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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 ass. 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 Amazon.com 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?


Comments

Full disclosure: I was the one who wrote the "Mysterious email."

I had been hearing that Fox was planning to release the show (as they were) and that they couldn't find the original elements, so I asked you, and relayed the information to someone in marketing at Fox (I'm not affiliated with the company; I just sent an email to somebody). The story I got -- the story they were sort of leading the public to believe -- was that there would be some music substitutions but that they would try to preserve the integrity of the show.

Whether they ever found the elements, I don't know. But obviously, I got a nasty shock when I received the DVDs and found what they'd done to them. While the syndication version you talk about was pretty bad, it did preserve music in some cases, mostly when it underscored dialogue (like the Pink Floyd scene). Fox cut out nearly all the music.

Also, they didn't actually replace the muzak from that syndication version -- they kept all that bad muzak, and just added NEW muzak to replace the few songs that were still there.

The one thing I'd quibble with is blaming all this on the music industry. Music-licensing is a mess, I agree, but sometimes the studio is just cheap. And a studio that would rather overdub "Fly Me to the Moon," or cut out an entire scene of Les singing "Heartbreak Hotel," is pretty cheap. They tried to release WKRP on a bargain-basement budget -- that's not the music industry's fault in itself.

Full disclosure: I was the one who wrote the "Mysterious email."

That made it sound like it really was mysterious, so just to clarify: I had no involvement with the DVD, but I had read about them looking for the elements, and I'd also read your piece on the show, so I emailed you (under my own name, not a pseudonym) and asked if you remembered where the elements were. Then I forwarded your information to Fox. Like I said, I have no idea if they used it or what they found.

Jamie -

Thanks for clarifying. Of course I made your e-mail sound mysterious. It was necessary for my narrative. ;-) But seriously, from my perspective, I found it to be mysterious at the time. Thanks for your great work on detailing the problems with WKRP here.

I've got a hunch that this is also what's kept two of my other favorite series off DVD--Square Pegs and Max Headroom. Both made extensive use of licensed music and video (plus music posters and video games, in Square Pegs' case). I'd buy them in a heartbeat if I could, but alas, there's no legal way to do so.
What about the scene when Carlson reads from John Lennon's "Imagine" trying to make a point about censorship? Has that been censored?
I don't know if this means anything, but a search on Fox Home Entertainment's website for "WKRP" turns up nothing and the list of new releases for 4/24/07 does not include "WKRP". I know the backlash from potential buyers has been negative and very vocal, but I don't know if this means Fox is going to hold the release until they can secure music rights or if it means that WKRP on DVD will never happen......
Thanks for your well written piece. It is so sad that a great TV show got butchered in such a terrible way.

As a young doc producer, I've started to use ccMixter (Creative Commons) songs exclusively for all my work now. And like you, I also write my blog under the CC license.

Alas, I am also extremely upset at our entertainment industry as a whole. WKRP in Cincinnati was and still is an icon of our american culture. To take something so unique and fresh and cut it up and throw it out to the public like a piece of stringy fat filled strip of meat is shameful to put it nicely. I bought the DVD, read the back where it saids "SOME of the music content has been edited", then read the hundreds of reviews on the internet. I took it back to Best Buy unopened and explained how the DVD had been altered. The scene with Johnny , Carlson and Pink Floyd's dogs is part of the whole body and soul of what WKRP was supposed to be about. CUT it from the dvd? All that were involved were thinking with their pocketbooks and wallets and not with their hearts and souls which I belive are turning black. They might as well give us copies of the declaration of independence with out the preamble and the signatures. Shame, shame, shame! The entertaiment industry is there to entertain us..... they have failed us all.
The answer is simple: don't buy music for a month. People should send an e-mail to the record companies saying why they will not support them for the month (ideally this should be a co-ordinated effort--let's pick a month) and stick to it. Listen to the radio...listen to what you have...watch TV. Contrary to what I have been told, people will not die if they don't get new music and the effect would be very powerful.

Of course, the RIAA and their cronies will attempt to equate music with air and food and water...

Anand

Why cant they get a new license from the original artists? Its all pretty old music and it would seem those musicians would have some reasonable rates to play parts of their old songs....
Anonymous,

If you have ever spent some time in enterainment legal circles, you would know that the rates to re-license popular songs are ANYTHING but reasonable. They are insanely expensive - even for songs that are no longer popular in the public eye.

Hello! Thanks for the info on one of my favorite TV shows. In reading with both great interest and horror how the show was butchered (and forgiving you your part in it!) I am wondering if there is a comprehensive list of the music that was heard in the series' original run?

Thank you, David

avengepluto @ gmail.com

Hi David.

I'm not sure if there is a 'comprehensive' list of all the original music heard in all the episodes. However, there is an informative blog wich lists the music changes that were made for the DVD release of Season 1:

http://zvbxrpl.blogspot.com/2007/03/wkrp-dvd-not-ok.html

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First of all, let me say that WKRP is my favorite show of all time, I remember the original airings and the first syndication runs, and I bought the 1st season on DVD, and the music cutting and substitution is a travesty! (Still, it's great to see those characters and actors again, in the non-musical scenes.) BUT, don't blame copyright law! It's a shame the parties couldn't negotiate and compromise, but the songwriters/composers and recording artists do and should have the exclusive right, i.e. monoply, to control how their music is used and to make money from it. If renewals, alternate formats, etc. aren't spelled out in the contract, it has to be renegotiated, that's how it should be. This doesn't suppress creativity, as one post mentioned - just the opposite, it motivates people to come up with original stuff. Incorporating someone else's music or literature or whatever can be genius (usually isn't), but you gotta get the license. You could argue in favor of a compulsory synch license, as with mechanical licenses, but compulsory mechanical licenses originally came about as a way to promote the fledgling sound recording industry, and that rationale certainly wouldn't apply to the tv/film/internet/gaming/etc. industries for synch licensing. (Even so, there are restrictions on compulsory mechanical licenses, e.g., you still have to get permission to change lyrics or make other certain alterations to the song.)

Also, don't assume that the songwriters and recording artists themselves would all be in favor of deep discounts for WKRP. Some of them might, some might not, just don't assume.

Like I said, it's a real shame what they did to WKRP but it's not the fault of copyright law. And by the way, copyright and patent laws are authorized by the constitution, and the first laws were passed in 1790 (I think). Don't let WKRP make you think these are bad laws.

Phil McCarthy wrote:

1> Blogs: against monopoly

1> the songwriters/composers and recording artists do
1> and should have the exclusive right, i.e. monoply,
1> to control how their music is used and to make money from it.

Classic unsubstantiated and erroneous claim. This entire site is devoted to the growing body of evidence that what you just wrote is incorrect, McCarthy.

1> This doesn't suppress creativity, as one post mentioned - just
1> the opposite, it motivates people to come up with original
1> stuff. Incorporating someone else's music or literature or
1> whatever can be genius (usually isn't), but you gotta
1> get the license.

Classic illogic. Are you really suggesting that a show centered around a radio station and set in a particular time period should not have used the authentic music of the time period, McCarthy? You can't be serious.

I used to watch WKRP when it was in primetime in the 70s, so I was happy the show was just picked up by Antenna TV. I watched the first two episodes last night & I noticed the generic rock music that replaced the original music. It seemed to be done rather well. I'd prefer the original treatment but that's life and it's free TV. I don't agree that the show is ruined because of this change but perhaps the last time it ran in syndication the soundtrack was a different replacement than what is now used. In any case, it's still a good show and I think some are exaggerating the copyrighting issue as well as the "artistic integrity" angle. Jennifer is still hot and I like her tight-fitting outfits. That's the truly important thing.
Hopefully some very good news. Shout! Factory is releasing the entire series of WKRP in Cincinnati, apparently with most or all of the original music, very soon. It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com now.
P.S. The link to Amazon's WKRP product page: www.amazon.com/WKRP-In-Cincinnati-Complete-Series/dp/B00KYCA4QY

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