It seems unthinkable now in this age of DVDs and Blu Rays, iTunes and Netflix, that many TV series from the 50s, 60s and 70s have numerous missing episodes. But forty years ago TV programmes of more than a couple of years old were basically worthless. So much so that it wasn’t worth the money to store them.
It’s easy to look back with hindsight, but there were multiple reasons why this mass wiping, or indeed cultural vandalism took place.
Firstly video tapes was incredible expensive in the 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays there are landfills around the world containing piles and piles of unloved Betamax and VHS cassettes, but in the formative years of television each reel of tape cost a small fortune. These expensive commodities couldn’t be wasted on keeping old shows that, due to performing rights reasons, couldn’t even be shown anymore! Instead the tapes were wiped and re-used for the next big thing.
For many shows this was the end of the line, in particular regional television shows that would never be seen beyond the country in which they were recorded were often lost forever. Some shows were more lucky. Programmes such as ‘Doctor Who’ had an international market, and the video tapes were transferred onto 16mm film and sold around the world to countries with differing broadcast standards.
But even these shows still have some missing episodes. Remember those performance rights? In the days before blanket royalty deals with acting unions it simply wasn’t practical to do anything with these shows after a certain number of years had passed. There was no reason to keep copies, and those TV stations that purchased episodes of shows were told to destroy them, or return then to be destroyed.
It was only towards the end of the 1970s, when the domestic video recorder became a viable consumer product that the commercial value of these old television shows came to be understood. Of course, in the case of some shows it was too late.
Missing Episodes Recovered
Luckily not everyone involved in the process agreed with the destruction of these unique cultural artefacts. Some employees took film cans home rather than burn them, and in the case of a few of the foreign TV stations the destruction order was simply ignored. Thanks to those individuals, and a generation of ‘episode hunters‘ following the paper trail of these films around the world, some of these missing episodes are being discovered, restored, and returned to the archives at last.