Rock is off the air in Cincinnati
The show they thought would never come to DVD actually comes to DVD next week.
And all the reasons they thought it would never arrive may actually be good reasons why it shouldn’t be here now.
“WKRP in Cincinnati” was a late-1970s rock radio comedy filled with, shock of shocks, actual rock songs. Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” provided the punchline when bland newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) donned a “hip” curly wig for a date with sexy station receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson). Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” spun on the turntable as square boss Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) tried to discern what strange song zoned-out DJ Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was playing. The show rocked with the sounds of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” and Elvis Costello’s “Goon Squad.”
Note the past tense.
None of those songs makes it onto the first-season DVD set coming Tuesday from Fox Home Entertainment. Every episode has had music replaced, and in places where a song was integral to a scene, footage has been trimmed out.
The blame for what “WKRP” diehards decry as a travesty lies with, your choice:
A. Music licensing costs, skyrocketing as composers/performers/any- body with a hand in the till tries to make a buck from the supposed pot o’ gold in TV DVD sales.
B. Greedy corporations, unconcerned with preserving the integrity of a show, taking the easiest/cheapest path toward throwing product onto store shelves.
C.Consumers prizing low prices above all else, making even well-intentioned distributors figure it’s not worth shelling out to license original music if it means the set costs more.
Any or all answers might be apt. “It’s the kind of a situation that Fox couldn’t really win with,” says Gord Lacey, whose authoritative TV Shows on DVD Web site was recently incorporated into TV Guide’s online domain. “They either release the show with music substitutions,” Lacey says, “or they don’t release it at all.”
During “WKRP’s” original 1978-82 CBS run, the rights to the rock songs it played would have been licensed for TV series broadcast (which often includes syndicated reruns). Remember that 30 years ago even the videocassette market didn’t exist, much less DVD or online. Retaining the rights to those songs in new digital media means relicensing their use. And that means getting permission from everyone involved – composers and publishers of music and lyrics, song performers, record companies and down the line.
While fans like to blame DVD distributors’ greed, “sometimes people simply won’t license [the use of] their songs” at all, Lacey says. Or they demand fees exorbitant enough to drastically hike DVD costs. NBC’s cult fave “Freaks and Geeks,” for instance, was released with its many ’80s pop songs intact – but the 18-episode set had a list price of $70, at least $10 more than most drama sets of 22-plus episodes. “With other shows,” Lacey says, “they can’t even clear the theme song.” DVD seasons of “Married … With Children” replaced its “Love and Marriage” theme, and the new “George Lopez” set comes without “Low Rider.”
Are those crucial losses? Maybe not. Are the “WKRP” songs? Maybe. Even casual fans could wonder why they’re hearing generic instrumental riffs instead of recognizable song vocals.
“WKRP” diehards are livid, filling online message boards with invective and vows to boycott what they consider a bastardized release.
They might note, however, that series creator Hugh Wilson acknowledges in the DVD’s pilot commentary (alongside costars Anderson and Frank Bonner) that music was replaced because it cost so much. Wilson later says in commentary for the classic “Turkeys Away” episode that he finds the substitutions “pretty good. I don’t mind those music replacements.”
Well, sure. He’s probably busy admiring the scripts he wrote and the actors he cast, both of which hold up remarkably well nearly 30 years later. (So, surprisingly, do the crisp videotape visuals.) Longtime fans will be assessing the episodes’ overall impression – at least partially dependent on the hot hits that made “WKRP” cool. As Loni Anderson says in DVD commentary, “music was kind of the ninth star” of the show.
Could Fox have done it differently? If they had licensed even a couple of joke-essential songs, say “Hot Blooded” and “Dogs,” fans might not have gotten quite so worked up. (Search “WKRP” at YouTube to view those sequences with original music intact.) Suppose Fox had spent so much to license music that it raised the season’s list price from $40 to $50. Would that have cut hugely into DVD sales? The first seasons of “Scrubs” and “Home Improvement” came out listed at $50. But most sitcoms of the “WKRP” vintage list for less: “M*A*S*H” is $40, while “Three’s Company” and “The Facts of Life” are $30.
At least the catchy “WKRP” theme song (“Baby, if you’ve ever wondered/Wondered whatever became of me”) is there at the start of every episode.
Thank God Hugh Wilson wrote it.
Remember how excited we all were when we first heard about this?!?!?
Rock is off the air in Cincinnati