Opinion: It’s alarming when TV shows and movies disappear from streaming services, but there’s a long history about it
Last week, HBO Max quietly pulled a number of TV and movie titles from its streaming service. They have been deleted indefinitely, as far as is known.
While neither were major hits, they aren’t obscure either. They are from a recent vintage and feature big name stars. Some of the shows involved: Mrs Fletcher with Kathryn Hahn, Camping starring Jennifer Garner and David Tennant, and the music industry drama produced by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese Vinyl. On the movie side, the list includes An American pickle with Seth Rogen, The witches with Anne Hathaway, Superintelligence with Melissa McCarthy and Charm of the kings of the city with Teyonah Parris.
As far as the audience is concerned, they all just left. For the moment. Maybe forever.
Removing them was a cost-cutting decision by Warner Bros. Discovery’s new merger. How does this save money? One theory: Take a title off the market and there’s no residual to pay actors, writers and directors. Yes, streaming services are obligated to pay residuals. Perhaps these TV shows and movies weren’t appealing enough – to current or potential new subscribers – to be considered “worth” all that HBO Max was paying in residuals.
But seeing titles disappear like that…well, it’s alarming.
I saw it like this on Twitter: “Absolutely insane that many media outlets actually start to disappear from the face of the earth in the next few decades, not because they were lost in time, but because they are not available on any streaming services, no one owns a hard copy, and all torrent links are dead.
It’s okay to worry! People are right to worry.
Movie studios and TV networks are not – and never have been – in the preservation business, and that goes for streaming platforms as well.
This is often touted as a new issue, specifically related to streaming and the disposal of physical releases. But if you go back further, to the days when TV and movies only existed on paper, these types of losses were still happening in one form or another. This has been a depressing reality since the dawn of cinema.
If you grew up accessing mostly TV and movies via streaming, it might have been easy to assume that it would all be available all the time, right at your fingertips. I understand. The Internet is forever – or so we’ve been told! But history is brutal and we see how it repeats itself.
So let’s look at this story. The Film Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Martin Scorsese, reports that film archivists estimate that “half of all American films made before 1950 and more than 90 percent of films made before 1929 are lost forever.”
These are staggering numbers; the vast majority of silent films made simply disappeared. Modern audiences rarely place much importance on silent films, but that may be because so few have survived. “It’s a lost style of storytelling, and the best films are as effective with audiences today as they were when they were first released,” archivist David Pierce told The Associated Press.
What happened? Rot and neglect are often the culprits. Celluloid degrades over time, especially the nitrate film used during the first half of the 20th century. Nitrate was also highly flammable and caused vault fires.
Storage – especially the right kind of storage – costs money and sometimes things were just thrown away.
The DuMont Television Network was prominent in the 1940s and early 1950s and notable for its variety show Cavalcade of stars with Jackie Gleason, which featured early sketches of Honeymooners. But much of DuMont’s output (nearly 200 TV series in all) is — you guessed it — gone. Or rather, thrown into a watery grave.
These early Gleason shows “have been picked up in the most unique and fastest way,” TV actress Edie Adams told the Library of Congress. She and her husband Ernie Kovacs both worked at the network in the 1950s. Her testimony is on the Library of Congress website and it is fascinating reading. Here’s what she says happened:
“In the early 1970s, the DuMont Network was being purchased by another company, and lawyers were in intense negotiations over who would be responsible for the library of DuMont shows currently stored at the facility – who would bear the cost of storing them in the facility. a temperature-controlled facility, take care of copyright renewals, etc.
“At 2 a.m. the next morning he brought three huge tractor-trailers back to the loading dock … loaded them with all the stored kinescopes and the two-inch video and drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey , took them out on the water, turned right at the Statue of Liberty and threw them into Upper New York Bay! Very neat…no problem!
Whether TV shows and movies exist as physical copies in a vault or as digital copies stored on servers or disks that become obsolete within a decade, as Adams’ story makes clear, the archiving is not cheap.
We live in the era of the great reboot; you would think it would work as a sort of safety net. And maybe it will. But not all of the IP — the IP meant to be redone — is worth it. And when costs are reduced, leaders rarely hesitate to make decisions in cold blood.
This has always been true in Hollywood. But with streaming suddenly hitting a rocky road financially, we’ll likely see even more to come. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service