Searching for the Cast of Thousands: Excavating Labor from Media Industry Histories

Curator's Note

The obstacles of studying background actors in media texts are mirrored by the challenges presented in archival documents. In film and television extras recede into the background; in archival documents they seldom merit a mention let alone an article. This minimization of extras in film, television, and archival material is manifest in this August 28, 1950 issue of Sponsor.

The 1950s were a period of technological and industrial transition, and entertainment unions struggled to figure out what television could offer their membership. As runaway film productions became a larger concern for union members, television became increasingly important for domestic production jobs – as the MPAA noted when they claimed that television studio work could make up for workdays lost by overseas productions.

The Sponsor article updates television sponsors on union negotiations to assuage their fears about pending bargaining and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Screen Extras Guild (SEG)’s jurisdictional claims over filmed television material. These tensions are visualized in the photo that accompanies this article. Each number identifies a person, but the key explains the array of unions that stake claims over each job. This article treats all union demands monolithically rather than pointing out how particular unions wield power on-set.

This interrelation between film and television production has informed my approach toward labor, specifically the below-the-line labor of extras, who traverse film and television economies. For my research, the Media History Digital Library’s (MHDL) strength lies in its scope of material. The digitization of files allows me to download a series of pages (often spanning numerous years) and track changes in discourse and terminology (such as the use of “cast of thousands”) over time. In this issue of Sponsor, access to the entire issue indicates SEG’s activity in August 1950 (this is not the only reference to SEG in this issue). Researching extras is not a matter of finding key articles, but amassing documents and, in the spirit of subaltern studies, taking the silences seriously.


Kate, that labeled photo of the unions claiming authority over TV production jobs is such a great find! I appreciated your reflections about certain research questions (like the history of background performers) where it is difficult to find firm answers even with nearly a million pages of digitized movie magazines and the power of full text search. I also like your point about amassing lots of documents, rather than finding the one or two key articles. As a field, I think we need to move toward thinking about how digital tools can reveal probabilities at a tremendous scale, not just certainties at a small scale. EH

The image that Kate found in "Sponsor" shows a crew of people working together. In that same spirit, I would be remiss if I didn't credit the contributions of the University of Maryland University Libraries Special Collections in Mass Media & Culture, which sponsored and coordinated the scanning of "Sponsor." The MHDL indexed the pages of "Sponsor" so that they could be searchable in Lantern. But we wouldn't have had any pages to index if it wasn't for the UMD Libraries Special Collections. We greatly appreciate their efforts in bringing this important broadcasting magazine online. EH

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