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Unlocking Broadcast Archives from Eastern Europe

In 1989, television viewers worldwide witnessed, often live, the historic revolutions in Eastern Europe . Now, 25 years later, the end of its communist regimes is looked back upon   in many television programmes or in events such as the Freedom express exhibition.

Some of the televised images from 1989, like the fall of the Berlin wall or Nicoleau Ceaucescu’s final speech, have become iconic. Many archives worldwide hold the original recordings of these historic events. But how have television programmes made before 1989 been archived in the (post) socialist countries? How can these archives help to study the function of media within societies?

The Unlocking Broadcast Archives Seminar

These were some of the central questions discussed in the conference Unlocking Broadcast Archives from Eastern Europe on 12 and 13 March in Bucharest. The conference was organised by the European (Post) Socialist Television History Network under the responsibility of Dana Mustata and made possible by FIAT/IFTA’s Television Studies Commission and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO. It was hosted by the Romanian Public broadcaster TVR.

The seminar offered many perspectives on archival issues. The European Broadcasting Union EBU and FIAT/IFTA presented projects that help and stimulate archiving. One such example is the The Save Your Archive initiative by FIAT/IFTA, a fund that helps preserve and digitize specific collections. Projects that have been supported include the sound tapes (Dictabelts) of the National Archives South Africa from the Rivonia trial in 1963-1964 and the video tapes of the final days of of Ceaucescu recovered at Romanian broadcasting corporation TVR.

Archivists at Work

The audiovisual archives of TVR Romania , RTV Slovenia, Czech Television Archives, HRT Croatian Television and the Polish National Audiovisual Institute (NinA)  presented their collections and activities in preserving and presenting their audiovisual heritage. The presentations of these different archives showed that the development of the  television medium is similar in many countries. The types of programmes on television seemed comparable and often international. One example shown at the conference was a television performance of French singer Yves Montand in Romania at the end of the 50’s.

A few clips at the conference showed the richness and possibilities of the use of archive material. Film maker Alexandru Solomon argued that opening archives is necessary for professional users as well as for researchers and the general public, which currently does not seem to be evident. He made a plea for co-production with archives to stimulate the re-use of archive material in historic programmes and documentaries. Obviously one of the issues that prevent this, are the limited resources to preserve and digitize these films and videos.

Studying the History of Eastern European Media

The variety of programmes in the archive, as well as comparison to European programming, offers possibilities to study the functions of television in socialist societies. The conference stressed the necessity and usefulness of platforms such as EUscreen, on which European broadcasting archives and universities collaborate. One of the interesting results of this collaboration was a special issue of the VIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture on Television Histories in (Post)Socialist Europe in 2014 .

Taking a closer look at the events of 1989 in Romania, Dana Mustata showed the necessity of using alternative sources to study the programmes of those days. according to standard procedures of the day, live recordings of Ceacescu were stored in the archives of the Romanian Secret service Securitate. Examining these procedures raises the question as to why procedures were not followed during the broadcast of the speech on December 21, 1989.

Other documents offer a view on the audience responses to national television during the ‘80s, offering explanations of the way television viewers became demonstrators in 1989.  Related documents are usually not kept at the television archives, but at the National Archives. In their presentations, both the Romanian National Archive and the Securitate archive claimed that researchers are welcome.

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Moving Forward with Eastern Europe’s Past

One of the conclusions of this seminar was that the preservation and digitization of Eastern European archives’ content has been initiated, but is still in an early phase. Accessibility has been improved by several projects and the contribution of the Romanian television archives to EUscreen offers the possibility to research these contents. The studies of the European (Post) Socialist Television History Network studies put the programmes into context, which is important to increasing access for a larger audience.The network aims toput the transnational function of television in a wider perspective thanthe mere use of television as tool for propaganda in the socialist era.  

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