Museum Tracks TV and Radio Past
NEW YORK — FOR those who feel pangs of nostalgia for yesteryear, and who like to measure today's television against the standards of another era, the Museum of Television and Radio in its new 17-story home on West 52nd Street must seem like something close to paradise.
The vast richness of radio and television from the 1920s onward is stored here mostly on 8-mm film and digital tape and is available to anyone who is interested - scholar, actor, or just plain fan. A unique computerized system designed by Japan's Sony Corporation provides access to programs at the touch of a button.
Occupying 72,000 square feet, the museum has archives containing 25,000 TV shows, 15,000 radio programs, and some 10,000 commercials. Close to 100 consoles allow viewing of up to six TV programs.
"Television and radio have exerted a profound influence on our society," says Robert Batscha, president of the museum. "They captured what we were and what we have become. The museum helps people to understand yesterday, and we also hope it will give the industry a chance to look at itself."
Last year, before the 16-year-old museum moved a couple of blocks to its brand-new building, some 100,000 visitors came to watch old TV shows and listen to their favorite radio programs - Orson Welles's classic "War of the Worlds" broadcast heading the list of favorites. Radio programs from the 1920s onward can be heard in armchair comfort on earphones, bringing back the era of Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, Edward R. Murrow, and Arturo Toscanini.
On television, tapes of "The Ed Sullivan Show" are popular among viewers. So are children's programs like "Howdy Doody" and "Leave it to Beaver." Other favorites include Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and Jerry Lester shows; "I Love Lucy" with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; and the unforgettable Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca routines in "Your Show of Shows."
Through May 31, the museum features the first complete retrospective of the works of Britain's Dennis Potter ("Pennies From Heaven,The Singing Detective"). A study of Jack Benny's radio and television work runs until April 5, offering over 100 hours of his comedy.
As intriguing as the programs themselves is the way anyone can plunk himself down in front of a computer monitor (there is no fee, only a "suggested contribution") and choose from among the thousands of shows on file.
Viewers can indicate their choice of genre and then home in on specific programs or personalities, or they can pick from 400 programs pre-selected by a museum committee, representing the shows most often demanded.
ONCE the choice has been made, the computer takes over and talks to other computers, first robotically plucking the program from the archive shelf and then installing it at the viewer's console through a Sony machine that can play l32 tapes simultaneously.
While all this is happening, the viewer has been to the reception desk where he has been informed at which of the 96 viewing booths he will find his selections. Once in a booth, he can run the tape backward or forward and switch among the six choices he has been allowed.
Only half of the shows stored in the archives are available immediately. The remainder require viewer requests 72 hours in advance. About 3,000 new programs are added to the museum's program library every year.
While the hits of yesterday are obviously at the core of the museum's activities, there is also a gallery (one of three) exhibiting some stunning posters executed for the PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" programs. Another room brings together the often hilarious sketches of show-business greats by Al Hirschfeld.
Dr. Batscha notes that there really is no practical center like this for the study of all aspects of television.
"There was a time when our best and brightest yearned to write the great American novel. Today, they want to produce good TV shows. The medium deserves study," he says.
The plan is to use the museum as a logical place to have symposiums and discussions for critical evaluations of television. Two theaters (one of them with 200 seats) and two screening rooms are equipped with televisions so that lectures and discussions can be conveniently taped.
The museum has a staff of 125 and a budget of between $5.5 and $6 million a year, according to Batscha. Funding comes from the TV networks and the industry as a whole, from endowments and corporate contributions, and from fund-raising efforts.
Was TV better during the 1960s and '70s? Batscha doesn't think so.
"We tend to romanticize the past," he says. "Obviously, everything was new and exciting then. We are making excellent shows today, as we did then. Where we have the advantage is that the medium has grown so. Its technology has become more sophisticated, and it attracts more mature people and a wider range of talent."