week of screening eight hours a day here, in one of the cans he was looking at he found a film that was not identified; it was a long NBC News segment on the set of [the 1959 film] Ben-Hur. The filmmaker knew this topic very well, and he had never seen anything like that. He thought there was no other footage of the filming of Ben-Hur. But there had been an NBC crew there for a couple of weeks filming some extras on the set; you can see the sets, the filming. He was really ecstatic. He wound up opening his movie with that."

While most requests that come to the archivists can usually be accommodated, occasionally there are some that stump even the experts. "I've had people looking for clips of Moses," laughs Fon-Sing. "Also, someone asked if we had footage of the Titanic arriving in New York harbor."

"We were asked to look for actual footage of Custer's Last Stand," T3 Media's Mountain recalls. "A really funny, very specific request we got last week was, 'We want a news anchor talking to the camera and we want him to be surrounded by ostriches and they're pecking him on the shoulder.' We couldn't find that exact shot, but we got close."


Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor to Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry, and lives in Austin, Texas, with his trusty cat, Miles.