‘Nobody cares’: return to Reading

24th September 2013

At the end of last week, I posted about the Spaces of Television conference at the University of Reading. I greatly enjoyed the three-day event and I learned a lot from many of the presentations. One of the panel sessions was particularly rich and I want to return to Reading today to draw out some strands from that discussion. For ‘Archives and Access’ the organisers had assembled an exemplary line-up, of which more below. But it was the passionate and (almost) despairing speech by Tony Ageh, Head of Archive Development at the BBC, that made the most impact.

Tony has been working vigorously for the past five years towards the goal of granting full access, through both commercial and non-commercial channels, to everything, everything – programmes, stills, written records and more – of which the BBC has a copy. Given the centrality of the BBC to each of our lives and to national and international history since 1922, this is an aspiration of the most profound cultural importance. Yet as he said, ‘hardly any progress has been made in the past five years’. As we’ll see, this is not entirely true, but in terms of any fundamental shifts towards a world in which such access is possible he is absolutely correct.

And why?

‘Nobody cares’, Tony said. Or rather, ‘Almost nobody cares’. Or again, ‘Not enough people care anything like enough’.

The Reading panel also included Tim Beddows, MD of Network Distributing; John Ellis, Chair of BUFVC; Dick Fiddy, Television Consultant at BFI; Andy O’Dwyer from BBC R&D; and Marcus Prince, also from BFI. Each had something of importance to contribute, and I am going to detail a few points from each before returning to Tony’s words.

Tim Beddows spoke about the development of Network Distributing, a company that he founded in 1997. It is now the major DVD distributor of ITV programming with an astounding catalogue of drama and comedy. Indeed, directly as a consequence of Network’s efforts, scholars as well as the rest of us, have far greater access to ITV’s past than is available to the BBC’s. And this is entirely a consequence of the market.

In 2004, having released a number of ITV and BBC titles, the company made a £9 million deal with ITV for access to its back catalogue of programmes. We are still enjoying the fruits of that today, and Network has extended this with an arrangement to release many titles from the Studio Canal archive of British feature films.

Many of the titles make money but a good number don’t, yet Network is committed to releasing as much as it possibly can, with the profits of the best-sellers subsidising more obscure programming. One surprise seller, Tim acknowledged, was the series Gideon’s Way (1964-65), the complete box-set of which shifted more than 12,000 copies. Tim also said that Network is exploring a comparable deal with the BBC, so we may see more of the Corporation’s titles in this way in the future.

The BFI’s Marcus Prince talked principally about the BFI’s Performers’ Alliance Agreement which permits BFI Southbank, regional cinemas and other venues to screen archive television without complex rights negotiations or payments. 250 slots across the BFI and the regions can be programmed each year under the terms of the agreement, and it makes possible, for example, the BFI Southbank seasons of classic theatre plays on television that Screen Plays has put together in the past two years. Looking ahead, the imminent and much-anticipated BFI Player will concentrate on British cinema initially but there is an ambition for it to include television in the future.

Also from BFI, Dick Fiddy spoke about the Missing Believed Wiped initiative which has been a kind of treasure hunt over the past twenty years for ‘lost’ television programmes. This has uncovered an extensive range of material from production personnel who might have kept a copy of something when the archives did not, from private collectors and from foreign archives. Dick said that a tremendous amount of ‘new’ material is still coming top light, not least because the internet has helped make the search possible on a global rather than local basis.

BUFVC Chair John Ellis outlined some of the organisation’s important work in relation to archive television, including the essential provision of metadata that has recently been aggregated into an essential index to a wide range of material. The BUFVC has also just produced a valuable guide for academics about how to quote and cite audio-visual material (the link takes you to free .pdf download) But the major news is the extension of Box of Broadcasts (BoB National) which makes available television and radio programmes to academics and students.

If I understood John correctly, BoB National will very soon give academic access to all of the BBC’s digitised programmes – a service that internally at the BBC is known as REDUX (the Wikipedia link gives more details). If REDUX can be accessed via BoB anytime soon, then this will be a major step forward for media studies.

Another essential resource that for the moment remains just tantalisingly beyond reach is the digitised Radio Times that Andy O’Dwyer outlined. A major project from BBC R&D, this will make available information from the programme guide from its beginnings in the 1920s to the present day. And in the absence of other records, this is the key to unlocking information about all of the BBC’s programmes. Frustratingly (but for sound reasons to do with copyright) the project is not going to offer full page scans. Even so, in .xml form it will become an essential tool as soon as it is released. Please can that be soon? Very soon?

So as all of this work attests there has been progress towards access to television’s past, for all of us to parts of ITV and primarily for academics to much of the BBC’s holdings, at least in terms of programmes. But we are so far short of the access that, as licence fee-payers, we are entitled to, that I have the deepest sympathy for Tony Ageh‘s frustration. (For more about Tony Ageh and his ideas, see this Jemima Kiss Guardian article from 2010. And let me say again the goal towards which he and colleagues are working is an aspiration of the most profound cultural importance.)

It was surprising and, I admit, in its way heartening to hear a senior BBC figure like Tony speak with such intensity about the difficulties of making key executives understand quite why archival access is so important and so vital to the BBC, both in relation to its past and to its future. For him, and for many of us, such access would be a key driver towards reinventing the BBC for the rest of this century and beyond.

Yet he acknowledged that the number of people at the top of the institution and in government and elsewhere who understand this is far too small. ‘We need to push this much higher up the agenda,’ he urged. Yes, we do. And we must. And let’s hope that – together – we can.


  1. sophie walpole says:

    Well yeah…

    I had the privilege of working with Tony on this before I left the Beeb and he is (as always) right about the scale and importance of the task and how impossible it is to get Board/Trust level attention because, in the maelstrom of the BBC, it never feels like a priority.

    That said there are some really good, manageable projects like Tristan Ferne’s experiment with crowdsourcing tags for the World Service Archive.:


    If the BBC can just find the wherewithal to resource five or six of these sorts of projects a year great things will start to happen…

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