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A dust-up over old TV tapes

June 10, 2007|David Sarno | Times Staff Writer

OLD-TIME television is making a comeback. Not on television, though.

Aided by the neutron star-like cultural gravity of Google's YouTube, an increasing number of vintage TV programs and early commercials are flying out of collectors' closets, ending half a century of exile from the small screen.

For members of Generation X-Box, it's a chance to see what prehistoric television looked like, back when it was barely more than "radio with pictures." Fifty-year-old TV commercials conjure a distant era, when Heinz ketchup was more than a condiment ("when the recipe calls for tomato flavor ...") and Cocoa Puffs delivered not just sugar but "chocolate-flavored energy."

Retiring boomers can also find shows they last enjoyed as decoder-ring-wearing youths. In forgotten 1950s sci-fi serials like "Captain Midnight" and "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," the pseudo-science is not all that's quaint. (When Vena tells Rocky there's a UFO approaching the rocket ship from 2 o'clock, Rocky chides, "Are you positive, or is this merely a woman's intuition?")

Indeed, as television collectors large and small continue to digitize and upload thousands of rare old film reels and videotapes, YouTube is threatening to become a repository of television history that could rival the nation's leading broadcast museums, both in the scope of its offerings and in the number of people it can reach.

Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio), said that collectors have traditionally been very possessive, preferring to keep their archives out of the public view. But with the arrival of video sharing sites, that mentality is changing. "YouTube has encouraged the whole collector community to put examples of their material out there," he said.

With this YouTube-based resurrection, however, has come not just nostalgia but a set of legal questions as tangled as a reel of tape that's come off its spool.

For one thing, a Dickensian legal impasse arises when a collector owns a piece of one-of-a-kind footage that's still under copyright. In a case like that, the collector owns the footage, but not the rights, while the rights-holder owns the rights but not the footage.

Ask Ira Gallen, a New York City TV buff who has built one of the largest private collections of early television commercials and Golden Era programming in the nation and is rushing to get as much of his 10,000-piece collection onto YouTube as he can before it disintegrates.

Many of the old programs in Gallen's collection, especially the variety shows, are filled with copyrighted music and songs and thoroughly infused with advertisers' messages.

Take "The Frank Sinatra Show," which ran on CBS from 1950 to 1952. Because the show was live and never intended for rebroadcast, the creators may not have explicitly copyrighted it. But many of the episodes feature Sinatra crooning alongside the likes of Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Rudy Vallee. Any performances of these songs are still owned by either the record companies or the singers' estates, neither of which likes to see Frank doing pro bono work on YouTube. The Sinatra estate alone makes hundreds of takedown requests every month.

Moreover, many of the brands from these old programs are still trademarked. The only difference is they're now owned by conglomerates that gobbled up old-time companies.

The vitamin supplement Geritol, which once touted itself as a tonic for "tired blood," sponsored an array of '50s shows, including "To Tell the Truth" and "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour" -- which Gallen has put online. Geritol was made by J.B. Williams, later bought by Nabisco, then sold to Beecham, which eventually merged with what is now GlaxoSmithKline, whose legal department, from the looks of it, is the size of Iowa.

Gallen, a writer and director who makes money licensing his footage to brand owners and media outlets, does worry that rights hounds will come after him for showing protected material without asking. He's already gotten complaints from the Sinatra estate and Major League Baseball, he said. But if he's going to sell off his collection, YouTube is the best way to advertise what he's got. So infringement risks are just the cost of doing business.

"I own stuff that people own the rights to, and they don't even know it exists," Gallen said. "I'm just hoping the copyright holders will call me before they shut me down."

Other enthusiasts take a more laissez-faire approach to posting their collections online. Jeff Macauley, 46, of New York City has a collection of 150 television episodes featuring Dinah Shore. Over eight months, he's uploaded most of his Shore-related footage onto YouTube, none of it with permission.

"The technology is there, and it's easy to do," he said. "Just someone shaking their finger at me and telling me I can't do it -- I don't see the point. They have to figure out another way."

Pirates or princes?

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