posted by on Jan 18th, 2009Someone Is Being Stupid

NBC’s Life was one of the best new television series of 2007 – 2008. I’m grateful it survived its strike-shortened first season to return even stronger for 2008 – 2009.

When I first heard of Life I was not especially interested. I’m not all that big on cop shows. Then I heard it involved a detective who had survived 12 years of wrongful imprisonment by adopting and practicing Zen Buddhism. This made me really determined to avoid it. I expected yet another half-baked pop culture abuse of the word and concept of “zen.” Something like “Zen and the art of homicide investigation” to go along with Zen and the Art of Vampires or Zen and the Art of Steel Boat Building.

Then I happened to see a bit of the show while Darling Wife was watching, and after a few minutes I realized this was something special. The characters are interesting, original and cleverly written. The performances are sharp and brilliant, not only from stars Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi, but also from a great supporting cast including Brent Sexton, Adam Arkin and (new in 2008) Donal Logue. It’s also well shot, with camera work and editing that increases the drama and enhances the storytelling but never distracts.

And then there’s the music. Life makes excellent use of some incredibly good music, with selection and placement of songs that truly serve the story. Comments by Rand Ravich, the show’s executive producer, to Vanity Fair last year highlight how carefully the music is selected, and the importance of music to the show’s style. I’ve discovered a number of new artists and purchased a number of songs and albums because of tracks that I heard on Life, including great songs like Down Boy by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Little Toy Gun by honeyhoney

If you’ve never seen Life, I wish I could suggest that you take a look at some recent episodes on hulu.com — a site that offers free streaming episiodes of programs from NBC and other networks.

I also wish I could recommend that you buy the first season on DVD. Hell, I’ve even been known to drop an Amazon affilitate link from time to time — solely for your convenience, you understand, dear reader.

Sadly, I can’t do that. Sure, the first season has been released on DVD, and Hulu has the last few episodes. But I won’t suggest that you go watch them. To do so would be to steer you toward a diminished, bastardized product that does not well represent the production I came to enjoy so much.

In the version of Life available on Hulu, and on DVD, the songs that were so important to the original production are replaced with bland, generic-sounding stand-ins. It sounds like some effort has been made to provide a vaguely similar sound, but generally the effect is just sad.

I suspect the reason is that it is less expensive for NBC to use the inferior replacements in the online and DVD versions than to use the music originally selected by the show’s creators. I have no doubt that the replacement songs are cheaper, considering how much they cheapen the impression made by the show.

This all leads me to think that someone is being stupid.

Maybe the artists or the record companies holding the rights to the original songs are being stupid by refusing to license them for use online and on DVD. Or may be they are just being stupid by holding out for an unreasonable amount of money for the additional use. It seems to me that they are throwing away a great opportunity for exposure and marketing. I doubt I’m the only person who has purchased music specifically because it appeared on Life or another series. And I don’t see what the rights holders are possibly risking by allowing the use of the songs. I do not believe anyone who might otherwise buy a song would decide not to buy it because they can hear a part of it on a DVD or an online TV show.

Or maybe NBC is being stupid by refusing to pay a reasonable license fee to use the songs on DVDs and online. They may be saving a little money, but at the cost of unhappy fans, diminished DVD sales and an inferior product to showcase on Hulu.

Of course it’s also possible that all parties involved are being stupid, by refusing to negotiate reasonable licensing terms. It seems to me there may be plenty of stupid to go around. I just don’t see how the end result is good for anyone.

So here’s what I do now, with regard to Life:

  • I watch every episode on Tivo, skipping commercials as I am wont to do.
  • If an episode is especially good, I keep it for future viewing.
  • I purchase music and discover new bands based on what I hear on the show. I’ll happily keep doing so, if the music on the broadcast continues to be as amazingly good as it has been.
  • I will NOT watch the butchered episodes on NBC.com or Hulu — which, by the way, have non-skippable ads I would actually sit through.
  • I will NOT buy the DVDs, because they don’t really contain the program that I so admire.

Good luck with that model, NBC. The outlets that would actually get people to view commercials, lay out hard cash, and forego unauthorized distribution channels are being saddled with inferior content. If people do find another way to get copies of the excellent, original versions of the episodes, it will probably be be from a source that provides no compensation to the show’s creators. And that’s just stupid.

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