NEW YORK -- Once again, New York has beaten Los Angeles at its own game.
Manhattan's Museum of Broadcasting was reincarnated last fall as the Museum of Television and Radio (MTR). Occupying an imposing marble building -- 17 stories and $50 million -- at 25 W. 52nd St., the 16-year-old institution is now capable of serving fans, scholars and casual viewers and listeners more effectively and comfortably than at its old, cramped 53rd Street digs. (The new site was donated by the late CBS chairman and Museum of Broadcasting founder William S. Paley.)
With more than 40,000 individual TV and radio programs in a computerized, robot-operated archive, the new MTR boasts the largest repository of such material this side of . . . well, CBS headquarters, a few doors down. But it's the largest TV-show trove anywhere that's open to the public. Los Angeles, the industry's nerve center, has no comparable facility.
And it's essentially free, although a $5 donation is suggested for each visit. That not only buys you access to the archive -- basically, an opportunity to program your own private Nick at Nite festival, the details of which we'll get to in a moment -- it also gives you entree to several galleries where revolving exhibits of broadcasting art and memorabilia are displayed.
You can also attend the ongoing screening series in the museum's two large, cinema-like theaters and two smaller, equally state-of-the-art screening rooms. There is also a radio listening room appointed with cheery posters and plush seats -- the staff discovered that media-saturated modern man has trouble just sitting and listening to aural entertainment, so they're trying to make this department as alluring as possible.
The screening series are arranged by genre (comedy, drama, advertising, etc.). There also are exhaustive retrospectives, which run in conjunction with exhibitions lasting several months that include seminars and special publications on the subject.
Edifying as these organized programs surely are, for a really good time at MTR, you should create your own show. To do this, go to the fourth-floor library, where an Apple computer system enables you to scan the museum's 40,000-item catalog. Realizing that so much to choose from would daunt many people, the folks who programmed the system spun out a "400 Highlights" menu that makes life easier for the casual browser.
Of course, even 40,000 entries barely dents the full spectrum of everything that has ever been produced for radio and television. The museum chooses a few representative episodes from most network TV series. It selects its news, sports, commercial and what-have-you tapes on the basis of their cultural, historical and/or artistic significance. Whenever possible, the tapes are of the show's first broad- or cablecast, complete with original station breaks and commercials.
Anyway, once you have picked a couple of hours worth of shows (each day's personal viewing is limited to two hours, three for museum members), you're assigned one of 96 consoles. These are divided between two rooms that resemble electronic study halls. Each console has at least two headphone jacks and a monitor screen, as well as controls that provide basic video-player functions such as freeze frame, fast forward and rewind.
The big Sony robot machines collect the tapes you request, which can then be played in whatever order you please. In a blithe mood one wintry New York day, I ordered a mostly comic selection: the "Gourmet Night" episode of "Fawlty Towers," an "F Troop" (just to see if, indeed, Spy Magazine was right about "Dances With Wolves" basically being a remake of the '60s cavalry sitcom), some award-winning Alka-Seltzer ads and the original "Addams Family" Halloween show.
The "Fawlty Towers" and "Addams" programs came off without a hitch. However, the system seemed determined to deny me my "F Troop" -- maybe I punched in the wrong code, but I got some French documentary about Nazis and Jews instead. I never saw my Alka-Seltzer commercials either, but that may have been because they were delivered with a cluster of other ads.
Even if the system has a few bugs -- and again, I can't emphasize enough that whatever glitches I experienced could have been entirely my fault -- the potential for nostalgia, delight, enlightenment and unpredictable poignancy at the Museum of Television and Radio is almost infinite. And after a few days on the streets of America's most in-your-face city, it can be an oasis hTC of solace to the disoriented visitor, allowing you to feel both at home and as though you're reliving childhood at one and the same time.
The Museum of Television and Radio is at 25 W. 52nd St. in New York. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. For special weekly screenings, the theaters and screening rooms are open until 9 p.m. on Fridays. Suggested contribution is $5 for adults; $3 for seniors and children under 13.
For information on scheduled activities, call (212) 621-6800; for other information, call (212) 621-6600.