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A couple of weeks ago a video of Vice President Dick Cheney from 1994 came up on YouTube, with Cheney saying that invading Baghdad would invite a quagmire. I investigated this on my own and discovered that, while I could find it today via the C-SPAN archives, it wasn’t clear that someone in 2003 during the run-up to the war could have, as C-SPAN’s advanced search service didn’t exist then. The actual video only went online this past July after its first rebroadcast since 2000. Otherwise, a diligent researcher would have had to have sent $30 to C-SPAN to get a copy of the tape in order to check whether there was something interesting on it.

As I dug further into this research, I wondered how difficult it was to find newsworthy archival news footage. Where are the decent sources, and how good are online archives? Nascent services such as Truveo and Google Video have a long way to go, and old line commercial services force you to take a laborious process to get footage. Plus, academic efforts to archive news footage are still struggling to reach critical mass.

Old Cheney Videos

I decided to learn more about archival video footage online by tracking down the source and subsequent YouTube uploading of the recent Cheney video from 1994. New York-based multimedia artist Fresh was the one who found that Cheney video that’s been replayed all over the media-sphere.

Fresh regularly scans TV schedules, and figured that the “Life and Career of Dick Cheney” on C-SPAN3 might be interesting. After he caught it on his DVR, ripped it to his computer, and uploaded it to YouTube, a lot of other people found it interesting, too. The video has been viewed more than 800,000 times and counting.

Fresh had uploaded some 35 videos to YouTube over the last two months, but this time he covered the C-SPAN logo with that of his own website. I asked him why he’d done that, because it seemed a bit unfair. He told me via email that he hadn’t done it out of malice; it was merely a “mock station identification,” much in the way that “The Daily Show” or other comedy programs would do it. Besides, he said, he readily told any news organization which asked where he had found the video. C-SPAN requested that he at least update the description on YouTube if he couldn’t upload a replacement video with their logo.

I watched the clips online and took screen captures to understand just how the video was used. Most news shows referred to it blithely as a “YouTube video” (and MoveOn.org ripped their own clip as a fundraising lure). Only a couple of reporters took the trouble to identify the source directly. Abbi Tatton of CNN and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC made clear that the video was, in fact, originally broadcast on C-SPAN. (Olbermann in 2004 explained his penchant for direct sourcing in the Online Journalism Review.)

C-SPAN has been rigorous in protecting its content and name, taking on sites that posted the video of Stephen Colbert from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and stopping Chris Dodd’s use of the word D-SPAN on his campaign site. So what did C-SPAN think about Fresh’s use of the Cheney video?

“We want people to actively participate in the democratic process, but those are our cameras, and that’s our footage,” Peggy Keegan, a spokeswoman for the network, told me. I asked whether they saw any copyright violation, and if they’d taken any action. “No, it was only a minute’s worth of video out of an hour program, so it’s covered by fair use. But fair use does not translate to no attribution.”

Incidentally, C-SPAN did end up uploading their original version of the video on YouTube, though, with a slower frame rate, it’s nearly unwatchable. The derived footage is what most people saw, and in most people’s minds it became the next “YouTube video.” None of the news websites even gave links to the direct URL where viewers could watch the whole video, or even perchance take a wondrous walk through the archives.

In the C-SPAN archives, I found the original Life and Career of Dick Cheney, which said that the program had been viewed 32 times (a couple of days later the number had mysteriously rolled back to 15). I watched the other videos that were rebroadcast this past July, including a symposium at Hofstra University titled Desert Shield and the Gulf War. Before I clicked on it, it was viewed zero times. I jumped through the list of speakers to get to Cheney. At the end, he made a curious point regarding democracy during wartime which I figured was noteworthy, saying that they would have taken the nation to war in Iraq in 1991 even if Congress hadn’t given President Bush the authority. Here’s the full clip:

The Trouble with Video Search

As for finding other valuable archival video clips, many online journalists are unaware of where to look for important news footage online. While text search and cut-and-paste of text is pretty straightforward to anyone using the Internet, the same work in video takes considerably more time. Most journalists would rather spend their time honing their argument instead of trying to locate and edit a video.

Google’s video search is a weak option because it’s heavily weighted by the prevalence by user-generated content and entertainment clips, sprinkled with the occasional video ripped from a news network.

“We’ve come to expect Google web search to be agnostic, not explicitly favoring content from any hosts,” said Mary Hodder, CEO of Dabble, a startup that now focuses on video search. “But Google video search appears to be favored to their own hosted videos.”

Entrepreneur/blogger Mark Cuban made a similar point in February: “Right now Google video searches itself and YouTube. That’s it. If a video is anywhere else, according to Google video search, it doesn’t exist. If video continues to become such an intrinsic media type on the Net, how can Google continue to be a leader in search if they don’t search other sites?”

Of the relevant top 60 search results for Cheney 1994 on Google video search, all but one of the clips are hosted on YouTube/Google (the other was from Crooks & Liars). None of the derivative clips that aired on network TV were sourced to its respective website; they were only linked to YouTube.

Last week Google News announced it would start to include video in Google News searches directly from news networks. This may have been a response to AOL’s re-launched Truveo search engine. Truveo indexes video content from news networks, including even local news stations like WBZ-4 here in Boston (it already has 16,000 news items). It does not, however, group items by original broadcast date/time. Instead, Truveo has devoted a large section of their website to allow developers to design their own presentation for the videos.

There is, in fact, a video archive of at least the major networks, and it has been compiled since 1968, when Vanderbilt University established the Television News Archive. They have taped and catalogued the nightly news every day of the year since then. In 1995, they added CNN; in 2004 they added Fox News. In addition to the evening news, the archive has taped special news programs, from the Watergate hearings to the Presidential conventions, totaling some 30,000 broadcasts and 900,000 individual segments. Large as it is, there are still missing elements: Television magazines such as “60 Minutes,” C-SPAN, and local news shows are not included.

A couple of years ago, the VTNA introduced a browsable interface with the design elegance of Craigslist. This main page shows every month since 1968; each click brings up a list of every day of that month, showing the news programs recorded with individual segments broken out (including commercials). This design also has the key quality of being crawlable by search engines, as Marshall Breeding, the library’s Director for Innovative Technologies and Research explained. The archives are a week behind, but it still has 2,000 weeks. Once you find a program, you can retrieve it by visiting the university or paying for a tape to be copied and mailed.

Thanks to an NEH grant, the Archive digitized the evening news collection, an effort which was largely complete by September 2005 Unfortunately, that hasn’t yet been translated into public access. The video can now be streamed on-site at Vanderbilt. They did reach an agreement with CNN to stream that network’s content to other educational institutions. “We’re working on agreements with other networks, but those may or may not come to pass in the near term,” Breeding told me via email.

Meta-Catalogs Footage.net and MIC

You might have better luck in the near term turning to a commercial footage house. In 1994, John Tariot, a video producer working in Boston, created Footage.net, which became the premier online search service for film and video. There are 13,000 unique users making 15,000 searches a month and 400 “Zap Requests” — a direct research request sent to 60 archival partners (each of whom pays Footage.net to be included in the directory).

The searches are still rough; there is no ability to filter by date. A search for “Dick Cheney” brings up an impregnable stack of results from the three major news archives (ABC: 2,757; NBC: 2,562; CNN ImageSource: 1,186). A search on “Cheney and quagmire” gives me a more manageable 14 results from ABC and NBC. Clicking on a result sends me to the page with either a transcript or a detailed summary of the video. If I want the clip (to view, or to use), Footage.net provides a form for me to send a request directly to the network referencing the program code.

The site has transferred ownership several times since 2001, and since April it has been owned by Domenick Propati, who had originally come on as a contractor to upgrade the infrastructure a few years back. Propati told me they’ll be rolling out enhanced search services in a few weeks. Within each set of search results, the user will be able to further refine the search, such as by date. Also, the service is working with the archival houses to provide video previews online.

This inherent difficulty of storing film and video content, and the inability of any single service provide it, has bedeviled the research/archival community, largely organized around the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). The Library of Congress considered the problem in 1997, producing the Television/Video Preservation Study. One output of the report was the creation of the Moving Image Collection (MIC) project in 2002, a joint project of the LOC and AMIA. This project has been developed by Rutgers, Georgia Tech, and the University of Washington, and at present the initiative is in the process of moving servers to the Library of Congress.

Jane Johnson, MIC director, described film and video to me as the “poor stepchild” of archival work. “Tens of thousands of hours of television broadcast footage, along with the catalog records of many major television archives, are now available online, but search tools are still evolving, and direct Internet access to large collections is rare,” she said.

“Moving Image” comprises both film and video, though it may in the future morph into “Multimedia” in order to encompass audio, which Johnson explained was even more of a step-child in the archival world.

The heart of the project is the MIC Union Catalog which will provide access to any participating archive. The expectation is that individual collections, whether non-profit or commercial, can map their catalog records (whether in MARC or other formats) into the MIC. In addition, the MIC will also identify rights holders so there is less difficulty in clearing the use. As Johnson explained: “Educators are able and willing to compensate rights holders in order to bring appropriate moving images into the classroom and scholarly publications.”

MIC today is still underpopulated. The one news collection is from CNN, and that’s only a subset. As a stopgap, the MIC does list 241 global archive collections, with a third of them tagged as News & Public Affairs in the U.S. Johnson explained that MIC has been in the process of transferring from the universities to the Library of Congress. In 2008 she expects the project to pursue a substantial outreach program to bring more collections into the fold.

I hope, of course, that the vision shared by Jane Johnson, Marshall Breeding, John Tariot and other pioneers in archiving can be realized. We’d like a single system where any user can search through news and public affairs broadcasts from recent history to get a full education about the people and events which shape our world today. It may not be immediately free for every user — not even Google or Amazon purport to give book access for free — but it should allow every user to view or listen to them somehow.

What do you think? What sources have you found online or off for archival news footage? What kind of search service would you like to see? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jon Garfunkel is a Boston-based software engineer who publishes media structures research at Civilities.net.