Television Shows Need Restoration Too


Shout! Factory is understandably getting hammered by fans for making a season 1 DVD of Rhoda where over half the episodes are syndicated versions. (The only upside for the historically-minded is that because these are really old syndication prints, it gives an idea of how filmed shows were edited for syndication before digital editing technology existed: because the edits had to be done directly on film, they were incredibly clumsy and obvious.) The company has recently released three filmed shows under license from Fox where the prints are in poor condition: not just Rhoda, but Room 222, where the prints are all uncut but mostly look terrible, and The Paper Chase, mostly beat-up old prints. In the case of all three shows, there are a couple of episodes that look the way the show could look: one or two episodes of Rhoda look gorgeous and pristine, while the others range from fair to poor. It’s a reminder that television shows, no less than movies, are in need of substantial restoration work, but nobody wants to pay to do the work that’s required.

Up until the ’90s, filmed shows were edited as well as shot on film, and most of them were on 35 mm film, just like features. If you take the original negatives of a filmed show and do proper restoration work on them, to get the original colours and look of the film, they can look absolutely beautiful. Paramount has done that with some of its filmed properties; it’s why the early episodes of Cheers look better than the later ones, because the early ones were shot and cut on film, and they look pristine and vibrant. But it costs a lot of money to do that; restoring a full season of 25-minute episodes is the cost equivalent of restoring several feature films. And while some shows have been properly restored, or at least remastered from good prints, many more have not. Before its collapse, MTM probably paid to restore its most famous property, The Mary Tyler Moore Show; it almost certainly didn’t do the same kind of work on its other properties, because while Mary Tyler Moore episodes mostly look great, Bob Newhart Show and St. Elsewhere episodes range from good to terrible, and Rhoda, we now know, is an absolute mess.

With the decline in DVD sales (and Blu-Ray isn’t going to help TV-on-DVD much, particularly catalogue titles) and the overall decline in purchasing power, doing a full-scale restoration on old television shows is even less feasable than it used to be. Back in its early days, Shout! actually released the first season of the obscure The Bill Cosby Show with the film prints properly restored; it cost them plenty of money and the set didn’t sell (the second and final season has never been released). They and other companies have clearly made the decision that it’s only cost-effective to release shows from surviving video masters, rather than paying to have new masters created from the original 35 mm prints. But as fan anger over Rhoda demonstrates, when you depend on the existing video masters, you can wind up with a low-quality product.

The whole thing demonstrates how television is still the weak sister, kicked-around cousin, whatever, of feature film. Most companies accept that they can’t release a movie, no matter how old, without creating a new video master from the best surviving film elements. Once DVD came in, they mostly accepted that old video/TV masters wouldn’t be good enough for the new medium. Yet these same companies — studios and independents — will release TV shows from whatever masters they have lying around. And that probably is the only economically feasible way to release some of these shows. But because there’s no movement to restore TV shows the way Martin Scorsese and others have lobbied to restore older films, it means that some TV shows only exist in poor-quality versions, except for a few good prints that provide a tantalizing glimpse of what might be.

Ironically, videotaped shows sometimes wind up looking better on DVD than filmed shows, because while tape can’t look as good as film, it also can’t look as bad as a bad film print, and doesn’t need as much restoration work to get it looking the way it should.


Television Shows Need Restoration Too

  1. I remember some of the Rhoda episodes looking like absolute crap back when WTN ran them about 15 years ago, so the DVD issues aren’t surprising, just shameful. Shame on you, Fox.

    Sony’s Barney Miller sets look decent at least. Not great, but miles ahead of the syndicated shows that Prime/Dejaview used to run; the big difference is visible in the opening (film) shot of the skyline, but I remember episodes as late as the fifth season that just looked blurry and faded.

    Did Taxi get cleaned up? I remember the CBC prints looked so much grimier than when I caught the shows later on (TNN/Deja).

  2. Actually, the “We’re not a major studio” look of MTM syndicated episodes dates all the way back to when “Mary Tyler Moore” went off network in 1977 (back when most shows still waited for the network runs to end before going to the local channels). In New York, WNBC won the bidding war for syndication rights — ararity since the three network stations normally did not make a major play for re-runs, leaving those to the three independent stations. So the rights deal here (and in the other major markets) was for a pretty good amount of cash, and in the nation’s No. 1 market, you’d expect pristine prints to be sent for airing.

    But even running those episodes on the state-of-the-art RCA equipment at Rockefeller Center, the prints MTM sent to Ch. 4 were dark and often with slightly muffled audio, as if they were from second- or third-generation prints being sent through 10-year old telecines. That problem was lessened a few years later when stations started getting the episodes on videotape (and come to think of it, just about the time Grant Tinker was settling in at 30 Rock as the new head of NBC — he couldn’t have liked those crappy prints to be on his local station). bBut compared to the syndication prints the major studios sent out, MTM’s stuff always looked like they were cutting corners.

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