TV News History Kept At Vanderbilt

Nov 17, 2016

Walter Cronkite of CBS, John Chancellor of NBC and Frank Reynolds of ABC.
Credit Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

It’s often said that news is the first draft of history. If that’s true, then the biggest chapter of that draft is housed in a nondescript office building in Nashville. It’s there, on the campus of Vanderbilt University, that you’ll find video of evening newscasts from NBC, ABC and CBS, going back nearly fifty years.

Since 1968, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive has been working to preserve the news of the day, as reported and aired on the big three network newscasts. ABC's Nightline joined the retinue in 1988. Selections from CNN were added beginning in 1995, and Fox News in 2004.

Since the beginning of television, scraps and clips of newscasts had been preserved, but never in an organized way. Coverage of major events was usually (but not always) saved, but the daily news was often ignored, in part because of the time demands required to produce a daily product. Thinking about posterity just wasn't in the mix.

Because its aim is to preserve every newscast, every evening, the Vanderbilt collection offers glimpses into the more mundane or personal moments around historic events, such as this human-interest item from a 1969 edition of the CBS Evening News.

"Astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins flew back from a weekend with their families, to the Kennedy Space Center today, and started their final training there for the flight of Apollo 11," anchor Harry Reasoner's introduction said. A subsequent report from Walter Cronkite described some balky spacecraft electronics that had to be replaced, and how little time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have to look for interesting rocks on the lunar surface.

Why Nashville? That's where insurance executive Paul Simpson enters the picture. In 1968, Simpson visited the three network headquarters in New York with one question: Could he watch old newscasts on tape?

"The answer that he got was that they didn’t keep the show," the Vanderbilt archive's current director, John Lynch, said. "They were re-using the tape. Most of us then would have complained to our friends. But Paul wasn’t that person. Paul wanted to do something about it.”

When he got back to Nashville, Simpson organized funding sources and leased three huge, primitive black-and-white video recorders. The machines were hooked up to TVs in a room at Vanderbilt, and starting August 5, 1968, someone would be there each evening to push a button and start recording the news.

While he was appalled that the networks weren't more interested in saving their own work., Simpson’s goal wasn’t purely preservation. He was conservative, and he was convinced the evening news broadcasts presented a liberal point of view on issues such as drug use and the war in Vietnam. 

In the 1970s, the Vanderbilt effort drew national attention and prodded NBC, CBS and ABC to preserve their evening newscasts more consistently; by the 1980s it was standard practice. Developing the Vanderbilt archive wasn't without its problems; in 1976, CBS sued the archive, claiming copyright infringement. Tennessee Senator Howard Baker helped re-write American copyright law to give the Vanderbilt Television News Archive special permission to record and save news broadcasts, and the suit was dropped.

The archiving problem was solved, but another developed: the networks are very stingy with archival footage, and they charge steep access fees.

"Even the low rate for scholarly research, is one hundred dollars per hour," said journalism researcher A.R. Hogan. "That adds up pretty quick. And even to get that, you have to really kinda negotiate and schmooze. It’s not made easy.”

That's part of the reason Hogan turned to the Vanderbilt Television News Archive for his research. The archive is intended to lower the access threshold, so researchers, writers, filmmakers, students and the public can use its resources. People who are interested can request, for a fee, a DVD of a whole newscast from a specific day, or a disc filled with segments related to a single topic. And every evening at 5:30 p.m. Central Time, the video machines – automated and digital since 2003 – still switch on and record the news, adding page by page to the first draft of history.