Exploring TV History in New York City

IMG_4219_20160612Anna Varadi is a PhD student here at Reading, where her project focuses on the remediation of the 1980s in contemporary American TV programmes (such as Stranger Things, GLOW, and The Americans). She recently spent an exciting time as a Visiting Scholar in Residence at the Paley Center for Media – and here’s what she got up to!

Scholar in Residence

My residency at Paley emerged from my research interests in American television and the 1980s. I wanted to immerse myself in that period’s media culture – something which is hard to do from UK libraries. It was great doing research there, but as a Visiting Scholar in Residence I was able to do even more – such as consult with the curator and the archive managers, support their ongoing projects, and shadow the day-to-day work. They even gave me a computer with access to the full Paley collection.

What is the Paley Centre?

The Paley Center for Media is a leading media organization in the fields of television, radio, and new media (formerly known as the Museum of Television and Radio). With locations in New York City and Los Angeles, the Center runs regular industry events, exhibitions, as well as public engagement and educational activities in these fields, including the prestigious annual television festival PaleyFest. Their archives hold an extensive collection of radio and television recordings starting from the early days of these media until today. Throughout my time at Paley I noticed that a lot of non-academics visit the Center to rediscover the television programmes of their youth, to search for their relatives in old broadcasts, or to simply experience the pleasures of ‘old’ television and radio. I’d never imagined an archive to be so popular with the general public.

Hidden gems

Of course, most of my work at Paley involved conducting my own archival research: I was able to watch a wide range of fascinating archived television programmes from the 1980s – shows which are no longer accessible anywhere else. While I was mainly focusing on materials relevant to my current project at the archives, such as the original broadcast of the 1983 nuclear disaster movie The Day After (ABC, 1983), I also spent some time watching materials that I ‘stumbled across’; random discoveries are one the best things about archive research. Here are my top 3 from my time at the Paley Center:

1.The first hour of MTV (1 August 1981)

I was able to watch a recording of the first ever hour of MTV (Music Television). This broadcast is a key part of television history, and watching it with all of the original adverts and channel indents gave me a full picture of how the audience would have experienced it back in 1981. I was able to see (and hear!) the ways in which MTV originally set out to market itself to a younger, ‘cool’ demographic as well as the types of music that were played on the channel at the outset. My favourite fact: the first ever music video played on MTV was The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (1978). They certainly had a sense of humour!

2.Blondes vs Brunettes (ABC, 1984)

This was a variety special which aired on the ABC network in 1984: a programme about sociocultural attitudes towards women with blonde or brown hair, hosted by two of the biggest female TV stars in America at the time – Morgan Fairchild and Joan Collins. As an insight into that period’s sexual politics, and an example of what TV executives saw as desirable and marketable, it was incredible! Both Fairchild and Collins hosted wearing some glamorous sequinned gowns and faux furs, of course.

3.Volvo: No Gimmicks (car advert, 1987)

I was surprised to find a car commercial from the 1980s that shared a (sort of) feminist message. Volvo’s 1987 ‘No gimmicks’ advert parodies unnecessarily gendered and sexist strategies by other car companies to ‘attract’ women – such as putting on fashion shows in car dealerships or selling pink cars. The advert then ends with the tagline, ‘At Volvo, we attract women to our showrooms the same way we attract men. With the car that’s inside.’ Were corporations starting to recognize women’s independent financial and purchasing power, or just capitalizing on the rise of feminism? These questions don’t seem to get solved over time!

I (heart) the Paley Center for Media

Being a Visiting Scholar in Residence at the Paley Center for Media, New York was a terrific educational and personal experience for me. I was able to make connections with some generous, welcoming and knowledgeable people, to explore Manhattan, and to discover lots of rich material for my PhD. People might think archives are lonely, dark and dusty places – not this one!

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©️ David Shankbone 2006  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Anna Varadi is a Sessional Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher in Television Studies at the University of Reading. Her research is supported by the AHRC’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW DTP), which generously funded her trip to the Paley Centre.