From Alexis Carrington to the New Girl – TV Series From Airwaves to Disk and Back Again

     |    Tuesday March 20th, 2012

By Andrew Horn

A few months ago I was substituting for the regular Variety correspondent here in Berlin and I turned up a small story about how the German tv station, ProSieben, had bought the American tv series New Girl.

It didn’t seem like a very big deal – a lot of what one sees on Germany tv is American tv shows so that in itself was not so significant. But what struck my attention was the fact that the show was bought barely two months after it’s premier, and immediately scheduled to begin in Germany two months after that. That was fast. Usually American series are broadcast a good year or two behind as shows are normally, and understandably, bought only after they prove themselves as winners.

My first encounter with this situation was in the 80s, when I visited a friend of mine who lived in Belgrade and his mother pounced on me to tell her what was going to happen in the next years on Dynasty. I thought that was cute and it was fun watching her gasp in excitement as I filled her head with expectations about Alexis and Krystal’s upcoming mud fight or Fallon being abducted by aliens.

When I moved to Germany a few years later, I had plenty to do adjusting to my new life and all the excitement of the Wall falling and the aftermath, so I didn’t really care what was going on American tv, never mind American shows on German tv. That is until Twin Peaks came out.

I had no idea about it, or what it was, until a friend of mine called to tell me someone had sent her vhs tapes of the first couple of shows. It was pretty impressive (at least in the first several episodes before it descended into soap opera – but that’s another story) and it became a sort of ritual to go every couple of weeks to my friend’s house to see the next arrivals from the post. Aside from everything else, it was also kind of fun knowing that we were among a very few over here getting to see it more or less as it was happening.

Ok, so that played itself out and I didn’t think about any of this anymore. Until The Sopranos happened.

Now, however, things were different and although the tv took it’s normal 1 to 2 years to get around to airing it, the home video tapes were appearing in certain select stores catering to English language customers, who were ordering them from the UK.

This was all well and good, particularly as we were getting shows at least concurrent, if not often before, the German tv showed them. And without the dubbing. And when dvd’s replaced the vhs, even the official German versions were carrying the original tracks. Needless to say this was also the case with movies now – you didn’t have to be confined to the “specialty stores” everything came with the English language track. But such video stores still had a place because it now had to do with their selection – as it always did anyway – more than just the language. It meant that even movies could arrive concurrent with the German theatrical release, sometimes before. Sometimes way before. And of course also where there was no German release at all.

This went on for some years. And I was enjoying it. That is, until my local video store was raided. And not just them. It seemed that a complaint was lodged by the chain stores as well as distributors – some of whom held rights to films that they had no current intention to even release(!) – that these specialty shops were engaging in unfair competition by offering the pure English language editions before the German versions came out. Suddenly tv shows like The Dresden Files, The Shield, and Mad Men disappeared off the shelf. Right in the middle of my viewing of course.

Now we have to remember that these were not pirate dvd’s, they were commercial rental dvd’s that came from the UK, or occasionally Sweden or the Netherlands, who might have gotten their rights and/or released their product before the Germans. So this is all within the EU, so shouldn’t shops here be able to buy them?

So filled with righteous indignation I called my lawyer who informed me that, yes indeed, they were allowed to buy them. We were allowed to buy them, like from Amazon UK or whatever. They just weren’t allowed to rent them. That’s the way the law went (so let’s not try and argue it) but basically the law was just not very actively enforced, especially since the regular stores weren’t participating in any of this, preferring – as you would imagine- to stock the official German versions for their German customers.

But why the complaint? Because think about it – now I don’t know about other cities, but here in Berlin the number of video stores that were engaging in this practice amounted to 4… well, possibly 6, and maybe, arguably, occasionally, one branch of the Berlin library system. And these places typically stock one copy of each film or tv show, so basically it seems that these complaining video chains and distributors feel threatened by between 4 and 7 copies of a given dvd in a city of – what? 6 or 7 million people? Most of whom prefer to see films or tv in their own language anyway?

Well don’t look at me for an answer. I don’t have one. And it came to pass somehow a few weeks later that the whole thing quietly blew over, and dvd’s began reappearing on the shelves. Could it be that logic actually won out? My video store owner wouldn’t tell me what was (or was not) worked out, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the combined might of a couple of boutique video stores beating down the big guns.

But what emerges here – aside from perhaps a certain amount of cultural imperialism – is the ever increasing notion of wanting everything NOW. Damn the laws, damn the distributors. Selfish? Sure. Spoiled? Yeah, well…?

Someone once asked me, as a filmmaker with product that is available in more than one country, wouldn’t I be angry if someone was selling my stuff outside their territory? At first thought, yes of course. But then I thought about it and figured, well, if they’re selling it then somebody’s buying it so what do I care where they get it as long as they get it? I still get paid either way. (Or perhaps more to the point, nobody’s paying me any royalties anyway so does it matter if this distributor is ripping me off or that distributor is ripping me off?)

But then I thought about it some more and thought, if Amazon is selling my dvd across borders and people are buying it in, say, Sweden or The Netherlands, or wherever there are people willing to watch it in original, that means that a local distributor might say, why bother taking this on if a part of the market is already being served without them risking any money on translation or marketing? And that means that I don’t get my sale to that territory and the chance to reach a broader audience outside just the English speakers.

As the producer of work, I want to make some money, so I want all those distributors to want to distribute it so they can pay me (at least my advance), not to mention being able to show that I can sell in as many territories as possible, so I can convince someone to finance me the next time. And it’s not just the me’s, it’s the majors, it’s anyone.

But as an audience – which I also very much am – I just want to see it and I don’t care where I get it as long as I get it and I don’t have to wait and feel excluded because my nominal territory didn’t get it yet.

Now while I’m standing here being schizophrenic, I am also having to confront the eventuality that dvd’s are not long for this world, so it might make some of these questions moot. On the other hand will the VOD or download platforms such as this one make things easier or just complicated in a different way? Just think about all those times we’ve gotten that message on YouTube, or some streaming site like HULU or even a video embedded in some article, where it says that this or that content is not available in your territory.

And of course this is what the whole piracy thing is feeding off of. Even if, for the moment, we exclude the money part of it on the supply end, on the receiving end it all comes down to we all just want to have what we want when we want it. Clearly the whole idea of territorial rights – which had a purpose once upon a time – has to be rethought now. The future is definitely out there somewhere, and we’re bound to find it somehow. But man, I don’t envy the people who are going to have to sort this one out.