"Cobweb television" is a term used by television enthusiasts to refer to archived programmes usually dating from the period before colour, but more specifically, early archived television that will never be broadcast again and are unlikely to make it onto home entertainment formats.
Context: Anyone who watches television today will realise that, a few gems aside, most of it is rubbish that will not be seen after its initial broadcast and perhaps a repeat on an obscure satellite channel. However, thanks to current archiving policy, every episode of Homes Under the Hammer or Celebrity Fat Club will continue to exist forever. Thank God for that.
This was not always the case.
As we've all been told millions of times by fans of Dad's Army and early Doctor Who serials (that's the two writers of this site covered, anyway), quite a large proportion of television until the 1970s was wiped.
Even more archived material from independent television stations was lost at the end of franchises (for example the Thames merger between Rediffusion and ABC). In the very early days most of it was live anyway, which is why TV was thought to be an "ephemeral art form" (unlike theatre, of course, where every performance is remembered forever...) Even programmes that were recorded for repeats were unlikely to be kept after the second broadcast.
However, every now and then, a piece of television from this era will turn up somewhere in a collector's attic or a mislabelled can in an archive. Sometimes, these were official copies that somehow escaped the wiper's magnet or the skip of eternal doom. Others were privately-made off-air recordings; in the 1960s, several companies existed which aimed to preserve performances, and took commissions to film live broadcasts. Other, more amateur 8mm and even 16mm attempts to do this also exist. This is the true nature of "cobweb television".
No one individual coined the phrase, but it entered the language possibly as a result of the rather romanticised opening of the 2001 BBC Timewatch documentary Missing Presumed Wiped, itself a play on what TV Tropes calls the "Cobweb Jungle", the Miss Haversham-inspired gothic cliché of a long-forgotten room.
A quick search of YouTube will come up with all sort of things which have been passed around by "cobweb television" collectors for years, often once-popular 1950s and 60s programmes like Dr Finlay's Casebook, Billy Bunter, or Harry Worth that stand very little chance of ever being issued on an official media release. Especially with the advent of home video, these crude film copies could be transferred back onto tape, albeit in the now shockingly bad-looking VHS/Betamax formats which add extra wobble to the already grainy film prints.
However, many programmes still remain lost and will probably never be seen again, although discoveries are being made all the time. The comedian and gameshow host Bob Monkhouse was a notorious collector, and before his death had amassed a huge collection of otherwise lost shows on tape and film, as detailed in the recent documentary The Secret Life of Bob Monkhouse.
Elsewhere, there was John Cura's Tele-snaps company, which although it did not preserve moving pictures, did take thousands of photographs of TV shows which were bought by actors and directors as records of their work.
Discoveries are probably waiting all over the place; for example, the man whose public address firm I work for occasionally has a 16mm copy of a 1970s Songs of Praise episode stored in his workshop. Because it was filmed in the church in his home town (and he was therefore technically a 'contributor') he was able to pay quite a large sum for a telerecording (a film copy made by filming a video monitor, a sortof reverse telecine).
Thus, he was able to obtain a copy of this programme before it was almost certainly wiped. Although definitely not as exciting as a lost Dad's Army episode, this is probably the only existing copy of this programme (and indeed the whole early series of the long-running BBC religious series), I expect, albeit now in black and white rather than the original colour.1
Assuming that this example is not uncommon, one suspects that there could be simply thousands of hours of unknown television lurking around in archives or private collections.
Does "Cobweb TV" matter?
Old television is rarely as good as your parents/grandparents remember, and were they to repeat it today, it would probably be rather embarrassing. The only way these programmes see the light of day today are in clip shows, where the best/least offensive clips are picked out, perhaps giving a slightly skewed impression of its quality. Paul Merton's rather nice recent Me and Arthur Haynes
documentary was perhaps a good example of this, or maybe the 2009 compilation The Frost Report is Back.
In addition, although these companies profess to want this material back, it's surprisingly difficult to resubmit it. Indeed, the BBC's old Treasure Hunt website has, ironically, been discontinued and left as a "cobwebsite". The BBC Archive site doesn't even seem to have any contact details. Meanwhile, Greg Dyke's promised BBC Open Archive project, which in theory would have allowed older BBC archive content to be freely viewed online, appears to be dead.2 One can only assume that the BBC Trust and their fear of treading on the toes of commercial broadcasters put an end to that.
Unlike the rather good American Internet Archive, it's not exactly easy to access even extant archive television. In the UK, the BFI has a large hoarding of archive television. However, much of this is so unattainable it may as well not exist anyway. As their website notes, "Currently...the majority of public archives' holdings will still be in traditional formats - 35mm and 16mm film, or the video and DVD formats of recent decades".
The BFI does have a Lottery-funded online encyclopedia "Screenonline", but unfortunately this site only makes postage stamp-sized clips available for libraries, schools and universities, probably as a result of rights issues; royalties, broadcast rights and so forth. Therefore, although many programmes they feature will never be released commercially or rebroadcast, they remain proprietory content. Also, it's not really practical to sit there watching TV programmes in a public library; people give you funny looks.
As well as these rights issues, which affects nearly all TV due to the 70-year rule, there are other problems. As this Guardian article about a newly-discovered hoard of early TV plays highlighted, even though many performances survive, getting the permission to broadcast them is even more of a challenge. As the article states, many of the (now famous) actors would probably not want their early (and live) performances to be rebroadcast.
So, ultimately, it looks like those cobwebs will continue to gather for at least a few more years yet.
2"it's not really our content - the people of Britain have paid for it and our role should be to help them use it." - Greg Dyke, BBC Director General, the Edinburgh International Television Festival, 2003. (Full text).