From Cronkite to Couric: Internet Archive gets $1 million to expand TV news collection

The 20th century’s printed output is available in digital format, but that’s not the case for television — decades worth of TV broadcasts, which represent a rich news and cultural heritage, are instead locked up and unavailable. The Internet Archive has been trying to change that. Starting in September, the San Francisco non-profit embarked on an ambitious plan to collect all shows going back to the start of TV, and offer clips of them available online.

The outfit got a big boost this week thanks to a $1 million donation from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which will be used to expand its growing video library and to make it easier for video browsers to find everything from Jon Stewart to Walter Cronkite.

Right now, the Internet Archive has more than 400,000 news clips dating from 2009 that it offers as a research tool to scholars, journalists and the general public. Users can search them using closed captioning tags and other metadata the Archive has assembled.

“You can discover culture that’s languishing unseen and unheard,”┬áRoger Macdonald, Internet Archive television news project director, told me by telephone.

He explained that the Internet Archive, which last year began using BitTorrent as a distribution system, had been recording the broadcasts for years — “we ingest, index and make available,” in Macdonald’s words.

The new money will help the nonprofit afford the petabyte’s worth of broadcast data it collects every year, and stores on servers located at its office, a converted Christian Science church in San Francisco’s Richmond district. Macdonald said the Internet Archive will also hire people to improve what is for now a fairly rudimentary user interface.

There is also the question of how the Internet Archive will be able to obtain older TV footage — think Dan Rather, Howard Cosell, I Love Lucy and so on. For now, the television networks jealously guard their copyright and make such content available in very limited ways; for instance, users can watch old shows from NBC, ABC and CBS at New York’s Paley Center for Media — but cannot do so online.

Macdonald said the Internet Archive, which lets users watch 30 second clips or rent DVDs, is in talks with the networks about gaining access to their content in the capacity of a digital librarian.