Chris Anderson: Those of you who have seen my speeches on the legal dimensions of the Long Tail know that I consider the absurdly complicated and expensive process of rights clearance to be the primary barrier to unlocking the latent Long Tail value in content archives.

The example I usually give is WKRP in Cincinnati, not because there’s necessarily a lot of value in that 1970s sitcom, but because it’s often cited as one of the hardest TV series to clear. Since it was set in a radio station, there are dozens of songs playing in the background of each episode. To release the series on DVD would require clearing the rights to each of those songs, which is too expensive and time-consuming for anyone to consider.

Yet today comes news that WKRP in Cincinnati is indeed being released on DVD. How did they do it? Read the following, from Wired’s Listening Post blog, and weep:

The series will finally be released on DVD on April 24th, but fans are already irate.  The music originally included in the show has been replaced by generic muzak in order to placate the almighty copyright gods, who would otherwise have prevented the series from being released by (apparently) demanding so much licensing money as to render the whole project unfeasible.

Here’s an account of the situation from the guy whose job it was to replace the offending musical compositions in order to pave the way for the series’ release on DVD:

"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…

"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."

Note: I do think that musicians should be paid for their work, if that’s what they want. The problem lies with the convoluted rights clearance process, which imposes its costs mostly in delay and uncertainty, depriving both artists and fans of value from archived content. Nobody wins when WKRP in Cincinnati is released with a muzak soundtrack!

Via the Long Tail