While it’s very easy to identify the oldest surviving motion picture registered for copyright—Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, which I talked about in this post—it’s much trickier pinpointing the oldest copyrighted television program.
[I’ll wait here while you do an internet search on “first copyrighted film” and then “first copyrighted tv show.” See what I mean?]
Back in the 1980s, two moving image catalogers, Katharine Loughney and Sarah Rouse, painstakingly culled through many thousands of catalog cards to compile the 1989 volume 3 Decades of Television: A Catalog of Television Programs Acquired by the Library of Congress, 1949-1979. It remains an invaluable resource, not least because vast swaths of that card catalog remain unavailable for patron access beyond the cozy confines of the Moving Image Research Center.
In her excellent introduction, Rouse writes that “in 1949, having collected and preserved motion pictures in various forms since 1894, the Library began collecting films made for television.” Now, full time television broadcasting as we know it today began in the fall of 1948, so I was a little surprised (and skeptical) that we didn’t get the first television show for copyright until the following year. The fact that 3 Decades has been digitized and is easier to search makes it possible to root around the text, and sure enough, the earliest entry I found was for “Hopalong Cassidy: The Unexpected Guest,” which was registered on December 31, 1947 and, according to our records, assigned the registration number LP2831.
For several years I asserted (with the qualifier “as far as I can tell”) that good old Hoppy starred in the first television program registered for copyright…but it felt like I was cheating whenever I said it. The 3 Decades entry for “The Unexpected Guest” reads “edited-for-television version of feature film; cut to fit TV time slot.” But if you look at the catalog card, there’s really no indication that “The Unexpected Guest” is anything other than a motion picture, and indeed, there was a Hopalong Cassidy feature by that name released in 1947 and registered for copyright on March 28 of that year. Unfortunately, LP2831 has nothing to do with Hopalong Cassidy, but rather is a 1950 registration for an episode of The Life of Riley (starring Jackie Gleason!). Further, I didn’t find anything on a film or TV show called “The Unexpected Guest” among other works sent to Copyright at the end of 1947.
So, the evidence indicates that “The Unexpected Guest” is a motion picture and should not have been included in 3 Decades. The next earliest registration belongs to a program called Your Show Time, an anthology series broadcast on NBC, for the episode “Lord Maletroit’s Door” on March 16, 1949. So that’s the first television show ever registered for copyright!
As far as I can tell, that is.