Wednesday, February 21, 2007

CBC erased priceless local programs (from 1990)

I was browsing the Heritage Newfoundland web site and came across an entry about the history of television in this province. It refers to the breakthrough traditional program ‘All Around the Circle’, which aired from 1967 to 1979 and featured culturally significant singers like John White and Joan Morrissey. It also refers to ‘The Root Seller’, which aired in 1978. What the entry fails to mention is that almost all of these episodes have been lost forever, erased by the CBC to save money. I broke this story back in 1990, while working at The Sunday Express. I did feel some sympathy for Jim Byrd, who was forced to defend a policy that I’m sure he had no hand in. I think it is no coincidence that the shows were erased during that dark period when some elites looked down their noses at traditional Newfoundland music. For those who missed it, or weren't around in September of 1990, I am posting the article here.

CBC erased irreplaceable local shows
to avoid cost of preservation: official

Sunday Express Reporter

And now, from the tape archives of the CBC, a little bad news.

Almost all episodes of the classic CBC TV series All Around the Circle have been lost forever, erased over the years because of financial constraints, The Sunday Express has learned.

“Almost all of them (have been erased), unfortunately,” said Doug Laite, who was host of All Around the Circle, an influential program of traditional music that ran from 1964 to 1977 on CBC. “There are only two left, and I have both of them, as a matter of fact.”

The guardian of the nation’s cultural heritage felt those records of Newfoundland culture weren’t worth the cost of preserving them.

“It’s true to say most of them have been erased. Most of them have been wiped, eliminated – all the old black and white stuff,” said Jim Byrd, director of television with CBC. Much of the material was lost when CBC switched formats from black and white to color in the late ‘60s, Mr. Byrd said. At that time, he said, it was simply too costly to preserve all the old material.

Subsequent seasons of All Around the Circle produced in colour have also been erased, Mr. Byrd said.

“(The film) would all have had to be reprinted, because it was all so brittle. Then it would have had to be put on a $300 tape on top of that. And then we would have had to find a place to store it.”

Because of these costs, he said, the decision was made at the time to preserve only current affairs programs, such as Land and Sea. “If they had any kind of material that showed Newfoundland people, villages or industry – anything that might have been useful in a news story or current affairs sense – that was kept. Then what was kept was anything the Newfoundland Archive or MUN Folklore Department wanted.”

Phil Hiscock of the Folklore and Language Archive at Memorial University said it was “shocking” that the tapes had been erased.

Mr. Hiscock is a member of the Association for the Study of Canadian Radio and Television, a group dedicated to the preservation of culturally and historically significant TV and radio programs. “It’s exactly stories like that that got us moving… It’s a problem with all radio and television stations that that kind of stuff doesn’t get saved.”

As well, all episodes of The Root Seller, a musical comedy series that gave birth to the Wonderful Grand Band, have been obliterated, according to actor Greg Malone. Mr. Malone, who performed in the series, said when he requested copies of the program from CBC, “I was told they were erased – they’re gone.”

Mr. Byrd was unable to confirm whether or not The Root Seller tapes had been erased.

“They’re in there renovating the building at a cost of millions of dollars every year,” Mr. Malone said. “For the cost of a handful of tapes, a few hundred dollars, they have erased their whole history of the whole institution and the whole island… All those All Around the Circles were a history of the arts, culture, music and drama of Newfoundland. And The Root Seller was a very interesting little miniseries. I just can’t get a grip on it.”

In erasing the tapes, Mr. Malone said the CBC failed in its duty to preserve and promote Newfoundland culture and heritage. “It’s mind-boggling… That’s undervaluing their whole reason for existence. They can’t even show what they’ve done – they’ve erased it. I just get sick when I think about it.”

Mr. Malone said CBC has thrown away a valuable source of repeat programming. “There’s lots of airtime to fill and it would’ve cost them pennies. And people would love to see it as nostalgia. But they can’t – it’s gone. That was just absolutely unforgivable.”

Mr. Hiscock said CBC donated a number of audio tapes to the MUN archive several years ago, including “10 or a dozen” All Around the Circle sound recordings. As well, donations of audio and video recordings have been made to the Provincial Archives in St. John’s.

These tapes have not yet been catalogued, and may be found to contain original episodes or outtakes from All Around the Circle or other culturally significant programs.


Paul Northcott said...

Do you know if this scenario of erasing TV shows at the CBC also applies to the Wonderful Grand Band's television series?
I've always wondered why that hasn't been released on VHS, or now DVD, since it was so popular in its heyday.
Great Blog.
Paul Northcott

Geoff Meeker said...

No Paul, it doesn't. The WGB programs are much more recent and, as far as I know, have been preserved in their entirety.