We Can’t Keep Making Media Disappear When the Political Winds Change

NBC / 30 Rock

In the early days of television, there were no efforts being made to preserve the media of the day. A lack of forethought means that early episodes of shows like Doctor Who and Dark Shadows are gone forever because people could imagine there was any value in keeping them, leading the companies that own them to spend large amounts of money searching for and even recreating the episodes for fans who want a complete collection.

In the past few years, the opposite problem has arisen; episodes of TV shows are being disappeared intentionally to appease a small number of people complaining about them or in some cases no one at all.

There’s probably some incident of this happening earlier, but the most high-profile example I can find is the producers of The Simpsons pulled the episode Stark Raving Dad featuring guest star Michael Jackson from being shown or sold or even appearing on future DVD and Blu Ray reprints after activists wanted all of Michael Jackson’s work removed from existence after a documentary about the child abuse allegations against him.

Okay, that’s a lie. The actual oldest example I can think of is the Super Best Friends episode of South Park, which features Muhammad along with other religious leaders, as well as its 2-part sequel 200 and 201. This was obviously done because religious extremists threatened Comedy Central with violence because of the depiction of Muhammad in the episodes, but they were all available on the DVDs and Blu Rays of the show, although 201 was heavily censored, as it was on its network airing.

It’s important to keep that in mind, that when you decide you’re going to make media you don’t like for whatever reason disappear that your “side” won’t always be the side making the decision on what stays and what goes.

Something that’s being lost in the rush to erase anything that might be seen as offensive is that not all fictional depictions of racism are racist themselves. For example, some British streaming services removed both Little Britain and an episode of Fawlty Towers for having racist content. The difference between the two shows is that while Little Britain is just white guys doing brownface, the racism in Fawlty Towers is, in context, shown to be inappropriate. It comes out of the mouth of a senile idiot. It’s no more accurate to say that Fawlty Towers is racist for this scene that it is to say Roots is racist for depicting slavery. Once we decide context doesn’t matter that’s where we are.

Most recently, Tina Fey asked for four episodes of 30 Rock to be removed from streaming and digital sales because they depict characters in blackface. The problem is again that no one intelligent ever saw those episodes in context and said “Oh, this is being racist.” For example, Jon Hamm’s blackface scene, a parody of Amos and Andy was about the way blackface was used to have white actors degrade black people and it’s hilarious to watch Tracy Morgan react to it the way any normal, decent person would. Context is important.

But perhaps the main problem is that these shows aren’t going to disappear anyway. We’re still going to find them if we want to, watch them if we want to and that’s not going to change. If anything, you’re just drawing more attention to them.

People have spent decades looking for lost Doctor Who episodes, to the point where the BBC animated them using cleaned up home recordings of the audio. You don’t think people will spend the five minutes tops it takes to find pirated copies of these episodes of 30 Rock.

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