New Year, Old Film and Getting Here from There

The year is winding down, and so is my work on the WCVB/CLIR collection grant that includes broadcasts during the late 1970s, & 1980s and early & 1990s. There is still quite a bit to digitize and abstract, but we at NHF are close to reaching our grant-funded goals. The project’s work is complicated, and my part is small at the end of the process — abstracting, or preparing a brief summary for each segment, episode or broadcast.  Tape of various sizes and formatting needs to be cleaned and repaired first, and then sometimes reformatted before tagging for presentation and digitizing. By the time Isee a segment for me to abstract, it has experienced quite a bit of care with the expressed intent of maintaining content, unaltered.  Each abstract, as I write it, for a news segment or show episode broadcast by WCVB Channel 5 in Boston, is immediately uploaded to our publicly available database for searching and viewing, and I am in awe each day of the work that others around meat NHF do in order to get these video nuggets online.

My job of summarizing, and capturing the essence of the broadcast so that researchers can quickly identify subject matter, is the final phase of the project work, but it is for me an old-is-new experience every day. I lived the years I am seeing again in each segment, and even remember some of the commercials that occasionally part of the broadcast captured.  The bulk of the programming contained in the collection on this grant cycle is news,  more specifically WCVB Channel 5; Chronicle series, often with hosts Peter Mehegan and Mary Richardson. In addition are programs like Good Day with its hot-topic guests, and Main Streets and Back Roads reporting on the everyday life of New Englanders.  Members of the regular reporting team include Andria Hall, Ted Reinstein, Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson, with spotlights on Chuck Kraemer, Eileen Prose, Susan Wornick, and Paula Lyons. Their familiar faces are found in so many of the programs and series that I have begun to notice their aging, marriages, family growth and professional explorations.

The news concerns in this late 20th century are as familiar as this morning’s headlines: violence that kills, on the city streets and rural towns, across national borders in the Middle East, and in in the Balkins; mysterious, contagious illnesses that kill without regard for class or prominence — AIDS in the time period I am reviewing, but oddly familiar in the era of COVID-19; the distress of taxes rising, services diving, so many schools poor performances, workers unemployed, the aged who are suffering neglect; the joys and burdens of managing a household.  The jokes and embarrassments that are part of this collection remain current today.

Proud regionalism, and our accent, are noticeable in the programming decisions for the Boston-centered sitcom Park Street Under and the drawing instruction of Capt.Bob. And the series Made in New England enthusiastically features Yankee ingenuity in all its quirkiness from shipping to farming, and back to the homemade foods that delight visitors every day, found across the region.

The list of program topics seems to have been organized today, but the reporters, daytime hosts, and comedy show actors are dressed in big hair and broad lapels. Can it be I have simply outlived my news cycle, or is it true that the more things change the more they stay the same?

My mother died this year; deciding she had lived long enough, she simply refused any more medical care. She was tired, she said. And I can understand that, as I watch the news and televised entertainment of my former years, now, and how exhausting it is to see the same worries again and again, with no permanent solution in sight. Some of us thought the fight for equal rights was on the road to won, the science for fighting disease was at hand if not 100% successful, and that peace in the world, without mass destruction, was imminent. The reports from the 1980s seem soberly present, and the battles far from won. No wonder fatigue sets in and weariness seems heavier as the days grow shorter.

If the past is prologue, and history explains the present, then viewing the broadcasts of the previous century may be, in fact, the best weapon against fatalism. The reports of expected catastrophes then were overblown, and so, perhaps, the experiences of today can be surmounted with preparation from past failures. As the new year approaches, and new abstracting challenges await, I hope for solace in knowing our past, and I say thanks, again, to all those around me who make this reflection possible.
–Shannon Martin, intern, December 2023