Vintage TV Faces the Music
The DVD business is helping keep Hollywood solvent these days, as studios rush to empty their storage rooms and give the boxed-set treatment to even long-forgotten TV shows like “Space 1999” and “Bridget Loves Bernie.”
But one mystery is why fans of some hit series of the past few decades — well-known shows including “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “The Wonder Years” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” — can’t find them on store shelves.
The reason: Hollywood doesn’t want to pay the piper.
Each of these shows includes popular music in the soundtrack, and the shows’ producers paid license fees to those who own the rights to the tunes. But back then, no one anticipated that DVD sales of old TV series would turn into a billion-dollar business. So the music rights don’t allow the release of these shows on discs.
Now, Hollywood is finding that in some cases, relicensing the music for DVDs either costs too much or is too difficult to negotiate. That has left some series in DVD limbo. For others, it has prompted studios to replace background songs with generic-sounding substitutes. In a few cases, scenes are eliminated entirely. Most DVD boxes don’t notify consumers of any of these alterations.
In deciding whether to release an old series on DVD, a studio must weigh whether enough discs will sell to justify the music-licensing fees, and sometimes the numbers don’t add up, says Ben Feingold, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
That’s why fans of “Ally McBeal” have yet to see a full season of the Calista Flockhart romantic comedy on DVD, says Peter Staddon, senior vice president of Fox Home Entertainment. Although Fox has released a three-disc “best of” DVD of the series, which includes about a half-dozen episodes, Mr. Staddon says to license the music for all 112 of the shows — including those where Vonda Shepard performed covers of songs such as “Someday We’ll Be Together” and “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” — would cost “multiple millions” of dollars.
And although Sony has “painstakingly cleared” the majority of music used in its library of TV shows for DVD release, it hasn’t been able to reach a licensing deal for the Frank Sinatra song “Love and Marriage,” which was heard in the opening credits of “Married… with Children,” says Mr. Feingold. Sony sells DVD versions of four seasons of the popular sitcom about a dysfunctional family, replacing the Sinatra song with new theme music.
“While it was a signature song, it’s the content of the show that counts,” says Mr. Feingold. He says DVD buyers, at least in this case, haven’t been all that upset by the switch. “I’ve received maybe one or two emails about it,” he says.
That same tack was taken by Fox for the DVD version of “Roswell,” about alien teenagers stuck on Earth. Songs by hit artists such as Hole, Beck and Counting Crows have been replaced with songs by virtual unknowns Eleventeen, Goldo, and Glen Phillips, respectively, among many others.
Yet the musical reworkings can be extensive, and some fans notice. When the sixth season of “Dawson’s Creek” was recently released on DVD, 49 of 204 songs in the 22 episodes were replaced, according to the fan site dawsonscreekmusic.com. One of the songs was the Sophie Hawkins hit “As I Lay Me Down,” which was heard during a crucial scene in a bar where Joey (Katie Holmes) hears it on a jukebox, says she hates it, and Dawson (James Van Der Beek), kicks the jukebox. The song was replaced by “We Belong” by Sylvia Tosun. The original song “was meaningful to the two main characters,” says Paul Karpontinis of Montreal, who operates a “Dawson’s Creek” fan site on Geocities.com. “The scene culminated in a moment that fans had been waiting for. Not only did the new music alter the mood of the scene, they changed a song that was referenced by a character in the show.”
Paul Stupin, who for seven years was executive producer of “Dawson’s Creek,” says music substitution usually is driven by DVD economics but argues that it “breathes new life” into old episodes, “in some instances making them even better.” He says he had his producing partner and music supervisor submit four possible songs for each substitution. They then watched as each song was laid against the scene to determine the best one. In some cases, however, when he couldn’t clear a song’s rights for DVD, and the song was integral to the scene, the scene itself was cut. For example, in one episode the DVD release is missing a scene where a character sings “Love Is All Around” by the 1960s group the Troggs. But the 15 seconds that were lost as a result, Mr. Stupin says, “were not essential.”
Some people in the music-licensing business say they shouldn’t be blamed for such song-swapping or scene-cutting. Music-rights holders would be willing to peg the cost of licensing a song to how many DVDs are sold, which would make it cheaper for a show’s producers in many cases because sales volume tends to be limited, says Jeffrey Brabec, vice president of business affairs at Chrysalis Music Group, which controls the theme songs to “The Sopranos” and “Las Vegas” (both of which were licensed for DVD release). But, he says, studios prefer to pay a flat fee no matter if one DVD is sold or one million, to protect against getting socked with huge royalty payouts if a DVD becomes a huge seller.
Sometimes the artist behind a song simply will refuse to grant licensing rights altogether. Bob Emmer, chief operating officer of Shout! Factory, a DVD distributor, says that in preparing the DVD release of “Second City TV” he had to delete a scene from the 1970s comedy-sketch series that parodied musician Neil Young because he couldn’t obtain rights from the artist. In the scene, an actor played a psychiatrist named “Dr. Neil Young” who gave answers to a patent’s question only in lyrics from Mr. Young’s songs. “He had a problem with it,” says Mr. Emmer, declining to elaborate. A spokesman for Mr. Young had no comment.
The bewildering research, paperwork and legal haggling involved in clearing music for release sometimes prompts studios to leave the chore to independent DVD distributors, who get a fee or a cut of the revenue. DreamWorks, for example, didn’t want to go through the hassle of clearing music rights for a short-lived 1999 series it produced for Fox, “Freaks and Geeks,” which was set in the 1980s and includes music from period by Lynard Skynard, Van Halen and Styx, as well as the show’s theme song, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Mr. Emmer says it cost Shout! Factory about $1 million to obtain music rights to 118 songs for the DVDs, but it was worth it: So far, his company has sold about 112,000 units of the 18-episode DVD, with a list price of $70, and about 7,000 units of a collector’s edition packaged like a high school yearbook, for $129.
“The music is so interwoven with the TV show that to put in other music would have caused a lot of problems,” says Mr. Emmer.
Vintage TV Faces the Music