The Ethel Waters Show was a 1939 NBC variety special starring actress and singer Ethel Waters, in what reportedly may have been the very first appearance of a Black person on TV.

I’d love to see the special, or at least some part of it, as it’s such a history-making endeavor (although possibly dampened somewhat by the fact that it was so early presumably very few people saw it). However, I’m having no luck finding it online. Notably, nothing I could find specifically says that either the video or audio is lost, but neither can I find any of either.

So my question is as follows: is The Ethel Waters Show lost media? And if not, is there a way to find it to watch it?

  • 1
    Asking for ways to access the show is off-topic here, but your (emphasized) question Is The Ethel Waters Show lost media? is completely fine: can you edit your post to focus on that?
    – Joachim
    Nov 26 '21 at 17:51

I approached this from the opposite direction.
Rather than trying to find if one specific broadcast survived, I instead looked for the earliest method of recording a live broadcast.

Other than some very early mechanical systems that were not in widespread use, and one or two surviving attempts to film a TV screen, the first system capable of recording live TV was the Kinescope.
This was introduced in 1947.

See : Television Recording The Origins And Earliest Surviving Live Tv Broadcast Recordings

This really means there's almost no chance that any live show from 1939 would have been preserved.

To put the show into historical perspective, NBC started broadcasts on 30 April 1939. Her show was broadcast a mere 6 weeks later.

  • 3
    Well, darn. Thank you anyway! Nov 25 '21 at 17:20
  • 4
    @Dai Doubtful. The reason many old-time radio shows have been preserved is because many were syndicated using things like transcription discs. Meaning, deliberate efforts were made to create audio recordings for syndication purposes. In the case of The Ethel Waters Show, someone would have had to have made a decision to record the show to audio back then. (1/2) Nov 26 '21 at 6:18
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    @Dai Recording just the audio of a TV show would have been odd for what was a TV show and would have possibly been financially too costly to be done. It was only later on around 1947 that viable tape recorders were put in use; about 8 years after The Ethel Waters Show was aired. (2/2) Nov 26 '21 at 6:19
  • 3
    They could record live broadcasts from the very beginning, by filming the screen. It wasn't done much, and presumably would result in significantly degradation, but didn't require any special technology. Nov 26 '21 at 6:29
  • 2
    @Giacomo1968 hence my "in practice highly unlikely"
    – Chris H
    Nov 26 '21 at 21:53

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