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MuchMusic's expansive physical videotape archive is finally going digital

TORONTO — Decades of MuchMusic programming is being rescued from the sands of time.
Bell Media’s content development vice-president Justin Stockman says the broadcaster is in the midst of creating a digital archive of decades of MuchMusic programming. People gather for the screening of the MuchMusic documentary "299 Queen Street West" in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO — Decades of MuchMusic programming is being rescued from the sands of time.

The music channel’s owner Bell Media is on the final stretch of a years-long project that involves going through tens of thousands of videotapes and transferring pieces of history into a new digital archive, said Justin Stockman, vice president of Bell's content development and programming.

"Basically, any interview with any artist you could imagine," he told The Canadian Press.

That means everything from sit-downs with Canadian and international musicians to special event broadcasts will find a more permanent home safe from the gradual deterioration of tape.

Many videotapes of MuchMusic sat on shelves in the lower level of the station's former Toronto headquarters known as the Chum-City Building on Queen and John street, now home to Bell Media. 

The massive collection eventually overflowed to other locations, Stockman said.

Saving all of that footage became a gargantuan task. Making the challenge trickier was the variety of videotape formats MuchMusic used over the years.

When leadership at Bell began the project, they had to decide what to preserve. On the rescue list were the interviews, of course, and memorable programs such as the media literacy talks on "Too Much 4 Much" and the winter spectacle of the "Snow Job" gatherings.

Off the rescue list were most ofthe so-called "video throws" — fleeting moments where Much VJs introduced music videos as part of the daily "Videoflow" programming block.

"Can you imagine how many of those there are?" Stockman posed.

"At some point, you've got to pick what's valuable and what's not. And anything that was a noteworthy moment or interview is being captured."

He said digitization of the MuchMusic archive is about 70 per cent finished.

The endeavour has been in the works for “several years,” he said. As part of the process, the Canadian broadcaster is also replacing its aging physical card catalogue system with a computerized alternative.

Much of the digitized footage wasn't available last year, according to filmmaker Sean Menard, whose documentary "299 Queen Street West" draws from old clips as it retraces the channel's legacy.

Menard said he worked with the archivists at Bell Media to pull specific tapes from the libraries and they digitized them for use in his film, which begins a screening tour of Canadian cities later this month.

Stockman said he's sure the digital archive will become a resource for filmmakers who want access to slivers of pop culture history.

For instance, clips of MuchMusic's extensive on-the-ground coverage of Woodstock '99 — which captured the music festival's descent into chaos — appeared in last year's Netflix docuseries "Trainwreck: Woodstock '99."

Other footage, digitized years before the latest initiative, put a small portion of MuchMusic's history on YouTube. 

Some of Much's most significant moments, including one of the final interviews with the late Kurt Cobain, have collectively tallied millions of views.

Stockman said other programs will also be preserved, including Citytv's "Fashion Television," an influential fashion news magazine hosted by Jeanne Beker that's in Bell's hands.

"Speakers Corner" isn't lined up for the same fate.

Also a Citytv series, the show ran for nearly two decades and was comprised of short video clips that passersby recorded in an automated video booth at the corner of the Chum-City Building. People would pay a dollar to rant, weigh in on hot topics or send shoutouts to loved ones.

Rights to "Speaker's Corner" landed at Rogers Media when the telecommunications giant scooped up the assets of Citytv in Bell's merger with CHUM Ltd., more than a decade ago.

While Rogers still uses the "Speaker's Corner" brand on some weekly segments, a representative said "there are no plans at this time to digitize its archives."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press