For fans of the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, an affordable DVD set is a long time coming. Why are Lindsey and Sam so pricey in glorious digital form? Blame Deep Purple.
Fans of the beloved (if short-lived) TV series “Freaks and Geeks” were delighted to learn over the summer that the series would be released in its entirety on DVD in October. What might not have tickled them quite as much is the price tag: $120 for a mere 18 episodes.
Why so steep? According to Paul Feig, the show’s co-creator, a significant part of the expense is going toward making sure that all the music used on the original series is also on the DVD set.
Set in the late 1970s, “Freaks and Geeks” contained a healthy helping of vintage music to add flavor to each episode, usually by such stars of the era as Deep Purple, Van Halen, and Ted Nugent. Using those songs in a broadcast episode doesn’t come cheap, and attaching them to the episode in perpetuity via DVD is even pricer–and it’s one reason why some DVDs are so expensive.
In general, it costs money to use an existing piece of music for any purpose that might generate income for the user. In the case of a network TV show like “Freaks and Geeks,” NBC and its affiliates shared an annual flat fee to a music publisher’s association (usually BMI or ASCAP) for the right to use recorded music on the network’s shows.
But that’s just where the expense starts. It also must purchase synchronization rights, or the right to use an existing recording (as opposed to music commissioned specially) in the context of a movie, video, or TV show. That’s why most TV shows use incidental music that’s written and recorded in-house–and one reason why a show like “The Sopranos,” which uses nothing but existing songs for its soundtrack, are so expensive to produce (and why a DVD set of 13 “Sopranos” episodes costs $100).
Another variable is the fact that the cost of licensing music for use in DVDs varies widely. An unknown musician will naturally be thrilled to have a song featured in “The Sopranos,” and will allow it to be used for little or even no money. But that seldom happens on such a high-profile show; networks such as HBO routinely pay per-use licensing fees of anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 to feature prestigious musicians in their original programming, and subsequently, their video releases.
Add in miscellaneous costs (such as $70 per hour to have an expert run a copyright search on a song); expenses arising from where a song is placed (using it over the credits costs about five times as much as putting it in the background of a scene); and the right to use the song in a permanent medium like DVD instead of in a single broadcast (three times the cost), and it’s clear why existing music is used so seldom in TV shows, which are made on a shoestring compared to most movies.
All this expense results in either high prices for the end product or, in some cases, rather tacky shortcuts. People who rented cult favorites such as “Valley Girl” and “Slap Shot” on VHS after originally seeing them in theaters might have noticed that the soundtrack music wasn’t quite right. In both cases, generic music that resembled the Elton John and Psychedelic Furs songs that were in the original movies was substituted for the home-video editions (the “real” music was restored to the “Slap Shot” DVD). It’s a shortcut not unlike the one record labels use when they want to put out an oldies compilation on the cheap: Skip the original recording in favor a newly-made soundalike version, all to avoid paying expensive mechanical royalties.
It’s easy to see why the vast majority of TV shows are accompanied by commissioned scores or ultra-cheap “buy-out” library music. But in the case of “Freaks and Geeks,” there can be little dispute that the producers of the DVD made the right aesthetic call, even if the added expense has to be passed down to consumers.