The Public Domain Channel

When movies or TV shows need an establishing shot of the characters watching TV, especially when it has no bearing on the plot, the producers will often try to save money by having the characters watch something whose rights they don't have to license.

So all too often, what you'll see is people incongruously watching old, old, old programming that hasn't even been shown in syndication since the late 1980s, like silent movies or, more often, ancient Max Fleischer or Paul Terry cartoons for that extra visual kick. For bonus incongruity, sometimes it will be out of character for the character to even be watching the show in question.

Though they often occur for different reasons, this trope is sometimes related to Pac-Man Fever. May sometimes overlap with There's No "B" in "Movie", as cheapie genre films from before 1964 are particularly likely to have lapsed into the Public Domain. So have some telefilms, such as The Woman Hunter from 1972.


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     Live-Action TV  

  • Lost:
    • When they hold Jack prisoner, The Others let him watch an old Heckle and Jeckle cartoon on a TV set they provide.
    • In the fifth season premiere Aaron is shown watching an episode of the public domain Superman shorts.
  • Bobbi Stakowski is shown watching an old Three Stooges clip in the pilot episode of Profit. The creators admit it wasn't a likely choice for her character but they didn't have a licensing budget.
  • In a related move, many TV documentaries and biography shows will use footage from a theatrical trailer rather than the film itself. Even if studios carefully protected the copyrights for their movies, most of the trailers were ignored and fell into public domain.
  • The X-Files pulled this all the damn time. In the episode "Syzygy" the televisions in Mulder and Scully's hotel rooms play nothing but The Keystone Kops 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on every single channel. This is implied to have been caused by the supernatural forces of the week, and gives the distinct impression that the TV is deliberately mocking our heroes.
  • In Buffy, Faith was often watching old movies in her motel room.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The TV movie shows the morgue guard watching Frankenstein, which seems to match the trope, but the movie was used for a reason (to compare to the Doctor coming back to life) and the movie is not public domain — the rights are owned by Universal, who produced the TV movie.
    • In "Midnight", the entertainment screens on the shuttle bus only show old black-and-white movies. Unlike most examples of the trope, the characters are aware that they're old movies, and aren't especially entertained.
    • In the opening "The Impossible Astronaut", Rory is watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, The Flying Deuces, which is out of copyright. Presumably this has something to do with the fact that the Doctor shows up in it briefly to wave at him — getting permission to alter something under copyright is going to be a lot more difficult than merely getting permission to show a clip from it. The other reason is probably because of the fezzes.
  • Christopher Moltisanti watches an episode of The Little Rascals while getting high on The Sopranos.
  • This was a regular occurence on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, with the "King of Cartoons" (although some early season one episodes called him "King Cartoon"), although he was eventually dropped towards the end of the series, with later episodes just playing cartoons.

     Video Games  

  • In The Darkness, there are several televisions around the area. On one of the channels, an old Max Fleischer cartoon is playing. Near the start of the game, you can watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird in the love interest's apartment. You can watch The Streetfighter in its entirety as well.
  • In The X-Files Game, you could turn on televisions which showed The Keystone Kops, which is a reference to a much earlier episode, "Syzygy". There, the old movie was actually a metaphor for how off-base the agents were in their investigation.

     Western Animation  

  • The opening title sequence of Futurama always included a different clip of an old cartoon.
    • Though in one episode they used a clip from the Tracy Ullman The Simpsons shorts, and in another they used the Title Sequence of the show itself.
  • Tn the Jimmy Neutron episode "The Incredible Shrinking Town", everyone tries to adjust to their new heights in various ways. One scene has Jimmy's parents watching a "drive-in movie" in a toy car, the movie being Gulliver's Travels.

     Real Life  

  • American PBS stations in the 1980s and early '90s effectively became this trope around Christmastime, thanks to the constant broadcasts of It's a Wonderful Life, which was in the public domain at the time.
    • This tradition ended when it was found that the story on which it was based, The Greatest Gift, is still copyrighted. Now NBC is the sole home of the film, which only plays it around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Chiller TV sometimes runs Night of the Living Dead (1968) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) to plug in time slots.