Online access to historical German TV programs: Reflections on the research potential of unique audiovisual sources

By Christoph Eisele

Editorial note: Christoph Eisele is in the final phase of completing his master’s degree in history (focusing on modern history) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in history in 2020. His master’s thesis focuses on transnational and global connections between the film industry in Hollywood and Munich since the 1960s. From August to November 2022, he held an internship at the GHI in Washington, DC. He wrote this article to mark World Audiovisual Heritage Day on October 27, 2022.

Editorial note: Christoph Eisele is in the final phase of completing his master’s degree in history (focusing on modern history) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in history in 2020. His master’s thesis focuses on transnational and global connections between the film industry in Hollywood and Munich since the 1960s. From August to November 2022, he held an internship at the GHI in Washington, DC. He wrote this article to mark World Audiovisual Heritage Day on October 27, 2022.

On October 27, 2020, ARD, the German public television network, and the German Broadcasting Archive (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv) marked World Audiovisual Heritage by launching an online portal for their holdings. Under the keyword ‘Retro,’ now approximately 40,000 digitized TV programs dating from the 1950s until the mid 1960s can be freely accessed by the public as streaming files.[1] Reflecting the federal structure of the German broadcasting landscape, there exist different content collections, for example “BR Retro,” for Bavaria, “NDR Retro” for the North German broadcasting station, and also “rbb Retro” for Berlin and Brandenburg.

Cover image of the online resource “BR Retro.” Image: Paul Sessner.

The programs cover a broad variety of non-fictional topics. The ZDF series “Zur Person” was produced and broadcast in the 1960s and included interviews with well-known personalities, such as the political theorist Hannah Arendt [2] and Bavaria’s former prime minister Franz Josef Strauß. [3] But users can also find more “entertaining” contributions, including cooking shows and reports from folk festivals. What makes the “Retro” platform distinct is not the digitization of the historical footage, but rather the almost barrier-free access to the digital content, made available as streaming files. People who perhaps lived through the era themselves can browse the media libraries from home, as can those interested in TV history. In addition, the service also offers scholars the opportunity to quickly access audiovisual materials for research and teaching without major hurdles.[4] The materials offer great potential for research and can be analyzed from multiple angles. In the following paragraphs, I will share some reflections about possible research topics and questions that could guide the analysis of these unique materials.

Scholars interested in cultural and social history could pursue the following questions: What knowledge can be gained about the culture and what “spirit of the times” can be discerned? What was the role of women in the 1950s and 1960s, and what stereotypical gender representations were popularized by these TV programs? Audiovisual media can offer new and valuable perspectives on these questions, even if these topics have already been researched.

Background images and information that can be gleaned from the TV programs can also provide valuable insights into the living conditions at the time. What was reconstruction in Germany like after the Second World War? Which buildings had already been rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s, and which were still destroyed or in a makeshift state? To what extent did these circumstances influence the lives of the citizens? What was the contemporary discourse and how did they talk about the reconstruction and living conditions, if at all?

From the perspective of media history, it might be interesting to examine the production techniques and standards of these shows. How have TV production and journalistic work changed over time? What kinds of stereotypes/prejudices shaped reporting and interviewing at the time?

Furthermore, it might be useful to look at language usage. Public broadcasters in Germany are strongly influenced by their federal states. For example, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) predominantly covers topics related to Bavaria, while Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) covers topics related to northern Germany, and so on. Accordingly, scholars might investigate if and how frequently journalists, reporters, and featured experts and interviewees spoke regional dialects and to what extent the use of dialects has changed over the decades. If it has changed, what were the reasons for the change? Was the neutral “High German” considered to be the appropriate language in journalism after a certain point in time? If so, why?

Another – and more obvious – angle could be the content of the articles. There are countless historical research questions that could be asked here. Here is an example of one framework: in the federal system, it is certainly true that public broadcasters are local broadcasters. However, they found themselves in an era of ever-increasing globalization. To what extent was this globalization reflected in their reporting? What was the proportion of contributions with local, national and international references? How did this ratio change over the years? How was increasing globalization perceived by the audience? To what extent were their daily lives and circumstances influenced by it?

Screenshot, „From the Archives,” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Finally, scholars could consider international comparisons. Archival television programs are increasingly made available in other countries as well. For example, the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers archival contributions in its “From the Archives” initiative. Such offerings, also provided by broadcasters in other countries, could be used to do comparative research and the questions suggested here can be equally applied to international audiovisual archival materials.

It should be noted, however, that the available programs vary greatly in some cases and the collection is still incomplete. BR’s offering has so far been limited to the 1950s/1960s.[5] ZDF, the second German public TV broadcaster, states that it has already digitized its entire archive and is gradually making the material available online.[6] In the U.S., on the other hand, a project called the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, established in 2013, is coordinated by the Library of Congress and public radio station WGBH. In its initial phase approximately 40,000 hours of programming from public radio and television stations have been digitized and made available online. The project is ongoing, and the goal is to “provide access to the cultural and historical treasures of the public media system.”[7] Again, there are still some gaps to fill, but the trend is definitely moving in the right direction.

So, in conclusion, it can be said that the almost hurdle-free access to historical TV reports by the respective TV stations of the Federal Republic of Germany are a good way to stimulate productive and efficient research.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Atiba Pertilla for his editorial assistance in preparing the English translation of this article.

Further reading:

Behmer, Markus/ Bernard, Birgit/ Hasselbring, Bettina (Eds.). Das Gedächtnis des Rundfunks. Die Archive der öffentlich-rechtlichen Sender und ihre Bedeutung für die Forschung. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2014.

Bösch, Frank. Medien und Gesellschaftswandel. Zeithistorische Perspektiven auf die Erforschung des Bayerischen Rundfunks. ZBLG 80/3 (2017): 579-591.

Gaab, Jochen. Der Rundfunk als Forschungsgegenstand des Landesgeschichte. Zugänge zum Programm zwischen Medienproduktion und Medienrezeption. ZBLG 80/3 (2017): 605-613.

Kramer, Ferdinand. Ton und Film als Quellen zur bayerischen Geschichte. ZBLG 80/3 (2017): 575-577.

Lachwitz, Götz: Research Access to the German Broadcasting Heritage. A Short Introduction to the Archival Landscape of the German Broadcasters ARD and Deutschlandradio, href, November 22, 2021, https://href.hypotheses.org/2075

Schemmer, Claudia. Fernsehen. Quellen für die bayerische Landesgeschichte. ZBLG, Beiheft Reihe B-45. Munich, 2022.

 

[1] NDR Retro: Rein ins Fernseh-Archiv – und unsere Geschichte, https://www.ndr.de/geschichte/ndr_retro/index.html (last accessed October 26, 2022)

[2] Hannah Arendt – die politische Denkerin, Einführung in das Interview von Hannah Arendt von Günter Gaus am 28. October 1964, Zur Person-aus dem ZDF Archiv am 28. October 1964, Zur Person-aus dem ZDF Archiv,  https://www.zdf.de/dokumentation/zur-person/hannah-arendt-zeitgeschichte-archiv-zur-person-gaus-100.html (last accessed October 26, 2022)

[3] Franz-Josef Strauß – umstrittener Machtmensch,  Einführung in das Interview mit Franz-Josef Strauß von Günter Gaus am 29. April 1964, Zur Person-aus dem ZDF Archiv,  https://www.zdf.de/dokumentation/zur-person/franz-josef-strauss-zeitgeschichte-archiv-zur-person-gaus-100.html (last accessed October 26, 2022)

[4] YouTube videos are already frequently used for teaching.

[5] This is primarily due to legal reasons. Michael Eberle, BR Retro zeigt das Bayern der 1950er und 60er Jahre, Der BR-Wer wir sind (Blog), 27.10.2020, https://www.br.de/unternehmen/inhalt/organisation/archiv-br-retro-102.html (last accessed October 26, 2022)

[6] TV-Klassiker jetzt digitalisiert, Beitrag von Claudio Armbruster, Heute Joyrnal vom 30.06.2022, https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute-journal/tv-klassiker-jetzt-digitalisiert-100.html (last accessed October 26, 2022)

[7] About the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, https://americanarchive.org/about-the-american-archive (last accessed October 26, 2022)