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 or Blu-ray? You'd already have it on pre-order... if it existed.
Physical releases do exist after all? Snatch them up... but they haven't been in print in forever, and used copies are absurdly expensive and the few that might be in your price range are almost definitely either scams or bootlegs... Or they aren't even available in your region at all.
Streaming services (such as Netflix)? Digital downloads (such as iTunes)? Not there either... and even if they were, they may not be up forever.
Or maybe it is actually available, just not in the original version.
Try and get the rights to rerelease it yourself if you have the means to do so? You can try... but whoever holds the rights to it either has no interest in doing so, or demands a ludicrous amount of money that you cannot possibly afford. Or worse, you can't even find who owns the rights to make a deal, or you have to deal with such a massive snarl of rightsholders that it's not worth it.
And if it happens to have fallen into the Public Domain? Good luck finding anyone with a high-quality enough copy that it doesn't look like you're watching the visual equivalent of braille.
Once the steam stops escaping from your ears, your first question is probably why the distributor wouldn't even bother selling copies of a work when there are so many people like you (at least according to your fan forum) who would be willing to buy one. There are a lot of reasons this happens, and not very many will make you feel better.
On television, you had to deal with all the following things:
- In the old VHS days of television, this kind of thing was very much not cost-effective. VHS tapes were expensive, and you could generally only fit two episodes of a series on a single tape (you could in theory go up to five or six, but there was no way to skip to a given episode without the fast-forward button and patience). And VHS was also a pretty fragile format; imagine a $300 investment wiped out by a single hungry fridge magnet. VHS also degrades over time without the ideal storage condition (which is a dry and arid but cold vault, which means leasing such vault from a storage company, typically for thousands of dollars a month, as said vaults are usually leased by huge enterprises to store company backups, which are also made to tape even to this day), meaning that if you didn't transfer the footage to another tape (or to digital format when that became an option), after 25 years it can be lost forever.
- Even if it existed, it was unwieldy. It was worse in the U.S. than elsewhere — the British, with their famous British Brevity, could fit an entire series on three or four tapes, but the typical American 22-episode season would need eleven tapes, just for one season, and that took up shelf space really quickly. Furthermore, television syndicators were very reluctant to do this when they could force the public to watch reruns on TV and boost their ratings — this is a big reason why the majority of VHS-era series on home video were from PBS, British series, or compilations of a few episodes of American series.
- There were music rights to consider. This is a form of insane copyright voodoo, but broadly speaking, licensing a song for a show's original airing, for reruns, and for home video were not the same thing — and it was usually much more expensive to license it for home video, because it's a "reproduction right" rather than a "performance right". This was mostly because nobody even considered the home video phenomenon back then, and the rightsholders were able to extract a lot of money out of the distributors for something that was likely not to be a thing anyway. There are ways around this — using Cover Versions or deleting music entirely (if it doesn't impact the plot) are always options. There's also the issue of the rightsholder threatening a copyright lawsuit where the song has no rights issues, which will still cause problems like this. Royalties can also be very difficult to untangle with things like a Compilation Movie or Importation Expansion, where there's more than one rightsholder to wrangle.
- Especially as regards imports, censorship standards can be a problem. If a work is Banned in China, your only option if you're in a particular continent, country, state, or province where the tape in question is banned is to circulate the tapes. This kind of thing is especially risky, though, because the pirates who might circulate the proverbial tapes for you might not have access to the work themselves — the only versions you could get are shady downloads with malware in them.
- The creator has come to regret making the work and may not even want anybody to have access to it. They'd rather you forget about it, as was famously the case with The Star Wars Holiday Special.
- Additionally, someone involved with the work may have committed a Role-Ending Misdemeanor or had such an ugly falling-out with the others that their presence was either completely scrubbed from the work and replaced with someone else, or they just pulled everything with their presence and left it at that.
- Video Games and similarly complex media have the issue of format compatibility — how are you supposed to play a game on something other than the system for which it was designed? Porting it to another system may be much more difficult and expensive than simply moving a movie to a new format, and thus it may need significantly more demand to be worth the effort. Games whose source code has been opened may face several issues such as incompatible licensing or the overabundance of source ports (many of which may even worsen the experience rather than improving it) for different purposes. It gets worse regarding Import Gaming, as one country's consoles may not be compatible with another country's games, and if there's No Export for You, you're out of luck. This led to the concept of Abandonware and the creation of emulation, which allowed you to pirate the game if you couldn't get it any other way. Thankfully, with services like the Virtual Console, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, GOG.com, and Steam, this situation is somewhat improving, but you're still likely in trouble if you're looking for a more niche game.
On TV, the first to popularize the concept of home video was HBO with The Sopranos, and nowadays, with the ease of putting a show on DVD or a streaming service and easily replicating and distributing it, the fragility and expense problems of VHS are a thing of the past — but for older shows, they have to be converted to digital first. You still have issues with rightsholders, censorship, and distributors wanting to protect their TV channels — it's especially a problem in certain countries where the networks are so profit-driven that the advertisers decide which programs they show and will block the whole DVD thing to get you to see the ads. Also, not every streaming service is available in every country, and even when it is, it might not have as extensive a library there as it might elsewhere. This might be why piracy is so much more prevalent in parts of the third world.
Of course, it's entirely possible that your show is just so niche that it really isn't worth it for the distributor to make and sell a home video release just for you and your five friends on your fan forum. No matter how many petitions you send them.
The Trope Namer is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which used the phrase in the credits of early episodes to encourage fans to share the show with each other — it was a niche thing, and the makers knew it. They also knew that the show would hit serious licensing issues later on, as each episode showed someone else's movie so that they could riff on it, and a few episodes of the show remain unobtainable (legally) even today without the proverbial tape circulation.
See also No Export for You, Missing Episode, The Shelf of Movie Languishment, Screwed by the Network, and Denial of Digital Distribution, all dealing with situations where they easily could make the work available but don't. This trope is a way of dealing with the situation. Archive Team, the Wayback Machine, and the DataHoarder subreddit all make an effort to preserve Web pages in this manner (with varying results).
This has nothing to do with story plots revolving around tapes, a la 13 Reasons Why.
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