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Keep Circulating the Tapes

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"I don't like the idea of something existing if I can't get a copy of it."

There once was a show. You know, that show. It was a really good show. Or maybe it was something else. Still, you'd love to relive the memories, and share it with your friends.

There's just one problem: It's impossible.

Watch and record reruns? Of course you would...if it were on.

Buy the DVD? You'd already have it on pre-order...if it existed.


Netflix? Hulu? iTunes? Not there.

Or maybe it is actually available, just not in the original version?

What's a fan to do? It isn't that you're setting out to break copyright'd be more than happy to pay to acquire it legally! At the same time, though, you realize that the market is too niche for a super-deluxe bells-and-whistles compilation DVD to be justifiably profitable... no matter how many online petitions your forum sends.

Keep Circulating The Tapes (a phrase attributed to Mystery Science Theater 3000) is an option of last resort. It's when a show you like is denied to you, except through methods of questionable legality — shady file-sharing sites, tape trading/buying... it's either that, or the show's likely to be lost outside of fan recordings and film company archives. It's also the rule rather than the exception for video games and other non-simple media, to the point where the Abandonware concept and emulation were created to bring common sense into the situation (the Virtual Console, Playstation Network, GameTap, Steam,, and to a smaller extent Xbox Live Arcade are finally starting to remedy this situation with games, but it's still a long way to go).


Just try not to be angry that you can get the complete Brady Bunch Variety Hournote , Van-Pires, The PJs, Robot and Monster, Making Fiends, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, Cop Rock, Defenders of the Earth, Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills, and T.J. Hooker on DVD but not Sanjay and Craig (post-season 1), Muppet Babies (1984), Our Miss Brooks, Whatever Happened to... Robot Jones?, Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, Toad Patrol (in its entirety), The Raccoons, Raw Toonage, KaBlam!, Fame (post-season 2), Shining Time Station, The Drew Carey Show (post-season 1), Murphy Brown (post-season 1), The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Cold Case, Fillmore!, Simsala Grimm (in its entirety), The Hogan Family, Sheep in the Big City, The Legends of Treasure Island, Roundhouse, PB&J Otter, Kids Incorporated, Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (in its entirety), Free Spirit, The Replacements, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi (in its entirety), Rescue 911, You Can't Do That on Television, the Fluppy Dogs pilot, St. Elsewhere (post-season 1), MADtv (post-season 4), or the original cut of Frosty the Snowmannote  (among many, many others).


After steam stops shooting out of your ears (or maybe go full Flame War against those responsible for destroying those precious episodes), the question you're asking is probably... why? Well, a typical answer is that the television companies (correctly or incorrectly) don't think there's enough of a market for it to be worth releasing them, but it's not always their fault... directly. An all-too-common cause is music rights. Mission Hill halfway fell victim to this with the show released to DVD, but most of the popular music was omitted and replaced with Countdown Singers-esque soundalikes. Baby Blues wasn't as lucky; its DVD release may never see the light of day due to the theme being "It's All Been Done" by the Barenaked Ladies. Royalties play a large part in it.

...this requires some explanation.

The tape circulators could've probably hazarded a guess, but absolutely nobody else saw the TV-on-DVD boom coming. TV on VHS had been tried, sure, but it wasn't even barely successful for even music-compilation heavyweights like Time-Life and Columbia House for several reasons:

  1. The cost of the tapes.
  2. The outrageous amounts of shelf space needed for even one season of a series; a 22-episode season of an hour-long series needed 11 VHS tapes to fit on, though 2-per-tape was the standard even for 22-minute-without-commercials shows (for which 5 episodes could fit on a two-hour tape), which even carried over into some DVD releases. This despite the fact that a VHS tape is capable of holding as much as 8 hours of footage on it.
  3. The fragile nature of the format, allowing for a $300 investment to be ruined by a hungry VCR or a fridge magnet.
  4. Up to the early 2000s, television syndicators did all they could to keep the public from buying a television series, basically so channels would continue to see reruns as valuable and pull in ratings. As a result, only PBS documentaries were offered.

(It might be noted that this describes the US much more so than the UK, perhaps due in part to British Brevity meaning that a single series doesn't take up as much shelf space, and perhaps due to the lesser spread of cable TV. Nevertheless, other reasons have brought this trope into force for many shows.)

Even after the first wave started (thank HBO, specifically The Sopranos, for popularizing this wonderful thing of ours), they didn't sell nearly as well as they do now because of their frankly outrageous prices compared to today's. Additionally, copyright law is low, spooky voodoo, and licensing something like a song for your show, licensing it for reruns, and licensing it for home video are not the same thing. And nobody wanted to pay more money for something that they would, in all likelihood, never use ("Television shows? On home video? By the season? Nonsense."). So here we are.

These situations are usually caused by licensing issues (Performance Licensing and Reproduction Licensing). In a nutshell, performance licensing is much easier to obtain (the licensing agencies get 3% of the DVD's revenue, in exchange for letting the distributors use a performance). Reproduction licensing is much more difficult to obtain, and can often involve long drawn-out negotiations with rights holders (sometimes many at once, and much worse if it was an older work that used many unlicensed tracks or clips). There are ways to get around these snags - cover versions of songs are considerably easier to get clearance for, and offending clips can sometimes be removed without impacting the narrative. Of course, if the show has no song rights issues, and the copyright holder's threatening legal action over your online copies of a show they haven't allowed you to buy legally... resume violent rage.

It gets worse: VHS tapes start degrading within 10-25 years. If a show stuck in limbo only circulates on homemade VHS copies and does not get transferred on another storage medium or uploaded online in time, it could very well become lost outside of restricted-access film archives.

Sometimes, when all is lost and it's impossible to have access to that particular work legally, piracy is the only option left when there is no outlet to purchase or view the work legally - this is particularly prevalent in second and third world countries, especially if the networks in the country are profit driven and the advertisers have final say in what programs they will show instead of the public, and a lot of streaming services are not available or offer a smaller range of shows because they simply do not see doing more for the country as profitable. At the most extreme cases, a work may even be banned over something trivial. However, even that is limited because the pirates may not even have access to the work in the first place, and even so opens up risks of legal action from the original producers and/or viruses/malware embedded inside the program.

Compare No Export for You and Missing Episode. May also happen as the net result of Screwed by the Network, especially while new episodes of said show are airing elsewhere. Whatever the reason, if the show has a small but sizable fanbase, these fans turn to the Internet when any of these occurs, and if there's no official DVD release... well, their cries for help are heard by sympathizers and this Trope results. See also The Shelf of Movie Languishment and the Lost Media Wiki.

See also Archive Team and the Wayback Machine if the figurative lost tape you're looking for just so happens to be a website or some other form of internet content. You can also try out some subreddits here and there, especially the ones whose especial focus is to archive things, like DataHoarder, but we don't guarantee that'll work.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: When posting a show, if you know where the show can be illegally obtained, don't post it. Just say that copies exist out there on the Internet, and leave it at that. (Think of it this way: if the link becomes too popular, it might get taken down. You also wouldn't want TV Tropes Wiki to get sued for blatantly promoting piracy, would you?)

And please accept our apologies if you thought this trope was about a certain creepy woman in a well.


Alternative Title(s): Circulating The Tapes, Circulate The Tapes


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