Last Chance To See was a BBC radio documentary series – which later became a book – co-written and presented by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, in which they made trips around the globe in the hopes of getting a glimpse of species which were on the verge of becoming extinct. This was a rare opportunity to encounter things that were about to disappear forever.
While ecology and entertainment are two admittedly rather different spheres, nowadays it feels that the modern age is one in which access to some things is getting more difficult, rather than easier. The streaming era is proving not to be the panacea which it was once vaunted to be, and is certainly not the transformative experience for not only viewing, but also access to material. Some companies are trying to hasten the death of physical media, like the recent announcement that Disney will soon be stopping the release of DVDs and Blu-rays in Australia, in a bid to bolster its try and online digital presence, by making access to some content exclusively via Disney+.
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However, streaming services appear to be having something of an existential crisis. Taking Disney+ as an example, there was a recent purge of content from the platform, including original productions unavailable through any other channels of distribution, such as physical media. One of the casualties was a sequel series to the Ron Howard movie Willow, which was only up for a total of six months, before being taken off ostensibly for a tax write-off, although there are suspicions that the move is actually part of a measure to stop having to pay residuals to production team and cast alike, a ploy which is a major part of the action being taken jointly by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA.
Similar tactics are afoot elsewhere, with Paramount+ having also enacted a similar purge, removing some exclusive content like Star Trek: Prodigy and Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies – unlike with Disney, however, something of an olive branch is being held out here, as efforts are currently underway to give the Trek series a new streaming home, and the latter show making its way to VOD, as well as getting a DVD release. In the case of Star Trek: Prodigy, it poses rather an interesting question about the form of IP protectionism which has been used as a selling point for each streaming brand, positioning themselves as the exclusive home of certain content, only to paint themselves into a corner as the economic situation has changed.
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Paramount+ has been busily pitching itself as the home of all Star Trek, having already scored a major own goal with its fanbase-inflaming move of pulling Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season from Netflix at the eleventh hour, before they had rolled Paramount+ out to all global territories, meaning many fans were denied legal access, and opening the door to potential piracy. By having dropped Star Trek: Prodigy from its roster, Paramount+’s claims now seem rather hollow. In a rather significant about-face, Disney now says that it is open to licensing content to other streaming platforms, which is a move also underway by Warner Bros. Discovery, who are in the process of holding talks about Netflix buying HBO series previously exclusive to the studio’s Max streamer.
Netflix, meanwhile, has had its own hullabaloo to deal with, from a recent threat that the entire run of sitcom Arrested Development might be leaving the service, leaving both the ‘Netflix Original’ fourth and fifth seasons without an outlet, to the news that their Oscar-winning feature The Power of the Dog would be removed, without it then being available elsewhere. It seems that retrenchment and mergers will be the order of the day, with the streaming business model as it currently stands apparently increasingly unworkable. NBC’s Peacock is on track to lose $3 billion in 2023 alone, and even filmmaker James Cameron has been expressing his opinion that the streaming service model has now come to resemble “a Ponzi scheme”.
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So, with brand exclusivity looking to no longer be de rigueur, and the prospect of your favourite things disappearing from online platforms either due to contractual wrangling, or due to tax-based incentives, consumers are understandably now getting increasingly nervous about the prospects of access to content becoming evermore limited. And so far, discussions about this have predominantly been focused on more recent productions. Whither the future of archive material, which is equally – if not actually more – likely to languish away in the vaults, awaiting a platform to get exposure? There are some opportunities out there to be had, but the digital door is not necessarily as open as for newer properties.
One of the bigger proponents of screening vintage stuff was in the earlier days of satellite and cable TV, when Bravo proudly promoted itself with the slogan ‘Timewarp Television’. Their schedules had a significant amount of older programming in the 1990s, giving some shows from the 1960s and 1970s a rare outing in their entirety. More recently, channels like That’s TV, Legend and the sadly-defunct Forces TV have taken up the reins, the former airing series like Till Death Us Do Part, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and The Benny Hill Show, the subject matter and content of which would most probably make the more mainstream outlets balk at giving them airtime, due to prevailing attitudes of the time when these were made being markedly different.
ITV and the BBC have also done their fair share of giving the viewers ‘another chance to see’ some classic programming, no doubt due to their digital footprint needing something to fill up the broadcast hours. As well as BBC Two having done a summer of sketch comedy shows, with episodes of Big Train, Naked Video and the like, the Corporation’s 1980 miniseries of Oppenheimer is about to be repeated on BBC Four, along with I, Claudius having another screening as part of a season about Ancient Rome. Yet there still seem to be few venues on regular TV for the far more eclectic and rather less headline-worthy candidates, programming which is of perhaps rather more niche interest.
Notably standing out rather like a beacon in this respect has been Talking Pictures TV, an independent archive film and television channel, which was launched back in 2015 and has been very steadily building up its audience share by offering something distinctly different, and harder to find elsewhere. Talking Pictures TV’s USP is focusing upon the nostalgia and vintage market, offering a welcome venue for movies and TV shows which would most likely not be transmitted elsewhere due to their admittedly narrower appeal. Their championing of older material has also shone a spotlight upon restoration work, as well as the tracking down of lost media and bringing it to the public.
Of course, channels can sadly go off air – like the previously mentioned Forces TV – and the pipeline for seeing this kind of older content can start to dry up. Being a relative minnow, Talking Pictures TV feels as though it could be particularly at risk and vulnerable. To avoid the vagaries and vicissitudes of the current climate and the potential impacts on streamers and broadcast channels alike, physical media seems in some ways like a safer option, as DVDs and Blu-rays won’t simply disappear off your shelves due to legal wranglings or for the sake of saving money during a particular financial year. Real, tangible products you can own and keep, rather than having temporary access, which can all change in a moment, like the salutary tale of the BBC Store’s closure in 2017.
Perhaps the bastion for nearly three decades for serving up the arcane, unfamiliar and simply long-since forgotten was Network Distributing. The brainchild of Tim Beddows, the company had a humble beginning, starting out in 1997 with the release of two VHS tapes of old Public Information Films acting as a platform for bigger and better things. From there, Network – originally an offshoot of Virgin – carefully built a reputation for delivering us a mix of well-loved and popular material, mixed in with more obscure offerings. By striking deals with both ITV and the BBC, Network was able to build up a respectable catalogue of titles, and garner the interest of archive content aficionados.
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Series which had all but disappeared from view – if not the public’s consciousness – were now given a whole new lease of life, with unlikely titles like The Corridor People, Gideon’s Way and The Strange World Of Gurney Slade unexpectedly being made available to buy, seemingly against all the odds. TV was not the only source of material, as Network managed to also make a deal with StudioCanal, giving them access to a wealth of British cinema. Not content with that, Network’s endeavours also stretched to getting independently-owned material for release, from the likes of animation studio Halas and Batchelor.
Perhaps the biggest weapon in Network’s arsenal was that it was not just looking to raid the archives and put stuff out for sale regardless of its condition. Instead, Network would put a considerable amount of time, money, effort and energy into making sure that things were presented in the best possible state. A major part of Network’s goals was in restoration and in preservation, as some studios and media companies were not always as fastidious about looking after their legacies. It was a sign of quality, care and attention to have the Network logo on a release, and their work went far beyond the simple confines of an Amaray case. For example, the new masters of StudioCanal’s films which Network created were then made available to companies like Talking Pictures TV to licence for broadcast.
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In trying to find new ways to make archive content available and accessible to the general public, 2020 saw the launch of their very own streaming service, Networkonair. A gimmick of theirs was to present themed ‘nights’, packaging different programming from the likes of defunct ITV franchisee ABC, complete with authentic period commercials and specially-recorded links. The untimely passing of founder Beddows in November 2022 was a real blow, as his had been the true driving force behind so much of the company’s aspirations and ambitions, but a statement at the time from Network stated “the whole Network team understood Tim’s dreams for the future of the business and we are committed to delivering that dream, and building upon his legacy for our stakeholders and customers”.
Alas, this was not to be, and only six short months after the loss of Beddows, his dream would suffer a similar fate, as news emerged on Wednesday May 31st 2023 that Network had sadly entered liquidation. Its loss was keenly felt, as it had done so much over a 25-year span to liberate material from out of the vaults. Beddows’ partner Juan Veloza would release a statement in July 2023, saying despite their best efforts, Network faced insurmountable challenges, and in the present economic environment it became clear that it would be impossible to continue trading, hence the winding down of the firm. To say it sent shockwaves throughout the community of vintage media collectors would be something of an understatement.
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Vain hopes still linger that someone, somewhere will pick up the mantle and see Network continue in some form, but with liquidators looking for expressions of interest in the business and assets, it seems unlikely that Network will rise from the ashes and live to fight another day, at least in anything close to its original form. The book may be closing on Network and an age of archival access, but we can only pray that someone else out there has the same kind of zeal and passion Beddows had. There are some small green shoots, such as in the form of Kaleidoscope, a non-profit organisation which has hunted down and restored lost TV material since 1987, and recently started releasing its own DVD range, with series like 1956’s The Tony Hancock Show and 1963’s Hancock, both unseen since original transmission.
However, this is a small scale operation in comparison, and while its efforts are laudable and welcome, Kaleidoscope is not best placed to take over from Network, leaving a sizeable gap in the market yet to be filled. With big streamers unlikely to take a chance on putting out far less commercially viable content with a more limited appeal, and no other makers of physical media in a dwindling marketplace seeming likely to take over, then for some archival film and TV, we could have already had our last chance to see.