October 14, 2006
Celebrated Too Soon? The Harsh Realities of Managing Copyrighted Material

Mama's Family has indeed been released on DVD, but fans have noticed that something is missing.

Since December 2005, I have chronicled the battle for fans of the 1980s situation comedy to finally have the show released on DVD. When I first wrote about it last year, I had stumbled on the Mama's Family online community, which consists of multiple sites that appear to have new communication on a daily basis, I was surprised to find (especially for a sitcom that ended more than 15 years ago and that hasn't exactly enjoyed canonical status by most TV critics, as far as I know). At the time, fans were petitioning to drive the show farther up the TV Shows on DVD listing of shows that people want released on DVD, and it had reached the Top 15 by that point.

Later in December, there were rumors that the show would be released on DVD. Finally, in June, they announced a release date. Then, "Gert Rides Again" that hasn't appeared in syndication for years but just recently started back on the i Network) have found that the episodes contained on the DVDs of the first season are not those that originally aired on NBC but are rather those that are currently used for syndication, meaning that they have about three minutes trimmed out of them.

Last week on TV Shows on DVD, Gord Lacey wrote that fans "were more than a little upset" at the discovery and had contacted Warner Brothers to ask them about their release of the cut episodes. According to the an automated response they said, "Warner Bros. does not own the rights to the original uncut episodes. We apologize for any confusion this may have created and we appreciate your continued support of Warner Home Video products."

However, Aaron Barta, who runs the Television Hits site for Mama's Family, decided to investigate. He contacted John Hamilton, son of MF producer Joe Hamilton and president of Joe Hamilton Productions, to ask about it. John wrote back, "I own the original episodes however, I don't believe I am allowed to release them under our agreement with Warner Bros."

The frustration, of course, sets in with this conundrum...Warner Bros. says that they don't own the rights to the episodes with the three extra minutes, while John Hamilton does and can't release them because of his deal with Warner Bros. Of course, for fans, the best scenario would have been if Warner Brothers had purchased the rights to those original episodes from Hamilton, but that obviously didn't happen.

The key point here is that fans really do notice these things and that, given the new media technologies that allow them to investigate such things, they are probably going to go the extra mile to figure out what corporate policy is not allowing them to get the content in the manner that they want it. In this case, it looks like it's going to be a deal where nobody profits, someone sits on the rights to the original shows, and fans lose in the end. And, of course, now that the syndicated episodes are released, someone will probably eventually come along to resolve it, just to offer fans the un-cut first season, so they can buy it all over again.

The whole situation is instructive both for monitoring the enthusiasm of the fan community and for how complicated these rights management issues can become.