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The Public Domain Channel

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"Hey! We're allowed to watch this, because it's public domain!"
Phelous, in his review of ThanksKilling

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.

However, this can be justified if the movie or TV show takes place during a specific time period, and the producers choose a film from that place and time that is now public domain to further emphasize when and where the story is set.

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.

Though they often occur for different reasons, this trope is sometimes related to Pac Man Fever. May sometimes overlap with Unabashed B-Movie Fan, 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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    Film — Live-Action 
  • Will Ferrell's character in Wedding Crashers is introduced watching old cartoons in his mother's house.
  • Kill Bill Vol 2 ends with a character watching a 1946 Heckle and Jeckle cartoon.
  • A kid watches the old cartoon "Balloon Land" in Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders.
  • A teenager watches Harold Lloyd's The Freshman in an early scene in The Haunting In Connecticut.
  • Many characters are seen watching Night of the Living Dead (1968) in Halloween II (1981).
  • Laurie Strode watches more PDTV in Rob Zombie's Halloween II.
  • In The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, the title characters sneak into a movie theater showing the Three Stooges short Malice in the Palace. The movie was made (and set) in 1987; the short's copyright was not renewed.
  • In the movie Killing Zoe, during the early sex scene between protagonists Zed and Zoe, the hotel television plays the silent classic Nosferatu.
  • Anthony Hopkins is seen watching Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the film Proof.
  • The Three Stooges short Brideless Groom (one of the four that fell into public domain) is seen in Pulp Fiction, being watched by Eric Stoltz's character. Interestingly enough, Quentin Tarantino wasn't allowed to show The Three Stooges onscreen since their likenesses were copyrighted; he used the scene where Emil Sitka has a birdcage smashed on his head. Sitka even gets a mention in the closing credits as "Hold Hands, You Love Birds!" (his line in the excerpt shown).
  • In Scream 2, Cici Cooper (Sarah Michelle Gellar) watches the original silent Nosferatu.
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai has old cartoons playing somewhere in almost every scene featuring the Vargo family, symbolic of their bumbling and (relative) toothlessness. After Louise takes over and has Ghost Dog killed, her last act in the film is to turn them off.
  • Bubba Ho Tep has an interesting example. At one point, a TV is showing an ad for a marathon of Elvis movies. But the movie was too low-budget to afford Elvis movies, and so it's a bunch of clips featuring Elvis-lookalikes.
  • Appears near the end of ThanksKilling, where the protagonists are watching Night of the Living Dead.
  • Two segments in Campfire Tales (1991) feature public domain films playing on television sets. The one about the dangerous weed appropiately has the characters watching Reefer Madness at one point.
  • Skinamarink has a TV that plays exclusively public domain cartoons.
  • Twilight Zone: The Movie features a clip from a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon on TV at one point. This one is a bit more justified, due to the fact that Anthony could just will the TV into automatically playing old school cartoons.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 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 and music videos from The '70s. Unlike most examples of the trope, the characters are aware that they're old movies, and aren't especially entertained.
    • In the opening of "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.
  • 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.
  • This was a regular occurrence 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.
  • 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.
  • The Sopranos: Christopher Moltisanti watches an episode of The Little Rascals while getting high.
  • 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.

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    Western Animation 

    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 ran Night of the Living Dead (1968) and House on Haunted Hill (1959) to plug in time slots.
  • Some particularly small, shoestring-budget channels that can be found at the very bottom of your TV's electronic program guide will resort to this in order to have something to fill the airtime between commercials.