Why Is There Not a TV Museum in L.A.? (Guest Column)

Seinfeld S09 Still - Photofest - H 2016
Courtesy of Photofest

Seinfeld S09 Still - Photofest - H 2016

With the Film Academy getting its own museum — and the small screen arguably more important to Hollywood — there should be a home for valuable TV collections (such as Don Draper's office from 'Mad Men'), argues the founder of a nonprofit devoted to the history of the medium.

Jerry Seinfeld recently said he took home the sofa from his sitcom set and was looking for a place to exhibit it. Incredibly, there’s no collecting institution dedicated to television in Southern California, the medium’s home. Shouldn’t Seinfeld's iconic apartment perennially be on view where TV has always been innovated? How about Johnny Carson’s home base? The bar from Cheers? Don Draper’s office from Mad Men? You may be surprised to learn that they are already here, conserved and ready for their spotlight.

I spent the past 30 years rescuing the original costumes, props and sets from the most memorable TV shows of all time. Forbes recently crowned ours “the world’s greatest collection of TV memorabilia,” but our only goal was to gather what Hollywood routinely relegated to its dumpsters.

As one example, there is a system in place for hiring grip crews to demolish TV sets — sometimes commencing before castmembers can even make their way to the final wrap party — but no procedure for saving them, no matter how iconographic. My body still aches from those photos of David Letterman’s indelible skyline set being trashed on the sidewalk in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater the morning after his final show of a 22-year run. While my team had offered to retrieve and conserve these very pieces at our expense, it was easier for his producers to say no than yes. 

Mad Men

Thankfully, Hollywood stakeholders have generously donated their time, talents and dollars to the developing Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a critical and long-overdue institution. But why hasn’t Hollywood also nurtured a television museum? Is it because TV is less consumed? (Nope. According to the Department of Labor, TV watching has been America’s No. 1 leisure-time activity since the 1960s). We know TV is more profitable. (Seinfeld alone has generated $3 billion since it went off the air.)

But if you build a TV museum, will they come? Well, last year Hulu created a mock-up version of the Seinfeld apartment and fans waited in line up to four hours to get a glimpse of a few of his original items. And when the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit featuring objects from the original Star Trek, it was held over for 12 months, becoming the most well-attended exhibit in the history of the institution. As in since 1846!  

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame generates $100 million annually for the regional economy in Cleveland. Does anyone believe that a Southern California museum celebrating the past, present and future of television would attract less interest, be less financially successful, less culturally important or that its artisans would be less inclined to accept honors for their accomplishments? In the words of Mr. Spock, “Highly illogical, Captain.”  

James Comisar is the curator of The Comisar Collection, an archive of historic television objects. He also is the founding president of the Museum of Television, a 501 C-3 nonprofit institution that is currently trying to raise money for a museum that tells the story of television through its artifacts.

This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.