Music Licensing Fees Keeping Shows off DVD

“Thirtysomething” finally on video, but where’s “Wonder Years”?

Last Updated: August 26, 2009 @ 11:17 AM

From the first, string-laden tracks laid down by Stuart Levin and W.G. “Snuffy” Walden, to recorded songs from well-known artists like Ray Charles and Rickie Lee Jones, “thirtysomething” was a series full of music.

But music is also the main reason why the groundbreaking drama by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick will only, finally, be issued on DVD on Tuesday — more than two decades after the hit series went off the air.

Licensing all that great music was expensive — $1 million for the project, according to one knowledgeble person — and very nearly prohibitively so.

“Both Ed and I tend to be forward-looking people," said Herskovitz in an email to TheWrap. "It was not like this was a thorn in our side – but every six or eight months, we’d say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why isn’t this out on DVD yet?’ and we’d call our attorney.”

As the studios have rushed to get TV series on DVD, a handful of well-known shows have been held up because licensing their music has been deemed too expensive or time-consuming.

On Oct. 6, for example, Fox will finally release season one of “Ally McBeal." "Cop Rock," the one year Steven Bochco experiment in cop camp, "China Beach" and "Cold Case," have all been delayed for similar reasons. (See sidebar of top shows not out on DVD).

Indeed, virtually all of “Thirtysomething’s” less popular running mates from the fall 1987 broadcast TV schedule, when it premiered, have been out on disc for some time, including CBS’ “Jake and the Fatman” and NBC’s “Crime Story.”

“Not only do you have to clear the rights with the publisher, but you also have to clear the master rights with the labels,” says Garson Foos, co-head of Shout Factory, which is distributing “thirtysomething” for studio MGM. “And in some cases, rights could be split up among three different publishers.”

Indeed, virtually all of “Thirtysomething’s” less popular running mates from the fall 1987 broadcast TV schedule, when it premiered, have been out on disc for some time, including CBS’ “Jake and the Fatman” and NBC’s “Crime Story.”

The studios have been aggressive in recent years in releasing scripted TV shows into the DVD market, since these titles sell well — even in a mature disc marketplace — and can command a higher price point and profit margin than theatrical movies.

According to Gord Lacey, founding editor of tvshowsondvd.com, while the studios tend to license music into perpetuity, paying for regions and timelines that, in many cases, they don’t need, smaller companies like Shout license more efficiently, signing deals that span five years and cover only North America, for example.

 

“That cuts their music-licensing costs by a lot,” he said.

Shout Factory, for example, will sell the first-season set of “thirtysomething” for $59.99 and hopes to move at least 100,000 units in the process.

In explaining the delay for "Ally McBeal," Fox officials noted that they didn’t want to put out the lawyer-themed dramedy, starring Calista Flockhart, without securing rights to all the music first.

“Audiences expected to hear a timeless classic or something completely new each and every week,” read a studio statement. “We understood the importance from the get-go and have worked hard to bring fans all of the original music.”

Likewise, the DVD releases of music-laden series “The Wonder Years,” from Fox, and Warner Bros’ “China Beach” have also been held up, with no release date set for either.

According to Lacey, “The Wonder Years” is “the Holy Grail” of music-heavy shows that haven’t been released on DVD yet.

“You can’t release that show without the music, and there’s so much music on it that has to be licensed.”

Then there’s “thirtysomething.”

Pioneering the way for today’s complex ensemble character dramas, four seasons worth of the show have sat largely dormant in the MGM vault, with only limited release through broadcast syndication and cable TV sales, since it signed off the ABC schedule in 1991.

For their part, Foos and his partners, who previously ran music label Rhino Records, have specialized in getting musically-hindered TV shows, including “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life,” into the DVD market.

“Our selling point is that we do all the leg work in getting the music cleared,” he explained. “We knock on the doors of the studios, saying, ‘Let us license your complicated shows that you don’t want to deal with.’”

Foos had his eyes on “Thirtysomething” for years, and was finally able to enter talks with MGM in late 2007 with the help of series producers Zwick and Herskovitz, who had long wanted to get the show out on DVD, too.

Finally getting all the music licensed for the series took from that point in time through the spring of this year.

“It’s an extremely time-consuming process, and you sometimes have to do a little detective work to track (rights-holders) down,” Foos said.

“Garson called me after we had finished putting together the ‘My So-Called Life’ set,” Herskovitz said. “We had discussions over the years with MGM and they had told us it was just too difficult to deal with the music, and he said, ‘Can you give me a try?’ "

It’s an expensive process, too. While revenue from CD sales continues to decline, Foos added that “rates for licensing music for film and TV have gone down very little.”

As for the licensing deals themselves, these come in all varieties, from flat-rate arrangements to those structured on a per-unit basis. Typically, a rights holder can expect about 10 cents a song on a major DVD release per disc sold.

And with some songs having multiple licensees (aka “sides”), Foos said a single episode of “Thirtysomething” could involve negotiations with 56 individual sides.

While the cost of licensing music on TV on DVD releases isn’t decreasing, overall DVD sales have been. And there’s also a revenue slide from the initial season-one disc release of a show to its season two DVD premiere — usually about 15%-20% — with some of the less avid series fans dropping out of the market.

Given these factors, Fox has released only one season of popular comedy “Malcolm in the Middle.” Universal has only put out one season of drama “American Dreams,” a series similarly full of original tracks.

For his part, Foos says he plans to eventually release all four seasons of “thirtysomething.”

“It’s the music licensing and the cost of music-licensing that holds these shows up,” he added. “We really encourage publishers to try to work collaboratively to understand the economic realities of the DVD business so that everybody can make money.”