Tributes continue to pour in after the death this week of 101-year-old television pioneer Norman Lear.
Amid the celebration of and reflection on his towering legacy, a present-day realization has dawned about Lear’s singular catalog, which includes shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Maude. With the exception of Sanford & Son and Good Times on Peacock and 227 on Hulu, no Lear-created show can be accessed on a subscription streaming outlet. Instead, some shows can be purchased for download and many stream on free, ad-supported services like Pluto, Freevee and Tubi.
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Joe Adalian brought up the void Thursday in his Buffering newsletter for Vulture, noting that Lear shows like the trailblazing Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman are completely MIA.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, which controls rights to Lear’s catalog, declined to comment to Deadline on the streaming presence of his shows. The company’s CEO, Tony Vinciquerra, joined the many paying homage to Lear. “Norman and the shows he created defined what great television could be,” he said in a statement this week. “Always entertaining, impactful and fearless in addressing society’s most complex and difficult issues through humor … [they] set the standard for modern television audiences and paved the way for just about every great situation comedy or drama that has followed since.”
No one would be apt to quibble with any of that. Why, then, has there not been a pot of Friends– or Seinfeld-level gold for any of Lear’s creations, or even just a seat at the subscription table?
In the view of one veteran TV exec who has swung a number of major licensing deals with top streamers, the explanation could be hiding in plain sight. Lear’s shows, the exec said, were way ahead of their time, but their edge could cut a lot differently with audiences today, particularly with Archie Bunker in All in the Family tossing off the n-word and other slurs. “I just don’t know if you could do that today on network television or on an SVOD,” the exec said. “He tackled so many of the taboos, but the shows worked because there were so many fewer choices in the three-network world.”
Netflix did get into business with Lear in 2017 with the reboot of One Day at a Time. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos, in accepting the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award at NATPE in 2015 with Lear in the audience, told an anecdote about his life-long obsession with All in the Family. He recalled pilfering a framed cover of TV Guide featuring the show during a visit to the magazine’s sales offices. Despite that level of fandom in the executive suite, the new One Day at a Time was canceled after three critically hailed seasons, with Netflix explaining that “in the end, simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Backlash to the move was fierce, especially due to the fact that the reboot foregrounded Latino characters. Cable network Pop rescued the show in 2019, but it ended for good the following year.
Subscription services, of course, do not have the vise grip on the overall streaming business that they once did. Free, ad-supported streaming television (aka FAST) is now a booming sector, bringing in billions of dollars in annual ad revenue and growing viewership as cord-cutting keeps shrinking the pay-TV bundle. “If I were Sony,” the exec said, “I would put together a tribute channel in FAST where fans of Norman could find everything in one place. It would be a destination where you’d tap into this outpouring of feelings we’re all having.”
Sony licensed many of Lear’s shows to AVOD platforms on a non-exclusive basis, according to a person familiar with the agreements, meaning it could be possible for them to be packaged together.
While the streaming picture is still blurry for Lear’s shows, they remain in steady rotation on linear TV, in part thanks to the multicast networks (or “diginets”) that began cropping up a decade ago in the wake of the industry’s transition to HD signals. Antenna TV, a diginet owned by Nexstar, has several Lear-created shows on its schedule including 227, Archie Bunker’s Place, Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life, Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time and Silver Spoons. In January, one Lear series will premiere on Weigel Broadcasting’s MeTV and two more will join the lineup of cable’s TV One.
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