Following up on my conversation with Kate Hagen about why I can’t legally stream The Flamingo Kid and many other films, listener Matt wrote in with some helpful insight into the hurdles for re-releasing old titles:

Happy to hear you talk about digital distribution. I worked on that side of the industry for a major cable network for several years. Wanted to share some insight on the day-to-day realities of releasing catalog titles on the EST/DTO platforms (that’s electronic sell-through and download-to-own [interchangeable terms], and iTunes/Amazon/Google Play/Vudu, etc.).

I worked in TV, but I’d guess that a lot of what I experienced applies to film as well. My sense is that most movies or TV episodes still not available on digital platforms have some issue holding them back.

The decision to release these older titles all comes down to risk, and it rarely makes sense on an individual title basis to take the risk. The risk is either financial (spending money to clear a song or a piece of stock footage) or legal (when there’s an unclear chain-of-title, either for an entire TV series/movie or for licensed media within an episode or movie).

In my experience, new release titles drove nearly all of our team’s revenue, with catalog episodes bringing in comparatively little. So on a case-by-case basis, it’s very difficult for digital distribution teams to make the argument to their superiors that it’s worth spending money, sometimes a lot of money, to license music for home media use, or to release an episode or movie with an unclear chain-of-title and hope no one comes out of the woodwork with a lawsuit claiming they hold its distribution rights.

Older movies or TV episodes may only bring in a few hundred dollars a year to the studio or network, when new releases are making millions. Frankly, if you go to your Senior VP asking permission to spend $30,000 to clear a song so you can release a 25-year-old TV episode that’s projected to make $40 in a year, you’re an idiot. It’s much easier for everyone involved to not bother with the mess of issues surrounding some of these movies and shows, and instead to just let the money roll in from new releases.

From my experience, I think the only way we get every TV show and movie released digitally is if high-ranking executives at networks and studios decide it’s worth it in the long run to have full distribution rights to their entire libraries, and take a one-time financial hit to clear many episodes and movies at the same time. The cost/benefit rarely makes sense one at a time, but it would likely be worth the cost for networks and studios to have complete libraries of content they can license over and over again to different streaming services.