Why Isn't My Favorite TV Show Available For Streaming?

Post by: AYS Staff 27 July, 2022

The last couple of days have brought a new cycle of stories about one of my favorite topics: why so many classic TV shows aren't available for streaming.

The excuse "music rights" is the most common excuse and while that is sometimes true, the reasons are often more nuanced than that.

As with most things, it comes down to money. Although maybe not in the way you might think. For the most part, any TV show that aired from the early 1960s forward is available in some archive. Finding a copy is usually not a problem. Unfortunately, every step after that costs money.

There is a cost to transfer the prints and remaster them into a format suitable for streaming. A number of the old shows that are streaming were converted for DVD sets or recent syndication deals. While the transfer costs aren't massive, they only make financial sense if there is some pre-sold market that will help underwrite the expense. An example of the latter are shows such as LaramieThe Virginian, and The Man From Shilo, which were remastered after a cable deal was finalized. There are thousands of hours of television that sit in vaults and won't be transferred because the perception is that it's not worth the expense. Dozens of anthology shows, lots of programs in black-and-white. The cost of remastering is too steep for some niche streamer to justify and the large streamers aren't interested in making a substantial investment for a niche audience.

As I have looked into this, one surprising hang-up is the number of TV shows that are hung up due to music clearance rights. It's not surprising that it's difficult and often expensive to clear well-known songs. It's the reason why the family of Rick Nelson has spent more than a decade trying to get episodes cleared from The Ozzie & Harriet Show. And those are the same problems that affect a range of shows from Bachelor Father to Harper Valley PTA and some of the episodes of Name Of The Game.

But sometimes the music clearance issues are more mundane. Many of the great 1960s and early 1970s detective and adventure shows from Warner Brothers are held up in a clearance issue because the studio decided at the time to save money by library music instead of original background music to save money. And so now to prep the shows for streaming, they would have to have big hunks of the background music replaced. Which is cost-prohibitive for nearly all of the programs. One of the few Warner Brothers shows from that era that has been syndicated & streamed is 77 Sunset Strip. But that is because MeTV was willing to make a deal that would cover the costs of the editing.

And there are also a number of shows that are tied up by other rights disputes. Part of the rights are owned by a long-defunct production company and it's no longer clear who can legally give approval. Or there are shows such as Run For Your Life where the owners are known, but for whatever reason don't have any interest in making a deal. That's also the case with Hec Ramsay, which is owned by Jack Webb's estate. These independent production companies are also the cause of most of the shows that are missing from archives. For instance, Jack Webb apparently trashed all the episodes of Pete Kelly's Blues to save on storage costs. That is generally not something you have to worry about with the larger studios. They have their faults, but they also generally have pretty solid asset management systems. 

Then there are the high-profile shows such as Homicide: Life On The Streets that are aren't available for streaming for reasons which don't seem to be clear to any of the rights holders. Due to some contractual wrangling partway through the series run, various underlying rights are held by several different entities, some of which have changed ownership a couple of times over the ensuing years since the show went off the air. Every rights holder has to sign off to make the show available and every one of the rights holders I spoke with claimed they were agreeable to having the show on a streamer. BUT, they claimed, it was X who was standing in the way. And when I spoke with X, they blamed one of the other rights holders, and so on.

<side note: speaking of Homicide: Life On The Streets, check out this piece about a court case that claimed John Wells had essentially plagiarized Simon's book when he created a show of his own>

But I started this discussion with music rights and that seems to be the big hang-up in streaming nearly all 1990s-era dramas. That was the time when the television production style shifted from generic music to needle-dropping contemporary tracks. And at the time, no one considered the challenges of that decision for secondary markets, ranging from syndication and physical sales to streaming. It's an issue that obviously affects music heavy shows ranging from Northern Exposure and Ed to American Dreams. But because the practice was so widespread, it's nearly impossible to find a drama of that era that doesn't have a half dozen or more songs that need to be licensed or replaced. And for most streamers, that cost isn't worth whatever audience the shows would generate.

Not that it can't be done. HBO Max somehow managed to get all of the rights together to it could stream the series run of Cold Case, complete with the original music. Each episode had a theme to the music tracks and you can stream episodes featuring multiple tracks from high-profile musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones.

So this problem - like most of the issues in Hollywood - can be solved with some good lawyering. But the negotiations can be messy and expensive and so far no media company has stepped up to tackle the job on most shows.

And if we are talking about the major studios, there are also two other snags in getting classic television onto streaming and they both come from major studios. Sony TV has a lot of great stuff in their vaults, but now that they don't have a streamer of their own, they have absolutely no incentive to spend the money to transfer and remaster old TV shows. Crackle has been licensing quite a bit of it, but they are hampered by budgets and Sony's apparent hp hazard decision-making when it comes to deciding which old shows they'll license. And as for Disney....all I can say is that they don't seem to be interested in releasing anything from the 20th Century Television vaults, which is a shame.

There is a lot more I could add to this, but at least now you have a sense of why it is so difficult to get classic television onto your favorite streaming platform.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 12:23