CBS Won’t Release Episodes of The Jack Benny Program (Updated)

Quite a few articles about this are popping up, including one from The New York Post and another from The Moderate Voice. All are based on a recent update to the International Jack Benny Fan Club website in which it is revealed that rights issues are keeping 25 episodes of The Jack Benny Program from being transferred to a digital format by the IJBFC. Apparently, in 2008 the president of the IJBFC learned that CBS has in its possession a number of episodes of The Jack Benny Program. The IJBFC offered to pay to “digitally preserve” 25 episodes and, after more than a year, CBS asked for an official letter from the Jack Benny Estate requesting the episodes. But that wasn’t enough. According to the IJBFC, CBS eventually explained that “there are so many issues with those shows, that even if we took the time to figure it out, we still almost certainly wouldn’t do the deal.”

See Update Below

The IJBFC believes these episodes are in the private domain. I really don’t want to start speculating but based on what happened with the first half of the second season of The Fugitive on DVD, the unnamed “issue” keeping CBS from releasing the episodes is likely music. This is something that has forced plenty of programs to be edited for DVD releases. Even though the IJBFC is willing to foot the bill to transfer the episodes, the costs of attempting to figure out what is actually in the public domain could be giving CBS pause.

As disappointing as this is for fans of Jack Benny and for those of us interested in preserving classic television, until more information is made available (if it ever is) there’s no reason to get angry at CBS. The IJBFC suggests contacting CBS and provides an e-mail and snail mail address. And if anyone is interested, you can also see a listing of what CBS has in its archive.

Thanks to Gary16 at the Home Theater Forum for bringing this to my attention.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 Update:

Neil Brock at the Home Theater Forum posted a response that I tracked back to Techdirt, then Slashdot, then Boing Boing and finally to the Association of Moving Image Archivists ListServ, in which Stan Taffel contacted a source at CBS and heard another side of the story:

CBS is ready and willing to sub license any property (as they did with Studio One etc.) for a fee. Laura Leff, the “President” of the Jack Benny Fan Club she began a few years ago, is very good at generating P R and has done a very good job at starting a Facebook petition against CBS and getting articles and giving interviews pleading for the release of 25 Benny shows. She says that CBS has “locked” these films away and will not be preserved. This is not the case.

The 25 Benny shows as well as the full run of the series is stored in state of the art facilities. The film elements are safe and in good shape. CBS is also aware of the fact that Ms. Leff has a library of many existing shows and charges for making copies; dupes of both copywritten and PD shows are offered from her website.

While I applaud her tenacity and love for Jack Benny (she organized a fine website and a convention a few years ago), it seems that the truth has been diluted and the actual state of the predicament has been reported in error. She is great at “self promoting”.

What it boils down to is this: She is a huge fan who just wants to have copies of the shows and has gone this route to try and obtain them. CBS doesn’t know how she was “supervising” a transfer of one of the color shows as that is not her job. True, it was an NBC special and maybe she was invited to see a conversion but “supervising”? She is friends with Joan Benny (Jack’s daughter) so perhaps that’s how she was invited to see the inner workings. She has gained attention to her fan club and her plight, however misrepresented it is.

CBS is not the enemy here; they will sub contract The Jack Benny out. As these are supposedly P D shows (and that’s not definite) there are other sources to locate them and once they’re out, anyone can dupe them and sell them for no fee. CBS isn’t the only source for 16mm kinescopes. They even told her to try to find them through other avenues, fully aware she wants to add them to her “collection”.

Should these films be available – of course. However, business is business and CBS pays for the storage of these and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of elements and that’s not cheap. To give copies to her for her archive is not so simple even if she pays for her copies. Maybe some company will come forward and these shows will be seen. Time will tell.

At the very least, it is interesting to see how this story has made its way through the Internet.

9 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    CBS, I believe, doesn’t own the copyrights on the 1950-’55 kinescoped (and filmed) episodes of Benny’s series because they failed to renew them between 1978 and ’83. They bought “Amusement Enterprises, Inc.”- Jack’s production company, which originally owned his radio program and several other assets- in late 1948, enabling him to move to CBS in January 1949. By 1955, Jack decided to create “J & M Productions, Inc.” to produce and own his TV series because he wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any finanical consequences if his ratings fell {at that time, he told his future manager, Irving Fein, he was worried the network might force him to take a pay cut if his popularity faded; in Fein’s words, “techincally, he was only an employee of CBS” as long as they owned his program}. He took over his show again (and the copyright on it), and produced other series that provided him “guaranteed income”- and sold his company to MCA in 1962 for a tidy profit [and MCA stock]. MCA’s successor, NBC/Universal, owns the 1955-’65 filmed episodes of “THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM”.

    If there’s a case of “music rights”, why not deal directly with Mahlon Merrick’s estate? He was Jack’s arranger/conductor for 30 years [he retired when Benny's weekly series ended in 1965, and died four years later], and most of the cues heard on the live episodes were Merrick’s compositions….

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Now that I know more abput this story, I’m disappointed that Laura Leff is more interested in obtaining copies of the Benny kinecopes from CBS for her own “personal use” than the public she’e supposedly representing to get the network to clear its rights to those episodes for DVD release. I’d like to see some of the more “obscure” episodes myself…but not THAT way.

    However, CBS’ attutide on “THE AMOS ‘N’ ANDY SHOW” is still the same: they will NOT allow any DVD releases because of the “racial” issue involved in those episodes. They still own the copyright on that [having bought out creators Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll's ownership, before they moved to CBS in the fall of '48], and they’d prefer to pretend the filmed episodes “don’t exist” (the master copies of all 78 episodes do exist, in their archives), and refuse to answer ANY questions about future release. Somewhere, “right-minded” people are still “offended” about the way Amos and Andy were depicted on TV, and that’s enough for CBS to keep the series away from the viewing public indefinitely.

  • DuMont says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Grauman that CBS must find a way to release ‘The Amos N’ Andy Show’ to DVD or make it once again available for syndication.

    ‘The Amos N’ Andy Show’ was the very first television series that featured an all-African American cast, and it was a landmark in television. I’ve seen most of the episodes, and it was a very well written and funny sitcom, right up there with ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘The Honeymooners’ and ‘Leave It To Beaver’ as true fifties classics. All of these situation comedies are dated in their portrayals (or non-portrayals) of urban and suburban life when viewed from the prism of today, but that doesn’t lessen their comedic importance.

    On this subject, I’d like to put in a plug for ‘Viva Valdez’, an all-but-forgotten sitcom from 1976 that featured a Mexican-American family, and which was the very first all-Latino-cast comedy ever broadcast. I believe its source material was a long-running Canadian French-language sitcom called “La Famille Plouffe” (CBC, 1953-1959).

    As I recall, ABC was quite high on the series until the arrival of Mr. Fred Silverman as programming chief, who quickly re-moulded the Alphabet comedy development plans to his own unique (and hugely successful) vision.

    ‘Viva Valdez’ already had 13 episodes in the can, and they gathered dust up on the shelf for about a year until ABC aired the 13 episodes of it as a summer replacement from May to September 1976, as a lead-in to ‘ABC Monday Night Baseball’. ‘Viva Valdez’ got an OK Nielsen average of 9.3HH that summer at 8 pm, while ‘ABC Monday Night Baseball’ at 8:30 pm averaged 12.2HH.

    Wouldn’t it be nice of Columbia Pictures Television to give us a DVD release of ‘Viva Valdez’, or re-broadcast it on one of the many Spanish-language networks available to viewers today.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I’m quite sure even SONY Pictures Television has forgotten about “VIVA VALDEZ” (to the point they don’t even know it’s a part of their library). Only those viewers who actually saw it in the summer of 1976- including those who’ve managed to watch at least ONE episode recorded on home video- are aware it exists. Currently, the series only “exists” as an entry in Brooks & Marsh’s “COMPLETE DIRECTORY TO PRIME-TIME, NETWORK AND CABLE TV SHOWS, 1946-PRESENT” (and to a lesser extent, Rick Mitz’s “throw-away” description of it [copied from information in Brooks & Marsh's book, among others] in his “GREAT TV SITCOM BOOK” [first three editions only]. How can you possibly release something on home video if most people aren’t aware of its existance?

    Don’t look for “THE AMOS ‘N’ ANDY SHOW” to appear in syndication, cable or DVD any time soon, ‘DuMont’- as I’ve said, CBS is keeping a VERY tight lid on the series…and they can do it indefintely because they don’t want “controversy” if, by chance, they DO authorize a re-release. Damn shame….

    • DuMont says:

      For those who never saw ‘Viva Valdez’ in its original summer run back in 1976, Gilmore Box over a YouTube has put up the opening credits:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU1XOACa99s

      I rarely post links to YouTube, but this series is such a rare treasure, and the credit sequence gives you a flavour for the series.

      Content managers at Sony, please give this culturally important, landmark television series a proper DVD release.

    • DuMont says:

      For those who never saw ‘Viva Valdez’ in its original summer run back in 1976, a poster with the moniker Gilmore Box over a YouTube has put up the opening credits. This series is such a rare treasure, and I think in the absence of full episodes, the credit sequence gives you a flavour for the series.

      Content managers at Sony, please give this culturally important, landmark television series a proper DVD release.

  • Ellen Anthony says:

    I am interested in getting one or both of the Vault episodes from the Jack Benny Program. One was 1953 and one was 1961. Are either of those available anywhere?

  • Maureen Carney says:

    Shout Factory will be releasing “Jack Benny – The Lost Episodes” in September:

    http://blog.sitcomsonline.com/2012/06/digital-digest-jack-benny-from-shout.html

    It’s up for preorder at DVD Empire. Looks like they are episodes that are not in public domain. CBS found several a few years ago in a vault.

  • Paul Mular says:

    That Shout Factory DVD is licensed from NBC-Universal who owns the MCA properties. The Kinescopes of these shows were donated to the UCLA Film & TV Archive by the Jack Benny Estate and were restored by UCLA.

    CBS has nothing to do with this release. NBC-Universal usually subcontracts out to Shout Factory to release DVD product they are not releasing themselves. CBS-Paramount usually subcontracts out to Olive Films for DVD releases they they are not releasing.

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