For five decades, a Vanderbilt University archive has been meticulously recording the national evening news.
In total, it's a portrait of American life, from iconic moments to those that never make the history books. It makes up nearly 6 1/2 years' worth of video, if you were to watch them all back-to-back.
Skip Pfeiffer and Russ Mason haven't done that, but they have worked at the archive for more than four decades — which means they've gotten to see the portrait unfold.
The Original Tapes
In a nearly forgotten room in the basement of a Vanderbilt campus high-rise, Pfeiffer and Mason navigate rows of metal bookshelves lined with dusty, plastic video cases.
"You're one of the few people from the outside world who've been down here," Pfeiffer tells me.
Mason opens one case, with an old reel-to-reel tape inside. "A recording of Jimmy Carter's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1977," he explains.
This archive was founded a decade earlier — on Aug. 5, 1968 — by a Vanderbilt alum who was shocked to find out that TV stations at the time didn't hold on to recordings of their broadcasts: Reel-to-reel tapes were too expensive, so stations reused them. The university library agreed to partner with him on an experiment to make its own recordings.
Pfieffer and Mason both came on board in the '70s. So they've seen not only generations of news broadcasters come and go, but also technology. After reel-to-reel tape, which was terrible for archiving because it disintegrated over time, there was the 3/4-inch U-matic tape, an early type of videocassette.
"And then we had to convert all of that to disc," Pfeiffer says. "The discs became obsolete once we had the cloud. But everything remains as backups to backups to backups."
So, what's after the cloud? Is there another format they'll have to convert the videos to?
"I'm sure there is," Mason says. "But Skip and I will be retired."
Skip laughs. "I was going to say dead!"
Five Decades Of News
The archive has stored evening newscasts from NBC, CBS and ABC. Later, it added CNN and Fox to the recording lineup, and it records breaking news coverage too. One shelf in the archive's basement holds tapes from the week following 9/11.
The result is a smattering of clips that have been stored in the country's collective consciousness, from big to small.
An environmental activist living in a tree in the '90s.
The ban on cigarette advertising taking effect in the '70s.
A human interest piece on an Alaskan bush pilot for Charles Kuralt's "On The Road" segment. That one was memorable, Pfeiffer says, because the pilot's son and grandson later came to the archive to find the clip.
Because it's so much easier now to save videos, this Vanderbilt project is becoming, in some ways, less essential. Many TV news outlets keep their broadcasts now. The website Internet Archive has aggregated broadcast clips going back to 2009.
But what makes the Vanderbilt archive unique is its comprehensiveness and accessibility. Everything since 1968 is in one place, and it's all indexed. Although clips aren't available online to the public, the database is. That's actually Pfeiffer's job — to write little blurbs about every single piece of news each day, which requires watching clips and writing searchable key phrases.
It's been pretty profound, he says, to see the sum of American history over the past five decades on tape. And much of it keeps repeating.
"If you came here in 1968, '78, '88, '98, you could find stories on violence in the Middle East," he says. "The Kilaeua volcano is erupting now — you could find footage of that in the '70s.
"You know, the reporters come and go, the presidents come and go, but the American people stay basically the same."