The End of The Ether

This week C-SPAN launched a full searchable online video library, dating to twenty-three years ago.

But let’s go a bit further back, to the earliest days of television broadcast, when the real worry was content dissemination, not preservation.

Clunky kineoscopes—essentially film cameras trained on in-house televisions monitors—allowed some moments to be recorded for prosperity, but with copy-of-a-copy quality issues. Electromagnetic video was cheaper, easier, and allowed recordings that matched or exceeded the quality of viewers at home.

But if video tape surmounted many of the quality issues, it left an major limitation, one obvious to anyone who’s grown used to instant access to video online. Even once home video formats and players were widely available, the tapes still required mechanical reproduction, and physical distribution. Want a program from 20 years ago? Even if you can fathom the exact air date and find someone with a copy they’re willing to sell, it still has to be copied and shipped.

You know the story, but the internet essentially unlimited capacity for data dissemination has eliminated these barriers.

It used to be said that television simply disappeared into the ether, a fact that was once obvious and is now astonishing. We’ve come a long way from where the only way to catch a repeat of a television was to hop out to the Alpha Centauri system. Let a 1991 episode of Nickelodeon’s “Adventures of Pete and Pete,” once ethered, now easily available via YouTube, explain what I mean.

Forget about space travel. Now C-SPAN’s their years and years of video are available at an instant, even, in another technological marvel, with a surprisingly robust full text search function. Again, it wasn’t very long ago that this was technically impossible.

Now though it will be easy for all to access the once hard to retrieve television record of politicians and journalists. (That last bit is key for CJR and others who keep an eye on the media.) Yes, C-SPAN is sui generis, a non-profit mostly broadcasting programs with little traditional commercial interest, and with little potential for distribution snagging copyright claims. But once they can be monetized I think we’ll see similar program libraries from commercial broadcasters.

But until we do, I know I’ll be enjoying C-SPAN’s offerings, from the serious to the silly. Let’s start:

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.