Ed Conroy had been getting a lot of emails about a silver robot — or maybe it was an alien — that had appeared on TV some years back, walking around downtown Toronto and riding the subway. The senders swore up and down that the mysterious character was played by the actor Billy Van, but Conroy had no memory of this.
For Conroy, the curator of Retrontario, a website devoted to chronicling Ontario’s televisual past, inquiries like these are nothing out of the ordinary. After a bit of digging, Conroy discovered the show in question, produced by TVO in 1989 designed for ESL students, was called How Do You Do? Finding that out was the easy part. Finding a clip of the show — if one even existed — would be trickier.
For nearly a decade, Retrontario’s small team of volunteers has been gathering mostly incidental recordings — the kind that happened when, say, someone falls asleep taping the hockey game — ripped from VHS cassettes, in hopes of showing Ontarians the province’s rich broadcasting history.
“In the early days, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be,” says Conroy, who launched Retrontario and its eponymous YouTube channel in 2008. “I knew there are certain things that are kind of ‘cult’ that I knew would find an audience on YouTube, but I really had no idea how huge the appetite was for all this stuff.”
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Thousands watched a 1994 commercial featuring then-Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar hawking McCain’s fruit punch. Thousands more viewed an advertisement for “Donald Trump: The Game” — a real-estate board game released in 1989. (Conroy hasn’t been able to locate a clip of How Do You Do? yet, but the search continues.)
The YouTube channel’s viewer demographics, and Conroy’s interactions with those who send in video, give the Retrontario team a sense of its viewers and their tastes. While there are some who watch for the nostalgia — as well as those who just like to mock ’90s hairdos — Conroy says many are eager to educate themselves about the past through television.
Many of these viewers have trouble accessing older programming, which is typically stored on tape in physical archives. The incidental recordings that the public sends in (or that Conroy stumbles across at garage sales) might provide snippets of YTV’s flagship show The Zone, or perhaps a segment from Speaker’s Corner — but Conroy says these clips don’t provide a comprehensive look at Ontario’s historical media landscape. He could carry on scouring Toronto for tapes, but with access to broadcasters’ full archives, Conroy says he could provide context to what he publishes online. Getting that access is the next step for Retrontario.
“We are talking about series, interstitial materials, and films that are basically lost because they’re in an archive. If nobody can access them or see them, then really, what does it matter if it’s still there?” he asks.
Retrontario must continually navigate muddy contracts and copyright law to publish old segments online. (Not to mention, Conroy tells me there are some TV personalities who’d rather not see their now-passé dress sense on the internet.) Conroy fears that broadcasters, hampered by legal issues and unwilling to allocate resources to trawl vast back catalogues for publishable material, may instead send their tapes to an offsite archive — or worse, to a landfill.
In 2013, Conroy worked with marketing and digital teams from YTV and Corus Entertainment (which owns the youth broadcaster) to create an archive on YTV’s website celebrating classic moments for the channel’s 25th anniversary. The project involved scanning documents; transferring VHS, Beta, and three-quarter-inch tape to digital formats; and writing a ton of blog posts. “We really are hitting a critical moment,” Conroy says. “These items have to be digitized just to keep them alive.”
Conroy says he’s particularly proud to have saved a clip of John Candy hosting YTV’s debut broadcast, during which he was slimed to promote the show You Can’t Do That on Television. Only one recording of the event, contained on a worn-out video tape, existed — a historic moment that could easily have been lost to time.
Working with broadcasters to digitize their collections is a huge part of what drives Conroy, but so are the people who write him asking for info on their favourite old shows.
A few years ago, a teacher from Baltimore reached out to him looking for a segment from the TVO’s educational program Mathmakers, which first aired in 1978. She’d been using a VHS copy in the classroom — but when the tape broke, she wasn’t able to get another one from TVO. She hoped Conroy might have a copy.
“I said, ‘I don’t, but I can probably repair the tape for you, and I can make a digital copy,’” Conroy recalls. “The idea that it was 2014 and they’re using this VHS — the thought of it was just surreal. This teacher sent me the tape in the mail, and I fixed it and made a digital copy. She wrote me back and said she couldn’t thank me enough.”
“This exactly the kind of story I love to tell,” Conroy adds, “about how important these old tapes really are.”
Matthew O'Mara is a digital media producer with Digital Learning at TVO and a former editor of the Japanese-Canadian community newspaper Nikkei Voice.