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Updates on MTV, Comedy Central, and Keeping Archives Alive

Updates on MTV, Comedy Central, and Keeping Archives Alive

MTV music awards statue on a dark background, archives, comedy central

When you first learned about using the Internet, you probably learned that the Internet is forever. New users are warned, “Be careful what you post, it could be there for the rest of time.” 

Turns out, that’s probably not true.

In late June, fans discovered that Comedy Central’s entire digital archives of shows, including the entire run of the Colbert Report, and a thirty-year history of music and culture on MTV, were removed from the Internet. Paramount, the parent company for both Comedy Central and MTV, is $14.6 billion in debt, with significant losses coming from their streaming service — Paramount+ has yet to turn a profit.

With Paramount’s removal of this content from the Internet, thirty years of comedy, music, pop culture, and history are now gone. Artists and contributors no longer have their work published on the web, and though royalties and residual checks were most likely minimal, that stream of income is gone for all contributors, too.

More broadly, the move has raised concerns over the implications of preserving information in the digital age.

Michael Alex, the founding editor of MTV News, explained the importance of the MTV News digital organization and the gravity of its loss in a guest essay for Variety. When the digital world came into play, Alex urged the creation of “an artist index linking to every report on every artist we ever covered.” He was inspired by his own history of flipping through physical archives of Rolling Stone and finding the earliest interviews with now-huge bands. He channeled that want and need to keep history alive in the creation of MTV’s digital repository.

In his Variety essay, he wrote about the quick popularity of the website, noting its broad-reaching success. “Within a year we had as many people reading old news articles as we had reading the news of the day,” he wrote. “By the time Google launched and crawled the archive, we were as much in the music-history business as the music-news business.”

The MTV News website served the same purpose as the boxes of Rolling Stone, old videotapes, and any other type of library you may find today. The website held the information of the past and present and would be home for the information of the future. Now, those online libraries are seemingly gone, at least from the public view.

This move by Paramount was labeled as cost-cutting measures, following the 2023 closure of MTV News and hundreds of layoffs. Paramount said in a statement, “As part of broader website changes across Paramount, we have introduced more streamlined versions of our sites, driving fans to Paramount+ to watch their favorite show.”

According to some parts of Comedy Central’s website, some of the removed content can be found on the streaming service but reportedly only the last two seasons of The Daily Show are on Paramount+. Some on X speculated that the MTV content may be available via the Wayback Machine and the non-profit Internet Archive quickly aggregated that content on the Wayback Machine to make it searchable

But Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, also admitted in a 2023 essay that with all of the positives that the Wayback Machine brings, it isn’t a perfect solution. Because of copyright laws and commercial interests, large companies are resistant to free access to archival information.

Past the immediate disappointment and anger over the removal of this content, social media posts erupted over what this could mean for the future of media, digital archives, and our collective history, both cultural and otherwise. While some pointed out that despite the removal from the Internet, Paramount could still have all of the content saved in their own archives, others were not easily assuaged. Many are outraged that Paramount did this without ensuring the survival of the archives first. Some suggested passing the archives into the hands of the Library of Congress. Others suggested they should have dumped all of the videos onto YouTube where it can live for free, and perhaps make Paramount money.

But none of that happened; instead, we’ll have to rely on the Wayback Machine and the miniscule content put up on Paramount+ to record this sliver of history of the last three decades. 

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While Paramount is using this measure to save the sinking ship that is their business, historians, journalists, and anthropologists no longer have access to the history that had been contained on those websites, taking away a wealth of resources for current and future researchers. A lack of evidence of history can lead to the denial of our past and force suffering onto the contributors of this content and the public.

In his essay, Kahle cited what happened when Twitter was taken over by Elon Musk — because so many were outraged by Twitter’s new direction, they left and deleted their accounts. When all of those accounts were deleted, all of their content was, too. Following this revelation, Kahle went on to discuss the importance of Twitter, beyond the private messages and Tweets that were deleted.

“Governments make official pronouncements online. Politicians campaign online. Writers and artists find audiences for their work and a place for their voice. Protest movements find traction and fellow travelers. And, of course, Twitter was a primary publishing platform of a certain U.S. president,” he wrote.

Because Donald Trump’s Tweets have been effectively promoted to “official statements,” the loss of those statements via deletion from Twitter would be tantamount to Richard Nixon destroying his tapes.

Destruction of archives is not new to our history. The Library of Alexandria, thought to have had around half a million documents from all over the ancient world, was thought to be destroyed by Julius Caeser in 48 BCE. Though the real reasoning why the Library was destroyed, and who it was truly destroyed by, is unknown, “the real tragedy of course is not the uncertainty of knowing who to blame for the Library’s destruction but that so much of ancient history, literature, and learning was lost forever.”

Documents lost to the fire in the Library of Alexandria will never be recovered and we may be missing information and learning, tragically lost in flames. The Internet seems to be fated the same.

The Internet that we thought would live forever clearly does not — though that does not mean you should post something that you do not want to live forever. With that mortality comes a potential loss of information that we could need and want now and in the future. Moreover, if the Internet will not last forever and as the growing abilities of AI loom in our future, misinformation is imminent. And that’s the most dangerous part of all.

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