Of all the TV shows that I watched obsessively as a kid there were always a handful that I completely missed the boat on and for years have been mighty curious about. In particular I’ve never seen any episodes of M*A*S*H, Magnum P.I. or WKRP in Cincinnati all of which had a pretty big impact on the pop culture of the 70s and 80s. The first two have since been released on DVD and they are on my Netflix queue, but for as long as TV has been blowing up on DVD, the latter, WKRP, has been considered the show that will always remain in limbo in terms for re-release because of insane music licensing issues. I pretty much figured that I’d never get a chance to watch the show as I don’t subscribe to cable and I tend to shy away from bootlegs as much as I can, but to my amazement the first season of the series was actually released on DVD just last month.
Well, I took the time to sit down with the set recently and to see what all the hubbub is about. Lets get some of the basics on the set out of the way and take a look at the packaging and what’s in the box. Unlike some of the newer TV on DVD sets from companies like Paramount that are switching over to a super slim packaging scheme, this set, released by Fox is sticking to a more traditional box set feel with the season spread over 3 discs which are packaged in two slim cases. The art and design of the packaging is pretty cool with a nice production photo on top of a minimal black background, and some nice sublte use of color as a border (unlike the eye ache that is the That ’70s Show covers.) The only bit of flash is in the prismatic foil inlayed into in the title font, which is actually quite subdued when compared to some other sets. I really dig the use of actual production artwork on the cover in lieu of a hasty Photoshop job, which is typically what we tend to see, especially on older TV on DVD sets released today.
At the end of the day I actually dig the this generic colorful artwork in the interior, I guess I’ve just got a pet peeve about bad cover artwork.
As far as Special Features go, this set is better off than most, but far from loaded. There are two commentary tracks, one on part 1 of the pilot, and one on the episode Turkeys Away. Both commentaries feature the show’s creator/writer/director Hugh Wilson and stars Loni Anderson (who played Jennifer Marlowe) and Frank Bonner (who played Herb Tarlek). You can access either commentary by selecting the episode, and then picking the commentary audio track from the episode sub menu, or as a nice easy alternative both are accessible via the disc one special features menu.
Though short, these commentaries strike a nice balance between behind the scenes insight and enjoyable cast reunions and ruminations (particularly on an aspect of Loni Anderson’s physique that is often a running gag on the show.) For instance, you’re just as likely to hear the cast talk about how the character evolved, even after the first episode (when Loni’s character, Jennifer, insults her boss, Arthur Carlson, behind his back, and then in subsequent episodes switches to a more motherly role), than you are to hear the three laughing for minutes on end or pausing to watch Howard Hessman’s Johnny Fever ad lib, which though funny, is distracting as far as commentary goes. There’s another great story about Loni Anderson’s "assets" that CBS was all up in arms over. I guess there were too many scenes where Loni was nipping and therefore the wardrome department had to end up covering her nipples with Band-Aids to keep them from showing through her blouses and sweaters. I wonder who got the job of applying those?
This set also has two mini featurettes, both about 7 minutes long, one that focuses on Loni Anderson and her character Jennifer Marlowe, and a second that focuses on the episode Fish Story. Both of these featurettes include appearances by Frank Bonner, Tim Reid, Loni Anderson and Hugh Wilson.
Now before I get into the issues I have with this set I’d like to address the quality of the show in terms of both visually and how well it holds up over almost thirty years.
As far as the visual quality goes, it’s about a 3.5 out of 5 in terms of the sharpness of the image. This MTM show was notoriously shot on video (unlike other MTM productions including the Mary Tyler Moore show ) to take advantage of a loophole in the music licensing fee rules, so the show’s visual quality was low to begin with. I believe that most if not all of these episodes are also the syndication versions, which had to be altered for both time and content (again those pesky music licensing issues) so new master copies were made which are a generation past the original airing copies. Even with that in mind the show looks pretty good. There’s a little bit of haziness to some scenes, and I noticed some slight ghosting of the images in a few places, but it’s more or less presented in the quality that it originally aired, and I don’t think there was too much remastering that could be done.
As far as how well the show holds up, I’d have to say again that I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s never really seen the show. To be honest I thought that the show held up very well, and aside from a few references to some older pop culture icons I feel that it’s just as funny now as it was at the time. Granted the show is a sitcom, and you have to be into that style of humor (running gags, over the top characters, etc.), but when viewed next to more contemporary shows like New Radio, it’s almost indistinguishable except for a few obviously dated qualities like Venus Fly Trap’s very pimpin’ attire or Herb’s horribly 70s swinging wardrobe.
The entire premise of the show is set up in the two-part pilot, which opens with one of the show’s main attractions, Loni Anderson as the WKRP radio station secretary Jennifer Marlowe (who does almost no secretarial duties.)
In fact one of the longest running gags opens the show as Herb, the slightly out of touch swinging sales rep (played by Frank Bonner) comes strolling in and immediately begins slinging a barrage of horrible pick-up lines to Jennifer.
Then just as swift as can be we’re introduced to the crux of the show when Andy Travis (played by Gary Sandy) is introduced as the new station manager. It’s through Andy that we get introduced to the rest of the cast in quick succession including Arthur Carlson (played by Gordon Jump) as the son of the owner of the station.
Andy meets Les Nessman, the resident news/sports/weather/hog futures man on the scene (or more likely no where near the scene as we get to see his impression of a traffic helicopter that he fakes on air) who is apparently clumsy as he sports a band-aid or bandage in every episode (an un explained running gag that is also an in-joke reference to the rehearsal for the pilot where the actor, Richard Sanders, was hurt by a light and had to wear a bandage in the pilot episode.) This continues on and on until all of the main characters are established.
One of the strongest moments in the first episode involves Howard Hesseman as Johnny (who has a different last name for every single DJ job he’s held/been fired from) who is the daytime DJ reduced to playing very old, very "bad" choral music. Travis comes in and institutes a format change to top 40 rock and roll which both brings the station and Johnny (who re-christens himself Dr. Johnny Fever) back to life. There is a great moment as Johnny pauses as the last song of the old format is playing and in the middle he scratches the needle across the record as he switches over to the stations first rock tune. This actually brings up another interesting point that was mentioned in the commentary, that the producers and writers of the show were well aware that radio stations had abandoned using actual records in the booth by this point, that they had switched to using cassettes and reel tapes, but they felt that the imagery of records and albums was too cool to pass up, and I’d have to agree. Seeing Johnny literally rip an album to pieces off of a turntable makes for a great moment in the show.
In this scene we’re also introduced to Bailey Quarters (played by Jan Smithers, an actress discovered as a teenager when she played hooky from school and was photographed on the back of a motorcycle in a bikini by a guy from Time Magazine and subsequently made the cover) who is promoted from being a gofer to Travis’ assistant.
The episode ends with Arthur Carlson’s mother, Momma, (played by Oscar nominated Sylvia Sidney, who was replaced after the pilot, possibly for clashing with the rest of the much younger cast) who owns the station and hates rock music comes to shut the station down, but Travis and Carlson convince her to keep it open. The last gag, and last main character to be introduced, is when Travis shows in his new-hire DJ, Venus Fly Trap (played by Tim Reid) a very pimped out, successful New Orleans disc jockey. This cements the psuedo counter culture ideal the station is shooting for and the style of comedy that will follow for the next four seasons.
Now, as far as the issues I had with this DVD set. WKRP, like I mentioned earlier, is notorious for being the perfect example of a show that would not be able to withstand the financial burden of music licensing, which would in turn keep it from being released on DVD. But it is on DVD, so how did that happen?
Well, the studio decided to strip the show of most of it’s original music, replacing it with generic or sound-alike tunes, as well as editing the show to remove any plot points or vocal mentions of specific songs that were removed. Also, again like I mentioned earlier, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who didn’t watch the show when it originally aired, or in its first batch of reruns, so honestly most of the music changes have completely slipped past my radar. Now for a more hardcore fan though, this might be very jarring. There are a couple of sites that have kept up with the music replacements and edits, such as Jamie Weinman’s blog.
Now, I believe in addition to this, and like a lot of TV on DVD sets these days, the studio has either decided to use the syndication version of these episodes (which are cut for both time and content, and since the WKRP syndicated episodes were cut for music issues in the early 90s already this may be the case) because of music issues, or because it’s the only version they own for distribution. Either way, these are not the uncut original versions out side of the music scenes. I’m not sure if Hugh Wilson was aware of this as he and the cast members allude in the commentary that these episodes are restored, or original versions. In fact Loni Anderson makes a hilarious comment about how an entire plot was removed from the syndication version of an episode involving her character getting a sex change. I’m not sure when or if this happened on the show, but it’s something that I’d hate to miss if it was edited out. I also found a separate guide to the music replacements and edits the show underwent in the 90s for its second run of syndication, also written by Jamie Weinman, that goes into some of the who’s and why’s of the situation.
Randy Salas of the Minneapolis Star Tribune also wrote an article about the whole situation, which the awesome TV on DVD.com passed on to its readers a few weeks back. I know a lot of fans are up in arms about the whole mess, and it’s gotten to a point where the DVD is rated fairly low on sites like Amazon.com. Granted there are alternatives to cutting up a show, like having a smaller distribution company like Shout! Factory release the show, though at a much higher price point (as they did with Freaks and Geeks a couple years ago), but it begs the question, would people plunk down $60-$100 for a single season of a sitcom. In this day and age where we’re getting used to paying $20 for TV DVD sets, I think not. Also, this first season set, like most 1st season sets, is more a less a test to see if it’s financially viable to continue with further seasons. There are a ton of catalog releases that die upon the release of the initial season, shows like Growing Pains, Gimmie a Break, Murphy Brown, and The Fresh Prince, shows that are hugely popular but just don’t sell on DVD, so the future seasons are flung back into the studio vaults. I think that this is going to be the case with WKRP, since so many fans seem to be shunning this release, which I think is pretty sad because I enjoyed the heck out of watching it.
Granted, I can totally see the fan’s point of view, and if it had been a show or movie that I loved and was changed I’d be just as pissed, but there are always going to be concessions in life, and it is just a TV show. Sometimes fighting the good fight won’t lead to victory; it’ll only lead to a much longer battle where no one wins. If enough interest was shown in this set, and enough of those people who purchased it also voiced their concerns to both Fox and companies like the ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC who license the music, than maybe things would change. Instead I think this set won’t sell well, and sooner or later it’ll go out of print and that will be that.
All in all, I would say that if you can find this set on sale and you’re even the least bit interested or curious it’d be worth picking it up, if only to show the studio that there is interest in catalog TV series on DVD.