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.