11 Great Television Shows That Are Lost Forever

Much early television was broadcast live and never recorded. This included news and variety shows, of course, but also early dramas and comedy series. Even recorded shows have not been safe. Film recordings were disposed of, to clear storage space or make way for new equipment. Video—useful, but expensive—was frequently erased and re-used. Nobody back in the 1960s was thinking of DVD sales. While many of the TV greats are still safe for an eternity of reruns, these 11 are either partly or completely missing.

1. Mary Kay and Johnny (1947-1950)

Image credit: CBS/Landov

America’s first television sitcom starred a real-life married couple as a zany wife and her relatively normal husband, trying to stop her from causing too much mayhem.  It wasn’t I Love Lucy, or even the slightly earlier George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Nope. Mary Kay and Johnny was the first series to show the lead married couple sharing a bed (not The Brady Bunch, as you might have heard) and the first to incorporate the leading lady’s pregnancy into the storyline (once again, not I Love Lucy).

So why is it so obscure? Like most television in the 1940s, this DuMont production was broadcast live (from New York) and not recorded, so we don’t know for sure whether it would still make us laugh. Kinescopes were made of later episodes, to be broadcast on the west coast, but even most of these were destroyed. The Paley Center for Media owns one full episode from 1949, but only a few fragments of later episodes remain. John Stearns went on to produce comedy variety shows. His wife, Mary Kay Stearns, did very little else on television – though to the best of our knowledge she is still alive, aged 86. Here’s an interview with the couple from 1999.

2. Jerome I. Rodale’s death on The Dick Cavett Show (1971)

This episode is part of television folklore, but unless you were in the live audience that night, you probably haven’t seen it.

Rodale, head of a multimillion-dollar publishing empire and one of the very first promoters of organic food, appeared on the popular late-night show at the height of his fame, having just appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. According to Cavett, Rodale was “extremely funny” for half an hour, boasting about his good health. However, during Cavett’s interview with New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, the host and guest noticed that something was wrong with Rodale. He'd suffered a fatal heart attack during Hamill's segment. “I’ve decided to live to be a hundred,” Rodale had announced during his interview just a few minutes earlier. He was 72.

The episode was never aired, and the only way you could have seen the recording, Cavett believes, is “if you knew a couple of ABC engineers who ran off a copy that night to take home to spook their wives and girlfriends.” Nonetheless, he wrote in 2007 that he still meets people who swear that they saw the broadcast. Such is its reputation that they believe that they were there to witness history.

3. The Avengers (1961)

The first season of this classic British spy series now seems like an oddity. There was no sign of action women Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) or Cathy Gale (Honore Blackman). Even the dashing John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who would be the star through most of the series’ nine-year tenure, was relegated to second-billing. The original star was Ian Hendry (formerly of the short-lived series Police Surgeon) as Dr. David Keel, who teamed up with Steed to solve crimes. So it was different from the “classic” Avengers of judo and sexy leather costumes, but was it any good? Sadly, it’s hard to say. Of the 26 episodes produced that first season, only two still exist – including one that only features Keel, with no sign of Steed. Some of the other episodes were broadcast live in the UK but never committed to film.

4. A for Andromeda (1961)

The British Broadcasting Corporation produced countless hours of television in the 1950s and 1960s – and wiped over most of it to save space. Recently, thanks to a public appeal, they have been filling gaps in their archives. One show that is still largely missing is the science-fiction serial A for Andromeda, which made a star of Julie Christie. Only one episode is known to survive, returned to BBC by a private collector in 2005.

5. The first episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson* (1962)

Johnny Carson was king of the late-night talk shows for three decades – and he had a great start. In the first episode, the wisecracking host was introduced not by Ed McMahon’s famous call of “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”, but by a monologue from Groucho Marx. The guest list was no less impressive: Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Joan Crawford, and a young comedian named Mel Brooks. It sounds like a terrific 105 minutes of television, but – like most Carson shows in the 1960s – it’s probably gone for good.

6. Walter Cronkite reads the CBS News (1962-1967)

You have probably seen the footage of Walter Cronkite momentarily unable to hide his sadness at the news that President Kennedy had been killed. (A clip was featured in the film JFK.) You might have even seen the footage of Cronkite the previous year, informing the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis (especially if you saw X-Men: First Class). If you remember any of Cronkite’s other broadcasts from the era, however, you must have an excellent memory. Though he was “the most trusted man in America” for decades, most of his bulletins from the 1960s no longer survive. Until 1968, those two stories were the only clips deemed worthy of saving.

7. The Madhouse on Castle Street (1963)

Another victim of the BBC’s wiping policy was this TV play by Evan Jones, about a man who has decided to “retire from the world,” much to the concern of his family and friends. The play is notable for featuring the first acting performance by a young American folk singer named Bob Dylan, who sang his new song "Blowin’ in the Wind" over the opening and closing credits. No video footage survives.

8. Doctor Who (1964-1969)

Probably the most sought-after missing episodes of any TV show. Again, the BBC destroyed many episodes from the 1960s, when it was a popular but low-budget kids’ show. Although several have been retrieved, 108 episodes are still missing. Fortunately, audio recordings exist of every episode, thanks to some fans. They didn’t have video recorders back in the sixties, but they still recorded the episodes on reel-to-reel tapes. (Media piracy is no new concept.)

Using these recordings, many audio adventures have been released by BBC Audio, with digitally enhanced soundtracks, and some of the original actors filling in the gaps with their narration. In 2006, the BBC released a digitally restored DVD of the 1968 story “The Invasion" in which the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) fights some of his greatest foes, the Cybermen. Two of the eight episodes of “The Invasion” are missing, so animation house Cosgrove Hall produced black-and-white animated versions of the two episodes using the vintage audio recordings.

9. Search for Tomorrow (1951-1968)

This daytime soap lasted for an amazing 35 years, finally giving everyone a happy ending in 1986. Yet little survives of the most fondly remembered (and highest-rated) first 16 years, when it aired as a 15-minute serial alongside its sister series, Guiding Light, before becoming a half-hour show. At the time, it was broadcast live, but from 1968, it was pre-recorded. Live episodes were a thing of the past… until 1983, when all copies of an episode were lost, and the cast were forced to perform it live for the first time in 16 years.

NBC was accused of making up the whole “lost episode” story as a publicity stunt – perhaps devised by someone who had seen this happen in the movie Tootsie. Fortunately, unlike Tootsie, nobody veered too far from the script, but the episode was still something of a disaster. Other classic soap operas fared better on kinescope: the entire series of Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless are still available, should you find yourself with a few years’ worth of free time.

10. At Last the 1948 Show (1967)

It wasn’t only the BBC that discarded great British television shows. This show, produced commercially, introduced the influential Cambridge Footlights comedy stars to television. The cast included two future Monty Python stars—John Cleese and Graham Chapman—as well as up-and-coming comedy legends Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Despite its significance and popularity, it lasted only 13 episodes, a mere five of which still exist in full.

11. The Magnificent Marble Machine (1975-1976)

Only two complete episodes now exist of this celebrity game show. Marble Machine was hosted by Art James, and a shining example of 70s kitsch. (In the 70s, this was all right.) Game shows didn’t survive well, in general. A significant number of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune episodes have also been destroyed.

Do you remember any of these shows? How about some others that didn't make the list?

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.


The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.


Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.


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