August 21, 2011
Well, they’re at it again.
In a way, I feel like I can measure the history of this blog on the timeline of the neverending clusterfuck that is The Fugitive on home video. The aurally mutilated second season debuted in June 2008, only six months after I opened the doors here, and my editorial on the subject was one of the first pieces to attract the attention of anyone . . . well, anyone other than my parents, basically.
Since then, Fugitive producer Alan Armer, who I quoted in that piece, has died. CBS continued the ignominious DVD release of The Fugitive, issuing a partially corrected version of the first bogus volume by mail only and then mangling the remainder of the second and third seasons. The fourth and final season came out intact, all but proving Jon Burlingame’s well-researched theory that CBS’s brow-scratching over the Capitol Music Library was the source of the butchery. And yet, CBS never saw fit to issue a full apology or explanation for its sins. And me: I’ve mostly stayed out of muckraking and consumer affairs reporting, and tried to avoid feuds like those I started with internet knuckle-draggers Paul Mavis (still the resident reactionary over at DVD Talk) and Ron Epstein (still the proprietor of the world’s slowest-loading internet forum), because, as you can tell from those parenthetical follow-ups, they don’t accomplish much.
Now there comes news that CBS will be repackaging all 120 episodes of The Fugitive into a pricy box with a stupid subtitle (“The Most Wanted Edition”) for Christmas. There will be a disc of unspecified extras and a bonus CD of uncertain content. But CBS’s press release leaves the big question unanswered: will the original soundtracks be restored or will the abominable Mark Heyes synthesizer sonatas continue to tramp all over the fuge’s flight?
I don’t have that answer. I heard this box set was in the works back in February but, once again, no one at CBS would return my calls, so I haven’t reported on it in this space. The original intent, I think, was to restore the original music . . . but six months is a long time, and who’s to say that the same idiots who fucked it up the first time haven’t struck again?
Either way, CBS has already blown in it one sense, by failing to address the issue up front. Once again, they’ve insulted and annoyed fans by implying that the music just doesn’t matter. Right now it’s a lose-lose situation: if the Heyes “music” is still there, then the box set is pointless; if the original music is back, then CBS has flubbed its best chance to win back some of the fans’ good will that went on the run, along with Pete Rugolo’s classic cues, three years ago. If it turns out that the Rugolo music is all back where it belongs, then that’s a big win – but I suspect fans have been primed to turn surly over the amount of time it’s taken, and the double-dipping that will be required of many of them. The usually amiable blogger Ivan Shreve thinks it’s all a plot “to screw the fans over one final time” – and that’s even if the new set includes the original music!
I’m certainly not that pessimistic. If The Fugitive becomes available again in its original form, that’s all that matters, and I’ll be the first to forgive CBS for all the screw-ups that occurred along the way. (Although, it certainly would’ve been satisfying had the release come with a little public crow-eating from the craven executive who commissioned the replacement scores.) The real losers here will be the faithless who shrugged, decided that the synthescythed episodes were as good as it would ever get, and forked their cash over to CBS for those worthless volumes. And you know what? They deserve to get screwed. If something’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. If the DVD re-release does fix the music, then it will be a rare case where those of us who complained and refused to shell out for a disgraceful hatchet job are fully vindicated. And if the new DVDs are still Heyesified? Well, better to never see The Fugitive at all than to see it in that state.
Now: Explain to me why this set won’t be on Blu-ray?
You may have inferred from the above that I’m a hawk when it comes to image and audio quality issues. That’s a position that one could take for granted in the glory days of the digital home video era. But lately, as streaming video gains in popularity, I’ve begun to feel ever more lonely out here on my purist island.
I touched on this when I reported on some of Netflix’s alarming decisions with regard to physical media a few months ago, but it needs to be spelled out front and center: Streaming video is rolling back the quality benchmarks established by DVD and Blu-ray to something a lot closer to the days of VHS and TV syndication. Netflix and Hulu have become a dumping ground for substandard video encodes that would’ve been rejected by any major DVD label. The technology itself is dependent on bandwidth variables which fall outside the control of anyone who finds mid-film interruptions or image quality downgrades unacceptable. The supply of streaming-only exclusives – rare movies and TV shows that missed out on a disc release – has slowed to a trickle. No major streaming provider is supplying bonus features created for disc releases - even though it’s technologically simple to do so - much less producing new ones for streaming-only content. This is bargain-basement home video, folks.
Streaming’s champions, which include some movie buffs who should know better, pull out “convenience” as their trump card. I’m afraid I find it very inconvenient to have to QC every film beforehand for aspect ratio errors, digital artifacts, or horizontal motion blurring, and then to wonder – once I find the one in ten encodes that passes that test –whether Netflix’s server or my ISP will crap out right in the middle of it.
If streaming is the inevitable delivery system of the future, then movie fans must take a stand now and insist that streaming meet or surpass the best possible disc viewing experiences. If you’re a Netflix user, you’ll be able, as of next month, to choose separate streaming and/or disc rental plans (up until now, they’ve been bundled). I strongly encourage you to vote with your dollars and reject the streaming option until Netflix demonstrates a commitment to the quality as well as the quantity of its virtual library.
If I count streaming as the biggest threat to home entertainment so far this century, I have on the other hand come around as a qualified enthusiast for the manufacture-on-demand platform. When this revolutionary idea debuted in 2009, it had flaws that were sticking points for a lot of movie buffs: the transfers were subpar; DVD-R was not a stable medium; the cover art was hideous; the prices were far too high and discounts too few; it was almost impossible to buy them, except from eBay price gougers, if you lived outside the U.S. I think all but the last two considerations have become irrelevant.
The price point is still way too high, and I think it’s taking advantage of die-hard fans who would support the MOD releases in bulk but have to settle for a fraction of what they’d like to buy. (And if anyone cares to release some numbers proving that the Warner Archive doesn’t have an appreciably higher profit margin than the old retail model, I’ll happily eat those words.) But at least Warner has plowed some of its bounty back into tangible upgrades: nearly all of the new Warner Archive releases have excellent transfers; a few of the old nineties-era TCM masters from the first wave have been upgraded (and hopefully there will be more); and, not that I care, but they’re even spending money on decent cover art now. You only have to look at some of Warner Archive’s half-assed imitators – namely MGM and Universal, with their Amazon-fulfilled rosters of horribly edge-enhanced low-res DVD-R releases – to see how much Warner is getting right.
Most importantly, Warner has kept its promise on making the Archive a high-volume proposition. More than a thousand movies from Warners’ prodigious library have been released, and finally (after a two-year wait) they’ve turned their attention to series television. It’s still a head-scratcher as to why Maverick, the biggest and most commercially viable gem among Warners’ TV holdings, has never received a full home video release. (And I’ve heard that Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant, which I reported would be among the first TV series on offer, has fallen afoul of a music clearance problem.) In the meantime, though, I’m pleased with the offerings of the last few months: The F.B.I., Medical Center, The Man From Atlantis, and now The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Some of these are dreck but some of them aren’t, and if my requests for review copies are answered I hope to give them some consideration in this space soon.
Revised slightly on August 22, 2011, to expand upon my intemperate anti-streaming rant.