Opinion: It’s alarming when TV shows and movies vanish off streaming services, but there’s a long history of this

If you grew up primarily accessing TV and film via streaming, maybe it was easy to assume all of it would be permanently available, at your fingertips. — Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Last week, HBO Max quietly pulled a number of TV and film titles off its streaming service. They have been removed indefinitely, as far as anyone knows.

While none were major hits, they’re not obscure either. They’re of recent vintage and feature big-name stars. Some of the shows affected: Mrs. Fletcher starring Kathryn Hahn, Camping starring Jennifer Garner and David Tennant, and the Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese-produced music industry drama Vinyl. On the movie side, the list includes An American Pickle starring Seth Rogen, The Witches starring Anne Hathaway, Superintelligence starring Melissa McCarthy and Charm City Kings starring Teyonah Parris.

As far as audiences are concerned, they’re all just gone. For now. Maybe forever.

Removing them was a cost-cutting move from the newly merged Warner Bros Discovery. How does this save money? One theory: Pull a title off the market and there are no residuals that need to be paid to actors, writers and directors. Yes, streaming services are obligated to pay residuals. Perhaps these TV shows and movies weren’t enough of a draw — to current or potential new subscribers — to be considered “worth” whatever HBO Max was paying in residuals.

But to have titles just disappear like that ... well, it’s alarming.

I saw it phrased this way on Twitter: “Absolutely insane that a lot of media will in fact just start vanishing off the face of the earth in the next decades, not because they were lost to time but because they aren’t available on any streaming services, nobody owns a hard copy and all the torrent links are dead.”

It’s good to be worried! People are right to be worried.

Movie studios and TV networks are not — and never were — in the preservation business, and that’s true of streaming platforms, as well.

Often this is framed as a new problem — one specifically tied to streaming and the elimination of physical releases. But if you go back further, to when TV and film only existed in hard copies, these kinds of losses were still happening in some shape or form. It’s been a depressing reality since the dawn of cinema.

If you grew up primarily accessing TV and film via streaming, maybe it was easy to assume all of it would be permanently available, at your fingertips. I get it. The Internet is forever — or so we’ve been told! But the history is brutal and we’re seeing how it’s repeating itself.

So let’s look at that history. The Film Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Martin Scorsese, reports that film archivists estimate “half of all American films made before 1950 and more than 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.”

Those are staggering numbers; the vast majority of silent films made are just gone. Modern audiences rarely give much thought to silent films, but maybe it’s because so few have survived. “It’s a lost style of storytelling, and the best of the films are as effective with audiences today as they were when they were initially released,” archivist David Pierce told The Associated Press.

What happened? Decay and neglect are often the culprits. Celluloid degrades after time, especially the nitrate film stock used during the first half of the 20th century. Nitrate was also highly flammable and led to vault fires.

Storage — especially the right kind of storage — costs money and sometimes things were just thrown away.

The DuMont Television Network was prominent in the ‘40s and early ‘50s and notable for its variety show Cavalcade of Stars with Jackie Gleason, which featured sketches that were the precursor to The Honeymooners. But much of the DuMont output (nearly 200 TV series in all) is — you guessed it — gone. Or rather, discarded to a watery grave.

Those early Gleason shows “were taken care of in a most unique and swift fashion,” TV actress Edie Adams told the Library of Congress. She and her husband Ernie Kovacs both worked at the network in the ‘50s. Her testimony is on the Library of Congress website and it’s a fascinating read. Here’s what she says happened:

“In the early ‘70s, the DuMont Network was being bought by another company and the lawyers were in heavy negotiations as to who would be responsible for the library of DuMont shows currently being stored in the facility — who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature controlled facility, take care of copyright renewal, etc. One of the lawyers said he would ‘take care of it’ in a ‘fair manner’ — he took care of it, all right.

“At 2 am the next morning, he had three huge semis back up to the loading dock ... filled them with all the stored kinescopes and two-inch video and drove them to a waiting barge in New Jersey, took them out on the water, made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped them in the Upper New York Bay! Very neat... no problem!”

Whether TV shows and films exist as physical copies in a vault or digital copies stored on servers or on drives that become obsolete within a decade, as Adams’ story makes clear, archiving is not cheap.

We’re living in the Age of the Great Reboot; you’d think that would work as some kind of safety net. And maybe it will. But not every piece of IP — intellectual property destined to be remade — is actually worth the trouble. And when costs are being cut, executives rarely shy away from coldblooded decisions.

That’s always been true in Hollywood. But with streaming suddenly hitting a bumpy road financially, we’ll likely see even more of it to come. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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