Why Are These Classic Shows Nowhere to Be Found on Streaming?

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

This week, Vulture is taking a look at great unproduced, unreleased, or unheralded entertainment.

The era of streaming TV means more people have easier access to a broader array of TV shows than ever before — particularly when it comes to titles from past decades. From The Twilight Zone to 30 Rock, hundreds of classic shows are easily available to binge on services both big (Netflix, Hulu) and small (Shout! Factory TV). And yet even as every episode of mediocrities such as Rules of Engagement or The Incredible Hulk can be viewed on demand, dozens of far better (or at least more interesting) titles are far more difficult— and sometimes impossible— to find. Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family and Maude? Only on DVD. Blair Brown’s ahead-of-its-time half-hour dramedy The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd? Unless you’re willing to shell out serious cash for a collector’s bootleg copy, you’ll have to settle for random clips on YouTube. For retro TV fans, the relatively long list of interesting titles not easily accessible online is an incredibly frustrating problem— and one not likely to be solved any time soon.

One one level, the advent of streaming technology, and the subsequent rise of streaming networks, has made it dramatically easier for studios with big libraries of old shows to get those titles out to consumers. After all, unlike with DVDs or videocassettes, there’s no need to spend — and risk— millions to design, produce, and market an actual physical product which then needs to be sold, unit by unit. And if a distribution partner such as Amazon or Netflix is willing to pay for the streaming rights to a show in advance, releasing a series on streaming is pretty much a no-brainer for a studio, since a profit can be guaranteed upfront. But while this model means almost every recent TV show, as well as many monster hits from the past, gets a home on streaming, the same financial equation doesn’t apply for older shows that weren’t blockbusters.

For better or worse, industry experts say the biggest factor in determining whether an older show lands on streaming these days is whether or not a big streaming service believes adding that show to its lineup will help boost subscriptions. “The major streaming platforms are laser focused on new and original programming,” says Dave McIntosh, senior VP of business affairs and digital distribution for Shout! Factory, which specializes in classic TV. “They want special content that will cause people to join their service or at least keep them from quitting another month. With a few notable exceptions — Freaks and Geeks would be one — classic and cult television doesn’t really move the needle.”  What’s more, snagging a licensing with a big streamer is more difficult than it was just a few years ago, when the Netflixes of the world were just starting out and hungry for content of any kind. As McIntosh notes, streamers are now obsessed with creating their own original content, resulting in less money available for library titles. “The headline is, the streaming services don’t want [older] shows,” one veteran studio exec tells Vulture. “When they started, they’d buy anything to get traction. Then they took smart pills and realized people wanted newer and better shows.”

Retro shows still do have a footprint on streaming outlets, of course. Some series remain on Netflix, et al, because of long-term deals negotiated before the explosion of streaming originals. Plus, industry experts say streaming execs are open to “classic” shows that were big in the 1990s and early 2000s, when millennials were coming of age. This helps explain why Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Frasier, Charmed, etc. all have homes online, but it’s much harder to find every episode of The Love Boat or Laverne & Shirley in a streaming format. “The younger subscribers [Netflix] cares about just aren’t as likely to watch an older show, where the scenes are longer and the jokes take longer to set up,” our studio exec explains. “The ingredients which make up the recipe for a successful streaming show aren’t there.” McIntosh backs this up: “For a show with an older audience, the streaming services aren’t as likely to offer a large license fee — or make any offer at all — because  their audience skews younger.”

This is not to say that fans of shows not currently streaming should give up hope altogether. While the Big Three streamers (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix) may dominate the industry, niche players — including  the subscription-based Warner Archive and McIntosh’s own Shout! Factory TV — are still willing to take a chance on cult content such as Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Wizards and Warriors. It’s likely they’ll continue to work to bring titles now only on DVD to streaming as they step up their efforts to build their own subscriber bases. Some TV business types are also keeping an eye on digital over-the-air networks such as Antenna TV and MeTV, which have built a decent business repackaging old TV shows for traditional TV. There are indications some of these smaller channels may try to take advantage of their growing brand awareness to launch their own subscription services, thus bringing many of the shows they now air to the digital space.

That said, even if some players outside the Big Three try to get more oddball and retro shows online, the economics of launching a streaming show on these platforms is complicated and often costly. While there’s still no physical product to produce, and no risk of thousands of DVD sets sitting unsold in a warehouse somewhere, the costs associated with making an older show digital-friendly is not insignificant. “It’s definitely cheaper, but it’s not free,” Shout! Factory’s McIntosh says.  “Delivering a show to [streaming] is still a process ... we want to make sure the sound quality is right ... it’s very expensive and getting more expensive.” On the studio side, our exec says getting a show ready for the digital age “can run into the six figures.” Unless a streaming network is willing to shoulder that additional expense, there’s not much incentive for a studio to shell out such sums.

And then there’s what’s often the biggest obstacle to getting a show on to a streaming platform: music rights. These days, when producers license a song — either an original version, or just the lyrics to be sung or even hummed by a character — they make sure to lock in the rights to use said song in perpetuity and on platforms that have not yet been created. That way, if 20 years from now we’re all watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reruns via direct download to our cerebral cortex, the virtual-reality version of Netflix won’t have to get special permission from Rachel Bloom to do so. But back in the 1970s and early 1980s, people making TV never anticipated their shows ending up on DVDs, let alone something like Hulu. “Unless it was written specifically for the show, music was often only licensed for use in the broadcast and, maybe after the 1990s, for physical home video,” McIntosh says.  “For the most part, few thought about distributing television digitally until maybe 15 or so years ago.” So when trying to clear a show for streaming, he explains, “the rights for the music publishing (the underlying songs) and the master (the record label) have to be negotiated on an individual, track-by-track basis.  Not only is it expensive, it is incredibly time-consuming.” As McIntosh notes, there is no Music Inc. that handles rights to every song ever written. For a show that ran several seasons, it can take months or years to contact and then work out deals to license all of the music in the whole run of a classic series. And it’s also not cheap: It’s quite common for a studio to have to pay $15,000 just to license a snippet of a character singing a song, and another $15,000 if the show used the original recording.

With shows such as The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks, it’s pretty self-evident why music rights made getting those shows out on DVD, and later streaming, such a massive and expensive undertaking. But McIntosh says music is an issue on far more shows than you might imagine. Take a series such as Chicago Hope, the 1990s CBS hospital drama starring Mandy Patinkin. It’s not remembered for it use of contemporary music, but unfortunately for anyone who’d like to be able to stream episodes, Patinkin’s surgeon character had a habit of busting out into show tunes while operating on patients. Broadway songs are particularly expensive to license. And given Chicago Hope was not a massive hit at the time, and millions of millennials aren’t clamoring to see the show on Netflix, it’s no wonder it currently isn’t available to stream.

Even when music licensing and the cost of preparing a show for digital can be overcome, there’s one final and often fatal factor standing in the way of a classic series finding its way online: apathy. While you’d think big studios such as Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Sony would be rushing to exploit all their library assets in the digital space, the fact is, most don’t see a big enough profit incentive to bother. More than one industry insider has told Vulture that there’s probably a decent-sized market of baby boomers and Gen X-ers who’d be willing to subscribe to a Netflix for Old TV. With so many consumers now in the process of decoupling from big cable bundles in favor of subscribing to a handful of streaming networks, a Retro Netflix could get in on the ground floor of the streaming revolution in much the same way CNN, MTV, and Nickelodeon dominated the early days of cable. Unfortunately, such a start-up would probably require tens of millions in advance investment at a time when few big conglomerates are inclined to adapt a long-term view. “These big companies are thinking about quarterly earnings,” one industry veteran says. “They don’t have the gut lining to be thinking about the future.”

Plus, let’s face it: Not being able to watch every (good) TV show ever produced obviously falls into the category of first-world problems — particularly at a time when the explosion of really good new content already has consumers stressing out over how they can possible keep up with first-run fare. “People already feel almost burdened by too many programming obligations,” the studio exec says. “Who knows if there’s a big enough demo of people willing to pay $5 a month to watch a whole bunch of classic TV shows.” It’s also worth remembering that until very recently, watching old TV shows was far more difficult — and costly. Classic series have been widely available via subscription streaming services for less than a decade, and it’s only been since 2005 that Apple’s iTunes Store started offering pay-per-episode digital downloads of TV shows. Previously, anyone who wanted to (legally) watch past episodes of favorite shows had to shell out hundreds of dollars to buy full seasons of a TV show on DVD or videocassette.

It’s frustrating when good shows get stuck between the digital cracks, but it’s also worth remembering: Television fans today have far better access to classic (and even not-so-classic) shows from the past than ever before. And as the streaming space becomes more mature, there’s a good chance many series now available only on DVD — or not at all — may finally achieve digital nirvana. “I’m optimistic,” says Shout! Factory’s McIntosh. “I don’t think these shows will sit on the shelf forever.”