If you follow me on Twitter, you've probably seen my #WKRPFlashback hashtag in action: I'm rewatching the original WKRP in Cincinnati comedy series, first aired from 1978 through 1982, and tweeting out the occasional funny moment.
For those who don't know, WKRP in Cincinnati is all about radio: WKRP is a fictional AM station in Cincinnati. Given that premise, music is obviously an integral element of the show. You'll hear songs used as transition bits in the broadcast booth, and occasionally as background music playing over the station's speakers. You'll also hear the actors discussing the songs, mentioning titles and artists with regularity.
The songs also work their way into plot lines:
The songs were often tied into the plot of the episode, and some pieces of music were even used as running gags. For example, the doorbell to Jennifer's penthouse apartment played "Fly Me to the Moon" (which was later replaced by "Beautiful Dreamer" due to copyright reasons). [Wikipedia]
Here's one example of how songs and plots were tied together…
That's a clip from "Patter of Little Feet," in which Mr. & Mrs. Carlson discover that they're about to be parents again, very late in their married life. Mr. Carlson has asked Venus to play something "soft and sweet." Venus chose The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," which is funny in a few ways, given the context. The end result is a short, poignant scene with a fairly funny audio joke thrown in. And that particular song is obviously integral to the scene.
As you can see (and hear), music was a very important element of the show—and that's where the troubles begin, at least relative to trying to watch the shows years later.
As demonstrated above, the songs used on WKRP weren't just generic cheap-to-license studio songs; they were songs by well known artists (like them or hate them, The Carpenters were a popular group). These bits of real life music really helped viewers connect with the show.
They also helped the artists, too, giving exposure to songs that might otherwise not have been nearly as popular:
The show's use of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" was widely credited with helping the song become a major U.S. hit, and the band's record label Chrysalis Records presented the producers with a gold record award for the album Parallel Lines, on which the song appeared. This gold record can be seen hanging on the wall in the "bullpen" where Les, Herb, and Bailey worked in many of the episodes in the second, third, and fourth seasons. [Wikipedia]
The downside of using real music, though, is licensing. Every song bit in the series has to be licensed, and that can be both expensive and time consuming. The WKRP production team secured time-limited licenses for the music they used—and they also shot on videotape to save licensing costs:
Music licensing deals cut at the time of production were for a limited number of years. Hugh Wilson commented that WKRP was videotaped instead of filmed because when the show was originally produced, a loophole in the licensing deals reduced fees for using songs in videotaped programs. [Wikipedia]
The problem with time-limited licenses is that you can't use a time-limited license on a DVD release you may want to sell for years and years, or in a syndication agreement that could also cover many years.
Doing it right
So to do syndication and/or DVDs right, 20th Century Fox would have to renegotiate all the music licenses. And for a show like WKRP, that would be a lot of work—I'd estimate there are two to four recognizable song bits in every episode, across 90 episodes. That's a lot of time and money to invest in renegotiating the licenses.
Still, given the importance of music to the entire concept of the series, you'd think doing it right would be a no brainer, right?
Doing it wrong
Unfortunately, you'd be wrong if that's what you thought, at least relative to season one (which is the only season available). Instead of doing it right, 20th Century Fox did it just about as wrong as it could be done.
Whether on DVD or on Hulu, the released version of WKRP's first season is a badly modified version of what aired: the original music is gone, and segments of new dialog (where the actors were talking about specific music being played) have been dubbed in by 'soundalike' voice replacements. The dancing scene above (though from season two) is clearly one where the music would be replaced, thereby losing the essence of the entire scene.
Here's a real example from season one. This clip is from the second show (the second half of the pilot episode). In the pilot, the new music director (Andy Travis) changes the station's format to rock and roll. In this clip, Dr. Johnny Fever is talking while spinning up a record shortly after the changeover. You'll first see the as-aired original version, followed by the version you'll see on the DVD (or on Hulu or any other such service):
Not quite the same, is it? And this is a simple example, as there were no changes to the dialog. In other scenes that I've sampled on Hulu, the dubbed dialog is painfully obvious (and just stupid much of the time). In addition, there are some episodes where scenes have simply been dropped, because the music was too tightly integrated to work around.
A great series ruined
20th Century Fox's decision to not pursue new music licensing deals has led to a horrid product, as can be seen in its Amazon reviews:
If it were possible, I would have rated this set 0 stars! I am saddened & dismayed that I must negatively rate this set. I loved WKRP. It was the only TV show that I would never miss when I was young.
To remove ALL the songs....ALL of them! To change dialog or to remove whole sections of the show because there's no easy way to excise dialog interwoven with music. To re-dub new dialog to cover-up this radical surgery. To utilize cut, awful syndicated prints because there is no other way to cover the damage. This is NOT the Complete WKRP as advertised.
The songs have instead been replaced with completely anachronous tracks, replete with drum machines and cheesy late 80s synths or wildly off-the-mark hair metal replications... just awful.
The DVDs are a ripoff! The original WKRP Episodes are not here, this is a cheap imitation for people who are content with cheap imitations.
In addition, there are scenes cut out where they couldn't easily edit out the music.
For example, what good is the Ivan episode without "Tiny Dancer"? But no, that song won't make it in at all and the lyric lines spoken from the song in normal dialogue scenes have been redubbed.
And it goes on and on and on. Perhaps this is why they've only ever released one season on DVD/online?
In short, if you want to know what made WKRP in Cincinatti such a funny, enjoyable, and musically-connected show, well, you won't find out by watching the Season One DVD/online version. To see what the shows were really like, you'll have to do some sleuthing (it's not too hard) to find the unedited originals.
I'd willingly pay a fair bit for a remastered, uncut, unedited, music-intact collector's edition of WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series. Until (highly unlikely) such a set comes out, though, there is no legal way to watch the series as it was originally created.
And that's a real shame, because this was one of the best comedy series of its era. But when you take away the music, and the dialog relating to that music, you're left with something much different, and much less enjoyable to watch.