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NBC Television in Black & White

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Today’s guest post was written by Rosemary Hanes, Reference Librarian in the Moving Image  Research Center, Library of Congress.

There is no doubting the range and depth of the moving image collections of the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress, but almost as noteworthy are our paper/textual collections, which offer riches to researchers in various fields, answer many reference questions, and provide critical information for our catalogers.

Although it may have a place in the Museum of Obsolete Media, one of our prized collections is still only available on microfiche.

Opening scenes from NBC television program, American Forum of the Air. What is at Stake in the Battle for Ballots?,  broadcast June 22, 1952. NBC Television Collection.


In June of 1988, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) presented the Library of Congress with a collection of 632,000 descriptive cards on microfiche constituting the NBC Television Program Analysis File. The gift provided a guide to NBC programming from 1939 to 1985, which included coverage of 18,000 NBC television programs previously given to the Library in 1986, and many more programs not held by the Library or other television archives.




A press release in News from the Library of Congress (Information Office, 6-22-88), states that on accepting the gift, the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington said,

From the mundane to the profound, the Program Analysis File is a rich source of historical information on the lives of politicians, sports, figures, and entertainers, as well as the countless others who have appeared before the television eye in the last two generations.

Also commenting on the donation, Robert Saudek, chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS), stated:

It would have taken us 20 years to create this catalog ourselves.  It is an enormously important key which unlocks access to these television programs for scholars and students.

The files contain (1) title and episode cards, (2) program file, (3) personality file, and (4) cross-reference file.  The program cards have write ups, including descriptions of each program broadcast on NBC for the period (excluding soap operas). The personality file contains information on people appearing on the NBC network.  Each personality has a card, including name, designation (e.g. actor, singer), the date and program title for each appearance.  Although a priceless research tool, there are two drawbacks that need mentioning.  There are curious gaps in the personality file (e.g. the cards covering surnames beginning with Bro to Cot are missing).  Less surprising, the names of game show contestants are not included in the personality file.

Personality file card for Steve McQueen, NBC Television Collection.

The files have been used to answer a host of inquiries, including:

– appearances of Civil Rights-era politicians
– credits for television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works
– Nina Simone’s appearances on variety and talk shows
– documentation that two personalities appeared on the same program for litigation purposes
– verifying an early Steve McQueen television credit

Program card for an episode of Lights Out broadcast November 20, 1950. NBC Television Collection.








As with silent films, a significant percentage of early television is not extant. The documentation provided by sources, such as the Program Analysis File, can be invaluable to researchers. The card below comes from the cross-reference file detailing a September 25, 1957 Special Bulletin out of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Researchers can access the NBC television Program Analysis File in the Moving Image Research Center in Washington, D.C.  Please contact a reference librarian for more information.

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