Sullied by Syndication?27 Oct, 2005 By: Brendan Howard
One look at all the “uncut,” “director's cut” and “extended” tags on DVD packaging, and it's clear customers want the whole enchilada. If they're buying it for their collections, they want it complete.
With TV DVD, what fans usually don't want are syndicated versions. Owners of shows sell syndicated versions to stations to reair, and they sometimes have to trim scenes and music because of rights issues and a need for more commercials.
Why, then, are some suppliers releasing syndicated versions on DVD? They've got answers.
Lions Gate Home Entertainment has released syndicated episodes of “Alf” for first- and second-season sets. Marketing director Kajsa Vikman said the supplier had both versions. “We basically decide on which master is going to be the best quality,” Vikman said. “I know that, for some ‘Alf' fans, the syndicated version was a bit of an issue. But we went with that decision because the syndicated version was a better-produced show; it's cleaner and tighter and better edited. It was the version the creators preferred.”
Vikman also played down the differences between syndicated and broadcast versions. “It varies for different episodes, but it's like a minute [on ‘Alf'],” she said.
The difference can be as little as seconds or completely unnoticeable, according to Marc Rashba, VP of catalog and television marketing for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Software is sometimes used to speed up an episode to fit a smaller time slot, while losing none of the footage.
Also, just because a show comes out on DVD in syndicated versions doesn't mean it will in future installments. The recent first-season set of Carsey-Werner's “The Cosby Show” from UrbanWorks Entertainment was syndicated. Future seasons, though, will have broadcast versions.
Missing pieces, mislabeling
Despite the best intentions of suppliers and the wishes of fans, sometimes it's not possible to release broadcast versions.
“We're not in the business of releasing shortened versions,” Rashba said. But he described at least one situation, with a season of “Married … With Children,” that required the use of syndicated versions. “We didn't physically have the elements for the broadcast version,” he said.
Another Sony release that included the syndicated cut was a classic series, and the vault paperwork said the episodes were original network cuts. On two of them, however, the teaser was missing and fans pointed it out. Rashba said Sony corrected future pressings of the set and offered to swap the new versions with fans who'd bought the syndicated one.
“If there's a question, we have a number of people who were here 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “If it's a library that's acquired, we talk to them.”
Many shows have music that wasn't included in contracts and can't be included on DVD without permission. Sometimes that permission is free, sometimes it's expensive, and sometimes it's impossible to get.
“In some seasons, we'd have to swap out music, because to license music would be too expensive,” said Bob Dubelko, president of Carsey-Werner, which has such sitcoms as “That '70s Show,” “Roseanne” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.”
Syndicated versions already have the offending music replaced, so to use original episodes with new music would require expensive new editing, he said.
“We have to look at each season of each series,” Dubelko said. “Can we put this out in a cost-effective manner? We do want to make money.”
Syndication also fuels TV studios as DVD probably never will. “We're going to do maybe 400,000 units on the first-season DVD,” Dubelko said. “We have 5 million people a day watching our syndicated show. The way we look at it, DVD is an additional revenue stream and a marketing tool.”
Rabid fans aren't only buyers
“Ninety-five percent of people who buy TV DVD don't care [about cut shows],” Dubelko said. “Five percent are diehard fans of the DVD medium. Our biggest seller right now is ‘That '70s Show,' and it doesn't have the original music. It has sold a ton of units.”
To stave off an outcry, studios are reaching out to the Internet to let fans know about syndicated cuts.
“As long as you talk to the fans, it works,” Rashba said. “We're faced with the decision sometimes of not putting it out at all or doing it with syndicated. In the end, whether it's a music issue or an episode issue, it's incumbent on the studio to communicate it.”
Studios reach out to hardcore fans through Web sites like Gord Lacey's TVShowsOnDVD.com, which has a user-submitted “Alterations” list with changes on TV DVD.
Lacey argues fans are happier when they know alterations have been made, pointing out a disclaimer on Rhino Home Video's My Favorite Martian: The Complete Second Season: “The following [four] episodes are presented in their shorter syndicated version. After an extended search, the original masters could not be located.”
Lacey's analogy illustrates the point: “Let's say your parents go away for the weekend. When they call, it's better to tell them the house may be a mess. It helps prepare you.”