May 3, 2009

Clearing, Reclearing, … [9:33 am]

WGBH reclears the way for more shows online - The Boston Globe (pdf)

It’s only 30 seconds out of a 90-minute film, fleeting glimpses of then-President Jimmy Carter as seen in a 1976 Playboy magazine interview. But to secure the rights to use these five photos in the documentary series “The Presidents,” which reaired last fall, WGBH had to pay Playboy $12,400.

That was all well and good for the show’s broadcast and even for its release on video. But now, in the age of digital downloads - when TV networks are hungry to find new ways to attract larger audiences - the challenge has started all over again. WGBH has to go back and strike a deal for the digital rights to each photo of Carter.

Multiply that by the hundreds of film clips and images used for the show. Now multiply that by the hundreds of previously broadcast documentaries the station wants to put online.

Doing that math will help you understand why the unheralded task of clearances is arduous, costly, and often the difference between documentaries that you can summon at your fingertips and those you need to visit a research library to see again.

Reclearing, as this process is called, involves the hair-raising task of gaining permission to reuse every piece of material found in an earlier program that did not belong to WGBH.

At issue are the controlling rights of each writer, singer, actor, voice, musician, network, union, every source of still photography and archival stock footage, literary work, you name it. [...]

[...] Surprises arise like flocks of birds: An original owner no longer owns the material, the original owner never owned the material in the first place, the original owner is dead. A photo agency no longer exists.

[...] Reclearing rights is a major priority today at WGBH because the station has seen the future and its name is streaming. This means putting online as many of its greatest hits as possible to snag more viewers who want to watch whenever they want.

The station has a trove of jewels aired over half a century that remain sequestered in its archives. WGBH wants to give them new life because it wants them to give WGBH new life.

[...] The success of this strategy will depend on the station’s ability to raise money from foundations, private donors, and the parent Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Finding money for initial releases is hard enough. Getting money for rereleases in this economy will be brutal.

And then the fun begins.

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