ATAS archive preserves voices of generations


When Karen Herman, director of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation's Archive of American Television, interviewed Dr. Robert Adler, co-inventor of the first wireless remote control for TV, in 2004, she asked him what he thought about today's remote control. He said there was a big difference between what he helped pioneer and what TV viewers were using more than a half-century later.

" 'There's too many buttons,' " Herman recalls Adler responding during their interview, saying that the inventor pointed out that there were only a couple buttons on his first version of the TV clicker.

That interview is just one of more than 500 interviews with current and past TV icons conducted during the past decade that are available for anyone to view at ATAS' headquarters in North Hollywood -- and more than half of them can be watched online for free via a deal with Google. Tonight, the archive is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a party at Crustacean restaurant in Beverly Hills that will be attended by interviewees Florence Henderson, Art Linkletter, Betty White and Barbara Eden, among others.

The archive got its start after foundation board member Dean Valentine got inspired by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, which has videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and he set out to do the same for the TV industry. Valentine, along with Grant A. Tinker and David L. Wolper, wanted to preserve TV legends telling the stories of their lives and careers while they still could. A total of six interviews were recorded in 1996 (the first was ABC founder Leonard H. Goldenson), and the ATAS Foundation officially launched the archive in 1997.

Today, there are about 50 interviews conducted a year, with interviewees also including Ron Howard (the archive's 500th interview), Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Barker, Walter Cronkite, Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Diahann Carroll and Milton Berle. The foundation also has started recording historical TV moments in the making, for example, with the series finale of "Everybody Loves Raymond."

"At first, it was focused primarily on people and shows whose stories hadn't been captured and might not be here very much longer," says Terri Clark, executive director of the foundation. "But now we're also trying to build a certain portion of the archive, which is capturing TV history as it happens ... as opposed to getting cast members and producers to talk about something 20 years later."

Every year, a 20-person selection committee votes on potential interviewees, and Clark and Herman say very few people turn down the request for interviews, which last somewhere between two and six hours. And when they do, it's usually because of scheduling conflicts. (Currently at the top of their wish list is Bill Cosby.)

During the past couple of years, the foundation has been working even harder to raise awareness and funding to continue expanding the archive and make it available outside of Southern California. In addition to the deal with Google, TV Land takes video culled from the interviews and blends programming to creates pieces spotlighting various series. In addition, documentarians, industry researchers and college students also are frequent consumers of the interviews.

"The reason that we get such cooperation from the interviewees," Clark says, "is that they are not just interested in preserving their legacy but knowing that their legacy will be used to shape and form the next generation."