Can iTunes Resurrect Old Time TV?

By Richard Menta 10/24/05

I am a commuter. If that is hardly an earth shattering confession it does define a part of my life where I, like many other Americans, lose an hour or more of my life each day traveling to work. Presently that trip is made by car, but for several years the train into Manhattan was my mode of transportation.

Long commutes, in particular, can be dull. Once one has become bored of what is played in repetition on the radio or run through their personal CD or cassette collections what else is there to occupy the travel time?


The 30GB iPod Video is available on Amazon

As an MP3 scribe I discovered new content brought about by the ease of distribution supplied by the Internet. Some of this content came in the form of the better independent artists who have help me overcome the malaise of today's FM radio. It also came in the form of content not so new, popular radio programs of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's.

I listen to these shows almost every day as I drive into work. I find them no more dated than any old movie or television show. In fact, what surprised me most about these audio programs is that they turned out to be more literate than the two visual mediums I just mentioned. When you think about it this actually makes a lot of sense. These shows, whether comedy or action or drama, had to constantly convey visual concepts without the visual. They also had to convey it in an efficient way as there was no room for detailed verbal descriptions within a half-hour time slot.

The reason this old content lives for me - and why it is appropriate for the pages of MP3 Newswire - is because the MP3 format and the cheap distribution offered by the Internet saved it by making it conveniently available to a wide audience.

The growth of television in the 1950s sent this form of entertainment to the scrap heap. The television industry was built by the radio networks themselves who saw TV as the evolution of their existing business model. In their view radio dramas and comedies were just holding the fort until the technical limitations of broadcasting the visual and sound together were transcended. When that finally happened radio evolved into the all music and talk formats we have today.

The old radio shows disappeared, becoming the domain of nostalgic collectors. I am not one of those nostalgic collectors. I can't be nostalgic because the last of these programs vanished years before I was born.

What draws me to the old shows are these two facts. The first and most important is that they entertain me in my 21st century setting. The second is that the content is in the public domain and thus VERY cheap. For example, 96 half hour episodes of My Favorite Husband (Lucille Ball's radio show, which was literally I Love Lucy without Desi Arnaz, but with many of the famous bits that were reused a few years later for the TV program) can be purchased for $4.00 on eBay on average. That comes to four cents an episode!

Can the iPod Video Revive Old Time TV?

I went into my description above with the old time radio programs to illustrate how modern technology can revive old, but very viable content. There is another form of content - content that is not in the public domain but also has distribution limitations - that has the opportunity to be revived - old time television.

Programs like the Honeymooners or I Love Lucy will run on television ad infinitum, but there are hundreds of television shows from the 50's and 60's that have been crowded out of the syndication circuit by popular 70's, 80's and 90s television programs. Some of these shows are great, some are barely mediocre, but I think all deserve a reevaluation to see what gems we can uncover. In the context of all the middling contemporary shows that linger on the airwaves these days the best of old TV offer another option when nothing else is on the 300 cable channels we just surfed through.

Recently, I was invited by friends to attend the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention held last Friday at the Holiday Inn across from Newark Airport. The convention culminates each night with the live performance of three old radio episodes by surviving radio performers of the era.

Sharing my table was one of the performers Jeff David, who's voice is more recognizable to contemporary audiences by his TV commercial and voice over work (Jeff today is one of the in show announcers for Dateline and has hosted numerous PBS and History Channel documentaries). Also at the table were husband and wife team Fred and Ellen Berney who were video taping the evenings performances for posterity. Their business, Satellite Media Productions, does a lot of restoration work on old content including video. It was there Fred told me about his latest opportunity. This opportunity is where my article is going to.

Captain Zero

Fred was approached by a producer recently to digitize 27 high-quality kinescopes of a 1950's show he developed years ago called Captain Zero. Fred described the show as an American Dr. Who released a decade before that famed show appeared on British television.

The producer told Fred that he wants to sell the shows for $10 an episode, a price which Fred pointed out was far too much for the market. The end goal is to put these shows on DVD and sell them, but $270 for a single season of a 1950's show that few people remember is a bit unrealistic in my opinion as well as Fred's.

I asked Fred about Net distribution and asked him what he knew of the iPod Video which just hit stores a few days earlier. He had read about the iPod Video, but was unaware that iTunes was selling first run episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives for the new portable unit.

I told Fred that there was a window of opportunity here for old programs like Captain Zero. So far, Apple has only come to an agreement with Disney to deliver just a few of its popular TV shows to the iPod. All of the other TV studios are taking a wait and see attitude to see if this flies. What this means is that the shows presently on iTunes have little competition with regards to reaching a potentially large new iPod audience.

If Captain Zero was to be made available to iTunes immediately it would be one of just an extremely limited library of content. This would make the episodes very visible on that site as opposed to being lost in a white noise of thousands of programs (which will eventually happen if iTunes video sales prove successful).

I said to Fred that this producer could make far more money at $0.99 an episode through this distribution medium iTunes created, because early entrance into iTunes can generate significant volume, even if most of the sales are stimulated through nothing more than a camp curiosity by the consumer. The first step is to get this producer to re-think his $10 an episode plan.

Fred asked me how he could go about investigating this. I told him he would have to call Apple direct as I have no idea of their process or even of their strategy to expand iTunes' video content. I suspect that Apple will be open to the idea of older content as they have proven quite open to the independent music community for audio tracks for iTunes.

I have said for a number of years that online distribution is an ideal mechanism for older content whose delivery under traditional distribution mediums has not been very profitable, if even viable. As I wrote in my February 2002 article Online Movies, Taiwanese Law and the American Film Industry:

What is the ultimate goal here? To make every surviving piece of celluloid that exists available to the public. There are some wonderful movie classics like Josef Von Sterberg's Anatahan, Harold Lloyd's the Freshman and Ernst Lubitch's Trouble in Paradise that are no longer available on tape. The truth is there is not enough of an easily reached audience to justify the substantial copying and distribution costs via VHS and DVD.

The Net solves that problem, both because it is relatively cheap to digitize and stream movies online and because it can easily bring together disparate minions of like-minded viewers in the same way that eBay brings together like-minded collectors of the most obscure items.

This goes for old television programming too. There are many old shows that never made the syndication circuit, yet could draw viewers. We personally have explored most of the television episodes posted on MovieFlix.com and almost all the toy commercials on LikeTelevision.com. Most were aired long before we were born so they were mostly unknown to us, yet despite not being of our era we found them quite entertaining to watch. Such content doesn't work well under the traditional distribution formats used for VHS and DVD (whose going to buy and store 117 episodes of "The Trouble with Father"), but they work great as streamed entertainment for the Internet.

I hope Fred looks into my suggestion. It could be the start of something big.

Other MP3 stories:
Will the iPod Video concept sell? Notes
iPod Killers for Christmas 2005 Part I
iPod Killers for Christmas 2005 Part II


The 4GB iPod Nano is available on Amazon