These days you can find a DVD box set for just about any television series you’ve ever loved. And yet, some gems continue to elude us – the long-defunct MTV shows The Head and Buzzkill come to mind. Sometimes they feel so close I think I can see them, though they soon fade, unattainable green lights across a hazy bay. Still, the orgiastic future of plentiful TV-on-DVD releases may be closer than you think. If the docket on TVShowsOnDVD.com is any indication, there is much to be optimistic about.
Major releases slated for the next few months include The Bob Newhart Show, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Dynasty, and the one we’ve all been waiting for…Moonlighting (that’s May 31 for those interested).
In my own experience, the most significant TV-on-DVD releases have already come to pass: Seinfeld (to be fair, only two seasons so far) and The Twilight Zone. I was a voracious recorder of syndicated Seinfeld and Twilight Zone marathons, so by the time either of these sets became a reality I had already amassed dozens of VHS tapes full of episodes, catalogued and all. Access to these shows was never an issue for me.
Particularly in the case of Seinfeld, my interest has always been in the other features it would offer. I already know the episodes so well sometimes I don’t even need to watch them, though I still do as often as I can. The Seinfeld box set delivers in every way – with extensive commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and enough bonus material to keep you busy for hours even after you’ve seen all the episodes.
Across the nation, Seinfeld reruns are still in heavy rotation, making the DVD set something of a luxury item, but for those long-lost shows that live on only in meager syndication, on home recordings, or in one’s memory, the DVD release is a godsend.
However, sometimes God doesn’t feel like beaming down a show, though we can always count on releases like the first season of Highway to Heaven (April) and the complete box set of Miracles (May). That guy is always playing favorites, and to such an extent that fans often have to take matters into their own hands. If you find your show is missing from the rolls on Amazon.com, you can always do what fans of the 1994 edgy teen drama My So-Called Life did: petition the distribution company to release it.
Whether they will cherish the final product or not, rabid fans want their shows. They don’t want to hear about actors and producers bickering over cuts on sales. They don’t want to hear legal mumbo-jumbo about copyrights and royalties, but these issues, if demand is already there, are at the very heart of the matter. According to a recent Wired.com article, prohibitively expensive copyrights on music are hampering efforts to bring many popular shows to DVD. In these cases, even if demand for the product is secure, petitioning would be futile, as it would take thousands of promised purchases (which are never sufficiently reliable) to justify paying for the use of copyrighted music.
Most notable of shows held up by copyright disputes is the turn-of-the-70’s comedy WKRP in Cincinnati, which consistently showcased the songs of popular musical acts such as Elton John and Foreigner, as the Wired article mentions. However, the success of a show like WKRP probably had something to do with the true-to-life inclusion of well-known artists. The songs occupy a significant place in viewers’ memories of the show so when creators mention the possibility of replacing original music in order to make a DVD release cheaper and therefore possible, some fans cry, “Blasphemy!” They want their show as they saw it originally, music and all.
For less musically-driven shows in which music may not be as primary an element, those in charge of making such decisions have been willing to replace copyrighted songs with others. The Wired article makes reference to early-90’s staples Quantum Leap and Northern Exposure as examples of this phenomenon. But who should have the final say on whether a show’s music is essential to the show’s existence, the artist or the audience? Too often it is neither.
Though I would miss the warmness and elation I feel every time I hear the theme song of The West Wing, I would still purchase a box set (assuming that this was the only way I could continue to watch the show) even if they replaced it with the Carpenters take on “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” I would even be willing to tolerate “We’ve Only Just Begun,” because to me West Wing is not about the music, or at least, I would be willing to part with this particular aspect of a show if its inclusion meant my never seeing it again.
Until very recently, TV-on-DVD was not even an option. Television has traditionally been a live phenomenon, but now that viewers consider it a right to have access to their favorite shows beyond their original airing and subsequent syndication, they would likely trade any appearance of copyrighted music in a present show for a less expensive piece, an original composition, or even no music at all. This begs the question, “Does the show exist for the viewers to enjoy or for the artist to create?”
I used to lament the counterfeit music that producers of Saved by the Bell would subject me to every time I watched the show. Wherever the gang went, whether it was the Maxx, a school dance, or an after hours club, they would be followed by the same synth-and-sax Muzak that would provide the bridges between scenes or perhaps complement a particularly worrisome event that would inevitably lead into a commercial break. This went beyond background music! Zack and company lived in a universe where our own popular music just didn’t exist, and yet we were able to overcome this terrible handicap and love the characters and the show anyway. I doubt that I would have liked the show any more had Slater and Preppie boogied to something better than that phony space pop I never came to love. And yet, the show’s musical lameness is part of the reason that Saved by the Bell DVD’s exist today for our viewing pleasure.
Not all of the show’s music was bad anyway. There were exceptions to the rule – the pairing of Jesse’s caffeine pill addiction with “I’m So Excited,” the boys dancing to “Barbara Ann” and breaking Screech’s mom’s Elvis statue…even the show’s writers and actors were able to conjure up some original goodies like “Friends Forever” (Zack Attack), the graduation songs by both Zack (“Bayside is a school that’s cool and you know that it’s true…”) and the Slater/Tori partnership (“It seems like only yesterday we started…”), and who could forget the show’s theme song, a time capsule in its own right? But maybe the lack of ‘true’ music did demean Saved by the Bell in some sense, if it ever colored a writer or producer’s musical choices for certain scenes. In an ideal world, the creator would be able to compose his show with any music he preferred, but we have copyrights, and with copyrights come compromise. Thanks to the willingness of the show’s creators to compromise (or maybe they just had no budget), we all get our DVD’s.
To appreciate the relative ease with which Saved by the Bell DVD’s have hit the market, I only think of the show’s opposite, Beverly Hills 90210, a teen (and later adult) drama with a soundtrack rich in popular music dating back four decades, a show that has not seen the release of a single season on DVD as of yet. As early as the first season, the show featured songs like Jackson Browne’s “Boulevard,” “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas, “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaac, and “Baby Love” by the Supremes. Yet I remember not a single one of these songs when I think of the show or any particular episodes.
You are free to disagree with me here. If you see a particular show not as the sum of its parts but as the amalgamation of a host of unique ingredients (including its music), you may do very well in convincing me that I did in fact appreciate the music and it did have an effect on my viewing experience. Just remember to keep in mind that I’m not talking about all music. As a devoted fan of 24, I realize the value of the use of original music in television shows.
I also understand the value of having characters listen to music as they would be expected to in similar real life situations. You expect Bing Crosby at the gang’s Christmas celebration as much as you expect Brandon and Dylan (though neither was present for the show’s entire run, and Dylan was probably off getting high and/or surfing as the Walsh family sang carols).
I even understand the value of including contemporary songs as background to give the show a certain time-specific authenticity, but was it really necessary to have the Cardigans appear on the show to perform “Love Fool” after the 90210 gang graduated from college? If that isn’t pandering in the present at the expense of the future I don’t know what is, though it is worth noting that the episode aired in 1997, before the prospect of TV-on-DVD became evident. If that appearance holds up the seventh season’s DVD release, I will find Aaron Spelling and do terrible things to him.
I will conclude this meandering piece with a concern for the budding or not-yet-born television watchers of America. As I said before, with copyrights come compromise. For the sake of future viewers who will never have the chance to see a show when it airs in its original form, let’s make the compromises now rather than later, so that they don’t find themselves unknowingly watching something that is drastically altered from its original state. That doesn’t mean every show needs to be as devoid of real music as Saved by the Bell, but we should explore alternatives to copyrighted music wherever possible.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. The reason some of these copyrights are so prohibitively expensive is that the shows distributors are attempting to revive are too old to have much of a following anymore. They lack the sort of loyal base that has grown accustomed to purchasing a show’s previous season on DVD before the next season even starts. Beverly Hills won’t be able to hit O.C. numbers when it finally comes out. I wish things were different, so I could conclude with this line: “The next time you hear a really popular song during The O.C., instead of thinking how cool the show is for being so hip and how cool you are for watching it, think about how you’re never going to get that DVD set! Ha ha!” But season one of The O.C. has already come out. I suppose when you move a lot of units, you can afford a few big songs. Now I hate the show even more.