This is so wonderful to see (unfortunately I can't emebed so click on the link above). It's Leadbelly from The March of Time in 1935, a famous sequence from the classic American news cinemagazine in which the American folksinger gains his freedom from prison by his singing ability, recorded by folklorist John A. Lomax. It ends up with Leadbelly's music being recorded for the Library of Congress and becoming part of the US national record alongside the Declaration of Independence. OK, so it's heavily staged for the cameras in the manner typical of The March of Time, but you have to see through the stilted delivery to what is such a precious record of a great singer, a great archivist, and incidentally a special early example of a film record showing the process of archiving - and audio-visual archiving at that. Leadbelly did sing for Governor Oscar K. Adle at Angola Prison Farm, Lousiana, in 1934, but history records that he was due for early release anyway and his song has nothing to do with his gaining his freedom - though Lomax always believed that the recording had helped his cause. In the clip Leadbelly says that he was freed from prison at an earlier time after singing to the governor, and this is apparently correct - in 1925, when he was held in Huntsville, Texas.
The March of Time was produced as an adjunct to Time magazine and shown in cinemas between 1935 and 1951 (though it had existed as a radio series since 1931 and continued as a television series after 1951). It was screened in Britain, with small variations in content, including some fresh stories filmed by its British unit. Acclaimed at the time for its dynamic style and its willingness to take on challenging subjects, it is probably best known today for the parody of its hectoring style in the 'News on the March' sequence from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The March of Time film library is now managed by HBO Archives. The essential history of the reel is Raymond Fielding's The March of Time, 1935-1951.
You can find plenty of information on Leadbelly (real name Huddie Ledbetter), with biography, photos, sound clips and much more, on the Lead Belly Foundation site.
Superb stuff from Adam Curtis - The Medium and the Message, not just one of the best blogs out there but a pioneering and innovative combination of documentary, archive and web publishing that is showing one way television could change in a multimedia world:
Here he looks at the different ways in which BBC documentaries have portrayed the Yanomamo people of Brazil and Venezuela (supposedly models for Avatar's Na'vi) according to the temper of the times.
In 1968 they are drug experimenters seen as both corrupted by the world and incorruptible
In 1971 they are shrewd, cunning and highly political
In 1972 they just lie around all day in an idyllic state
In 1977 they are in a continuous state of tension, driven by their genes
In 1983 schoolchildren sing about how they worship animals and trees
In 1989 they are the perfect subject for rock musicians singing about the rainforest (Donna Summer, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr...)
In 1997 they are the remnants of a shaman civilisation
"In all these examples we in the West - both scientists and TV producers - are projecting our ideas and our dreams and our fears onto the Yanomamo. But the Yanomamo are not just passive in this. Each time they seem to work out what the westerners want and then give it back to them perfectly. Or, as in the case of [anthropologist Napoleon] Chagnon they play with him and trick him in funny ways.
Which makes you wonder. Maybe they are just as sophisticated as us in the west? Or maybe even more so?"
President Obama's State of the Union Address, 27 January 2010, from www.c-spanvideo.org
C-SPAN has put its entire video archive online, 23 years of broadcasting amounting to over 160,000 hours of content. C-SPAN stands for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. It's an American cable TV network owned and operated by the US cable industry as a free service. It was set up in 1987 to record government proceedings, and its archive documents practically every session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, presidential press briefings and many kinds of public affairs events. The New York Times reports:
“This is the archive’s coming of age, in a way, because it’s now so accessible,” said Robert Browning, director of the archives. Historically, the $1 million-a-year operation has paid for itself partly by selling videotapes and DVDs to journalists, campaign strategists and others. Mr. Browning acknowledges that video sales have waned as more people have viewed clips online. “On the other hand, there are a lot of things people now watch that they never would have bought,” he said. The archives’ fans include Ms. Maddow, who called it gold. “It’s raw footage of political actors in their native habitat, without media personalities mediating viewers’ access,” she wrote in an e-mail message ... C-Span executives said they hoped that its search filters would be up to the task. Mr. Lamb said, “You can see if politicians are saying one thing today, and 15 years ago were saying another thing.” He added, “Journalists can feast on it.”
The site gives the schedule for the three C-SPAN channels (C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3), the C-SPAN Congressional Chronicle (an index to the C-SPAN video recordings of the House and Senate floor proceedings), a blog, store and extensive search and browse options. There is a simple search option on the front page (which has a drop-down text feature showing summaries with your search term highlighted) and an advanced search option (for which you can add extra fields by clicking) allowing searches to be refined by date, tag, format, title, summary, person, organisation, location etc. You can browse the archive by programme type, series, congressional committee, date, topic, popular programmes and so on. Each record gives title, date, topic, tags, summary, duration (some of them run for hours), sometimes a transcript (generally made from uncorrected closed captioning), programme ID and the number of views. There are handy user features such embedding, sharing, links to biographical details of people featured, and related videos. Videos can be viewed full screen and are of a good quality.
It's a stunning resource, overwhelming in its size, limitless in the opportunities it opens up for American studies, political studies, and just for finding who said what when. What we wouldn't give to have something similar in the UK. Here we've had parliamentary AV recordings since 1978, when the Parliamentary Sound Recording Unit was created. This became the Parliamentary Recording Unit when it added video of the House of Lords in 1986, then the House of Commons in 1989 (the Sound Unit disbanded in 1992). We do have live access through the excellent ParliamentLive, which has coverage of all UK Parliament proceedings taking place in public, but its on-demand archive only stretches back 12 months from the date of broadcast. Thereafter you have to contact the Parliamentary Recording Unit itself for access.
Where the US cable network has led, maybe one day the UK will be able to follow in providing comprehensive online access to this archive much as we now enjoy with Hansard. It's good to be able to read, but how much more compelling it is to be able to see and hear as well. It helps us all the more to judge, to recognise, and to understand.
I've been testing out SeeSaw, the newest kid on the IPTV block. It's an archive and catch-up service for television programming - currently BBC, Channel 4 (4oD) and Five programmes - and it's very good. Clearly laid out, easy to use, good quality image, smooth playing, helpful programme information, adverts at the start and middle of programmes none too obtrusive - a very polished offering. Before you rush off and follow the link, do note that it is in Beta mode only at present, and only available to test by invitation. But leave them your email, and you may get invited and start spreading the word for them, just like I'm doing.
So, where did SeeSaw come from? Well its history is one of the most interesting things about it. Cast your minds back to 2007 and word started to spread of an exciting new project being developed by BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, with the curious title of Project Kangaroo. Kangaroo was going to be the future of television (or at least one of the futures of television). It would be an archive of television content on the Web, representing collectively the interests of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and maybe others. However, the beautiful idea ran foul of the Competition Commission after complaints raised by those such as Sky who weren't part of the plans. The debate dragged on, Kangaroo chief Ashley Highfield (who had quit the BBC as Director of Future Media and Technology to take on this new project) left to join Microsoft, and eventually the Competition Commission announced (February 2009) that the project could not go ahead.
Part of the SeeSaw programme details page for Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness
However, money had already been spend on the technology, and in mid-2009 a broadcast technology company named Arqiva stepped in and bought up the Kangaroo technical infrastructure, to build their own readymade IPTV service. The result is SeeSaw (which had been considered as a name for the service during the Kangaroo period). As said, it's an impressive service. Programmes available include The Trials of Life, Shameless, The Ascent of Money, Around the World in 80 Days and Skins, categorised under Comedy, Drama, Factual, Lifestyle, Entertainment and Sport. Moreover there's a catch-up service for recent TV programming (again, BBC, 4oD and Five only), so I've just caught up with the first half of the excellent Tower Block of Commons which I'd managed to miss first time around.
However, SeeSaw faces an increasingly crowded market. We already have BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five for the main terrestrial channels. A similar aggregator site offering programming from BBC, ITV and Channel 4 was launched late last year by Microsoft (Ashley Highfield no less), MSN Video Player, which does much that SeeSaw does. Meanwhile, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, British Telecom and TalkTalk have joined forces behind another 'project', Project Canvas. This isn't quite the same as Kangaroo (though would undoubtedly have had a close relationship with it). Canvas is about establishing common standards for IPTV so that web TV and broadcast TV can come together in one glorious package on your television. The result would be the next step on from Freeview (so that's be another set-top box you'll be needing to find space for). The third public consultation by the BBC Trust on Canvas has just ended. It has faced a lot of opposition from other broadcasters, particularly Sky, but a lot is now riding on it.
So what does this all mean for scholarly access to television content? As far as catch-up services like iPlayer and video-on-demand archive TV services like SeeSaw goes, it means that we have marvellously easy access to a rather small body of content which tends to be repeated from service to service. 4oD is taking us beyond recent and familiar programming to make available a large amount of archive content, and we're all waiting to send what the next moves will be from the BBC as it continues to develop its new archive strategy. Access is improving all the while (albeit streamed rather than content for downloading and re-use), but still huge amounts lie hidden, kept so by costs, rights issues, and just the sheer amount of content building up in the archives. Off-air recording services in UK universities working under licence through an exception in the Copyright Act mean that much recent television content is available to researchers on campus, but so much more remains out of sight. It's the hidden content that we need to concentrate on - the market is making the cream available very nicely indeed.