Trouble in Store (TV not for keeps)


You may have realised from the headers on this site that I am an avid collector of television and film on DVD and Blu-ray. I’m often asked, not least by my wife, why our shelves are so full of these things and, moreover, why I keep buying more of them, when so much is available online or through TV subscription services. The answer came by e-mail at the beginning of this month, though I was aware it was on the way. On 1st November, the BBC Store, designed both to unlock the treasures of their archive and (ultimately, I assume) replace the distribution of BBC productions on home video formats, was closed down.

I always regretted the move away from home video release – as a former archivist, I knew that the only sure way of knowing you had something was having it on a shelf (I would certainly never have trusted the cloud, as some archives do). But I had got used to buying music as files rather than physical objects (and, indeed, I enjoy the flexibility of use that gives me) so I was resigned to the fact that it would have to apply to film and TV titles in future and I have downloaded movies and TV from iTunes where it has been the only source of things I wanted, such as the films of Henry Jaglom or the US release version of Kubrick’s The Shining. OK, I know I could get a dual-format player and import discs of these titles, but that’s not the case with Louis CK’s instant AmericanHoraceAndPete classic Horace and Pete, which was originally only downloadable from his website (which is how I bought it) and has never been released on disc.

In these cases, the files I purchased have been capable of being moved around and I have copied them from my PC to my iPod for security against machine failure. But buying files from the BBC Store was different – they couldn’t be moved and you had to download a special app on which to keep and play them. With the closure of the Store, this has gone, too. So, the prospect of buying and downloading titles to “own” (as indicated in the publicity still at the head of this post) was basically a con (though I’m sure they will have covered themselves against this accusation in the terms and conditions – who knows? Nobody reads them). Buying from the BBC Store was not buying for keeps – just a long-term loan (and not so long, as it turned out).

ddare1To be fair, the BBC are refunding money spent on purchases, so this must be an expensive mistake for them and one which has set back the aim of unlocking the archive. Which is such a shame, because there was some great stuff there and the promise of much more to come. For me, the collection of previously unreleased Dennis Potter plays was the main attraction – I had downloaded some of them and was planning on getting more when the axe fell. I’m not sure we will ever see them released on DVD or Blu-ray, but I can hope. The same goes for several recent series which were only ever available on the Store. Top of my list would be the first season of Stefan Golaszewski’s wonderful Mum – hopefully the imminent arrival of season 2 may prompt its release.

Opening up public access to the BBC Archive, which I worked at for ten years and with for a further thirty, has long been a source of both promise and frustration. I remember Greg Dyke, when he was Director General, getting up at the Edinburgh TV Festival and promising that the archive would be thrown open to all, but all that materialised in the end was a handful of wildlife footage. The idea that we, the license payers, “own” past BBC content because we paid for it is understandable but misconceived. What we paid for was a professional and creative organisation which made the things we enjoyed watching by entering into contracts with talent, who still own their individual shares of the intellectual property in the material, making it expensive to release to the public (which is why we got the wildlife – animals have no intellectual property rights though they do, we are often told, have “talent”). I imagine the limitations on how things were distributed through the Store, which I am complaining about here, may have had something to do with rights questions, as the prices were cheaper than they would have been for DVDs, even taking the cost of manufacture out of the equation.

Anyway, the e-mail that erstwhile BBC Store customers received states that “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Plus ca change……

And, while I‘m on the subject of the home video industry, I might as well air another, possibly related aspect that is also pissing me off and that is the unavailability of certain titles, film and television, in Blu-ray formats when they are being newly released on DVD, especially here in the UK. I don’t think this is a question of manufacturing costs, as Blu-rays are clearly being made for other region B/2 countries in many cases and that isUtopia where I am being increasingly forced to source them. In recent months I have received deliveries from (the second season of Channel 4’s Utopia), (Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, not released here at all – and I am currently awaiting a Blu-ray of Malick’s Song to Song from I know not where, but at double the price of the DVD version were offering) and, increasingly, from Australia (the second and third seasons of HBO’s visually splendid The Leftovers, plus Ken Burns’ The War – his Vietnam War seems only available on DVD outside the US, but, in that case, it’s OK because of the provenance of most of the footage – see my previous blog on this series). Could it be that we are being subtly nudged towards the use of streaming and subscription services by the absence of the best quality materials on disc? Certainly the BBC, as well as Channel 4, has failed to issue some of its best recent productions on Blu-ray in the UK. Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman was initially and for a long time only available on DVD and I bought it, only for the Blu-ray to subsequently appear, which was doubly frustrating!

Keeping a home audio-visual collection is subject to the same principles as professional ones: you can’t just put things on shelves, or into file servers, and leave them there – effort and expense must be incurred to ensure replay machinery is maintained or software is up-to-date and, in these cases, we are all at the mercy of technology companies, themselves always keen to force the consumer and the professional alike towards the next thing. But, given the choice between files and discs, it’s the latter for me for film and TV. Better stockpile some players, though.

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