Thanks to the Internet, you no longer have to suffer the indignity of asking friends if a favourite childhood television show actually existed or whether it was a figment of your imagination.
This week, TVOntario joined the growing fold of public broadcasters offering a free streaming archive of vintage programming. The publicly funded station, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last September, has digitized nearly 10,000 hours of content — “merely the tip of the iceberg,” says producer Craig Desson.
TVO’s offerings — many of which are being seen for the first time since their original broadcast — feature children’s programming like Today’s Special and The Polka Dot Door, the seminal comic-book interview show Prisoners of Gravity as well as classic interviews from the long-running Saturday Night at the Movies. There are also political curiosities, like a video currently trending of a 1997 Studio 2 interview with a younger, less stage-managed Stephen Harper and his dream of a united right.
Embarking on the project nearly two years ago, Desson, who had previously worked with archival footage while freelancing with CBC Radio, cites the arrival of the public-domain dumping ground that is the Internet Archive (archive.org) as a major inspiration for his work. “Not only was all this archival material finally available and accessible, but people were finding interesting ways to present it.”
At first glance, the site overflows with nostalgia and the ubiquitous kitsch factor that had Twitter users clicking away during working hours on the day it launched, but Desson insists the emotional response is a temporary one. “One of the things we realized is that it’s really an ‘ideas’ archive. TVO has always managed to find the smartest people in any particular field and hearing their thoughts in long-form interviews.”
Soon to be added to the archive is a field documentary by artist Michael Snow, which “has nothing to do with nostalgia,” says Desson. “It’s intellectual, smart, and we’re still learning from it 40 years later.”
Desson also lauds Elwy Yost, who hosted Saturday Night at the Movies from its inception in 1974 until his retirement in 1999. “He didn’t come off as a TV host; he was an educator. Watching one of his interviews is like sitting in on a fantastic conversation.”
Prior to its launch, some TVO footage was already available on Youtube channels like Retrontario, a time capsule of vintage Ontario commercials, opening sequences, station sign-offs and the like.
“Many broadcasters tend to mothball their history, so it’s nice to see TVO take a step in the right direction,” says Ed Conroy, who launched Retrontario in 2008. He hopes to see more footage of TVO host and announcer John DeLazzer, who died last year, as well as episodes of the children’s show Dear Aunt Agnes, which Desson also counts among his favourites.
“There is still so much to share,” laughs Desson, who relied heavily on institutional memory while curating the project. “Some of the producers who still work here had compiled lists of their favourite episodes, as though they’d been waiting for this moment.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 29, 2011.