Keep Circulating the Tapes
"I don't like the idea of something existing if I can't get a copy of it."
—Brad Jones, DVD-R Hell
There once was a show. You know, that show. It was a really good show. Too Good to Last? Perhaps. Or maybe it was something else; it's just as likely that it's the Nostalgia Filter speaking. Still, you'd love to relive the memories, and share it with your friends.
One problem: It's impossible.
Watch reruns? Record them? Of course you would... if it were on.
Buy the DVD? You'd already have it on pre-order... if it existed.
Watch it online? You'd bookmark it in a second... until the company that owns the series convinces the video provider that it's in their best interest to remove the content.
What's a fan to do? It isn't that you're setting out to break international copyright law; you'd be more than happy to pay to acquire it legally! At the same time, though, you realize that the market is too niche for a super-deluxe bells-and-whistles compilation DVD to be justifiably profitable, no matter how many online petitions your forum sends.
Keep Circulating the Tapes (a phrase attributed to Mystery Science Theater 3000) is an option of last resort. It's when a show you like is denied to you, except through methods of questionable legality — shady file-sharing sites, tape trading/buying... it's either that, or the show's likely to be Lost Forever outside of fan recordings and film company archives. It's also the rule rather than the exception for video games and other non-simple media, to the point where the Abandonware concept and Emulation were created to bring common sense into the situation (the Virtual Console, Playstation Network, GameTap, Steam, Good Old Games, and to a smaller extent Xbox Live Arcade are finally starting to remedy this situation with games, but it's still a long way to go).
After steam stops shooting out of your ears, the question you're asking is probably...why? Well, a typical answer is that the television companies (correctly or incorrectly) don't think there's enough of a market for it to be worth releasing them, but it's not always their fault... directly. An all-too-common cause is music rights. Why?
The tape circulators could've probably hazarded a guess, but absolutely nobody else saw the TV-on-DVD boom coming. TV on VHS had been tried, sure, but it wasn't even barely successful for even music-compilation heavyweights like Time-Life and Columbia House for several reasons:
- The cost of the tapes.
- The outrageous amounts of shelf space needed for even one season of a series; a 22-episode season of an hour-long series needed eleven VHS tapes to fit on, though two-per-tape was the standard even for 22-minute-without-commercials shows (for which five episodes could fit on a two-hour tape), which even carried over into some DVD releases.
- The fragile nature of the format, allowing for a $300 investment to be ruined by a hungry VCR or a fridge magnet.
- Up to the early 2000s, television syndicators did all they could to keep the public from buying a television series, basically so channels would continue to see reruns as valuable and pull in Ratings. As a result, only PBS documentaries were offered.
Even after the first wave started (thank HBO, specifically The Sopranos, for popularizing this wonderful thing of ours), they didn't sell nearly as well as they do now because of their frankly outrageous prices compared to today's. Additionally, copyright law is low, spooky voodoo, and licensing something like a song for your show, licensing it for reruns, and licensing it for home video are not the same thing. And nobody wanted to pay more money for something that they would, in all likelihood, never use ("Television shows? On home video? By the season? Nonsense."). So... here we are.
These situations are usually caused by licensing issues (Performance Licensing and Reproduction Licensing). In a nutshell, performance licensing is much easier to obtain (the licensing agencies get 3% of the DVD's revenue, in exchange for letting the distributors use a performance). Reproduction licensing is much more difficult to obtain, and can often involve long drawn-out negotiations with rights holders (sometimes many at once, and much worse if it was an older work that used many unlicensed tracks or clips). There are ways to get around these snags - cover versions of songs are considerably easier to get clearance for, and offending clips can sometimes be removed without impacting the narrative. Of course, if the show has no song rights issues, and the copyright holder's threatening legal action over your online copies of a show they haven't allowed you to buy legally... resume violent rage.
Compare No Export for You. May also happen as the net result of Screwed by the Network, especially while new episodes of said show are airing elsewhere. Whatever the reason, if the show has a small but sizable fanbase, these fans turn to the internet when any of these occurs, and if there's no official DVD release...well, their cries for help are heard by sympathizers and this Trope results. See also The Shelf of Movie Languishment.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: When posting a show, if you know where the show can be illegally obtained, don't post it. Just say that copies exist out there on the internet, and leave it at that.
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