Wednesday, April 25, 2007

WKRP In Cincinnati - Requiem For A Masterpiece

WKRP In Cincinnati - Requiem For A Masterpiece

There is widespread agreement that "WKRP in Cincinnati" was one of the greatest television sitcoms ever produced. The original episodes are rightly considered to be a national treasure and cultural landmark. Copyright law madness has destroyed it forever - plain and simple.

Two years ago, I predicted that the original cut of the show would never be released on DVD due to the overly restrictive costs of re-licensing the popular music that was integral to the program.

I was in a position to know. One of my first jobs out of college was as a post-production coordinator for MTM Enterprises - the original distributor of WKRP. During my years with MTM, I was asked to perform the most painful duty I have ever had to do in entertainment business. I was given the task of excising much of the original music from the episodes and replace it with Muzak-style songs that could be licensed in perpetuity for a small flat fee. This was deemed necessary in order to keep the program in syndication.

The new music that was inserted into the show sucked ***. It was wrong for the feel and attitude of the show. Some scenes relied on specific songs at particular junctures (i.e., Les Nessman trying on a toupee to the soundtrack of Foreigner's "Hot Blooded") . Those scenes were ruined. In many instances, we couldn't even finesse the proper audio levels in order to cut the costs of replacing the music.

WKRP was created at a time when mass consumer home video was unheard of. As a result, the much of the music was only licensed for a limited number of years for use on broadcast television. You would think that by licensing the music, a derivative work such as a television show would have a fair use right to continue to use the music in order to preserve the artistic integrity that was vital for show to continue to exist. You would think that - but you'd be wrong. Within the maddening culture of entertainment legal affairs, the music licenses did not entitle the episodes to continue to use the music in other mediums in the future. The only way the show could be seen in the future was to destroy its original artistic vision and substitute other music tracks, which in some cases completely alter the feel of the scenes.

Most copies of the original show were destroyed - out of fear that if a tape were mislabeled and still contained the original music, then even a single accidental airing of the episode containing the original (unlicensed) music could subject the company to massive liability.

For each episode, we attempted to save at least one master copy of the original cut on 1" video. All of these were sent into long term storage. If these elements were ever lost or damaged - then the original WKRP in Cincinnati would be in danger of being lost forever. The only alternative would be to find an original copy on 2" video (a largely defunct format), or to re-cut the episode from scratch using the original individual production elements (a hugely expensive process).

After my initial prediction that WKRP would never see the light of day on DVD, I received a mysterious e-mail from an individual who claimed he was in touch with a studio looking at WKRP for a DVD release and asked me where the elements were stored at. I relayed the information as best as I could recall. I had no idea if the storage company was even still operating - let alone what condition the WKRP elements were in. I wished him the best of luck, thinking that there was no way that the show would ever see the light of day in its original form.

Imagine my surprise when I read the announcement that WKRP would be released on DVD at the end of this month by Fox. [MTM was later purchased by The Family Channel cable company. They in turn were purchased by Fox - creating the Fox Family Channel. So it makes sense that Fox would now be the distributor.]

I thought to my self, "Did a miracle happen?" Did Fox manage to overcome the barriers of music licensing cottage industry which makes the use of music prohibitively expensive?

Alas - no.

Early word is that the release of this WKRP in Cincinnati is an artistic travesty.

Read the reviews on to see what most WKRP fans think. Even those who agree that WKRP is a classic of American culture are only giving this box set 1 out of 4 stars.

Allegedly, the original producer of the show (Hugh Wilson) was involved in replacing the Muzak with some other generic songs that are more palatable. While this is admirable, and Wilson has some great artistic instincts, it still isn't enough to undo the damage.

Jamie Weinman has a detailed look on how an American classic was butchered at the hands of copyright law and the music industry.

[Weinman indicates that even "Fly Me to The Moon" had to be replaced. For those familiar with that episode, only 13 individual notes of "Fly Me To The Moon" were used in the context of Jennifer's doorbell chime. And yet, they were forced to replace even that fleeting reference to the song!]

This is a prime example of how our copyright laws have become completely dysfunctional.

If you are required to license artistic work X in order to create artistic work Y, then Y will never be a truly independent work. Any derivative work Z, created from Y will not only have to license Y, but X as well. Each successive derivative work then creates a longer chain of gatekeepers that you have to buy off in order to create and distribute a work. Couple that with the fact that copyright schemes are increasing in length and restrictions, and you are then left with world where copyright actively suppresses the creation of new works - and blocks the continued distribution of older classic works.

If you maintain that copyright law is still necessary to inspire the creation of works, then there ought to at least be a rethinking of the way licensing works. Licensing should become a compulsory "either/or" proposition as a matter of law. It should not be limited or divided by time, media forms, or physical territories. Either a work should be allowed to be licensed in perpetuity in all media and territories for a reasonable, one-time flat fee, or it shouldn't be licensed at all. But if it is licensed, then there should be a legal presumption that the licensing should never prevent the derivative work from being distributed in its original form as its own separate artistic work.

You often hear of great film directors professing outrage over changes to their films (i.e., edits for televison, colorization, etc.). Why is it that there is not similar outrage here? Is it because we have been conditioned to think that television is inherently more consumerist than film (and thus less worthy of artistic preservation)? WKRP is one of the few sitcoms that ranks up there in quality with the great works of American cinema.

Those of you under 30 probably don't remember the original cuts of WKRP. Trust me when I tell you that you are all culturally poorer for the fact that you will likely never experience them.

The butchering of "WKRP in Cincinnati" is an outrage. How many more outrages will we need for people to realize that we are in desperate need for copyright reform?

As always, comments are welcome.


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