The Week In Awfulness Part 2: Network Off-Air

Why the demise of the label behind most of the vintage TV releases in Britain is a tragedy – and perhaps a sign of things to come.

In the slow demise of physical media, as people shift to ephemeral streaming and return us to a world where we don’t own anything, it has seemed that the specialist labels – the boutique distributors dealing in titles that you are less likely to find on Netflix or Prime – were those most likely to survive thanks to the uniqueness of their catalogues – these are, after all, films that you won’t see on the biggest streaming services, often backed with exclusive extra content. Well, think again. The sudden fall of Network Releasing, which went into liquidation this week, shows that nothing is safe.

Network was the label that primarily specialised in vintage TV series, releasing box sets of classic – and forgotten – television from the past, alongside numerous feature films. It was one of our favourite labels thanks to a stream of buried British TV shows that it brought back to life and a whole series of vintage British films – the titles owned by StudioCanal that StudioCanal didn’t think were commercial enough to release – that made up a hugely impressive catalogue. Some of these were titles that you can’t imagine anyone else touching, either because they would not be seen as commercially attractive or because their content was a bit on the questionable side by modern standards – Network’s releases included entire runs of Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language for instance, as well as some shows that were barely watchable on modern TVs thanks to the diminished 1950s videotape quality  – but this completist attitude what made it all so important and it can’t be emphasised just how important all this was – while the odd TV classic might be picked up by the BFI, for the most part, these old series hadn’t been seen in years and I can’t imagine who else would consider releasing them – meaning that the entire history of the good, the bad and the ugly of British TV that Network was preserving is about to be lost.

Of course, the very obscurity of Network’s catalogue probably didn’t help – the audience for a box set of Crossroads must be a small one, though such releases tended to be financed by the success of the bigger titles. The existence of Talking Pictures TV has probably bitten into Network’s audience too, as many of the films and TV shows that the company released are on regular rotation on that channel. But Network seemed to have an audience for its bigger titles that included the Gerry Anderson shows and, if anything, appeared to be growing with new movie pick-ups and exclusive international distribution rights to several films. It was only a year or so ago that it announced a new partnership with Hammer Films, setting up a new company to both release the back catalogue and produce new films. Hammer has long been a poison chalice – how many times has that company changed ownership since the end of the 1970s, with little to show for it in most cases?

Still, you’d hope that Network’s back catalogue, reputation and importance would make it attractive to one of the other, better financed indie labels. Here’s hoping for a rescue package/buy-out before it is too late. Equally though, those other labels that have built a reputation for rescuing forgotten films that have little mainstream appeal must be concerned by this. While Network’s catalogue was, perhaps, especially obscure, it wasn’t so far removed from the collections of their fellow boutique labels – for every forgotten TV series, there was also a cult classic movie in the catalogue, and that should worry everyone. If TV broadcasts and streaming really did bring about the demise of this label, who is to say that it won’t happen to others? They might all seem successful – but then, so did Network. Yes, they might have their own streaming services – but so did Network. I very much that this is a one-off and not a sign of where things are going, because if the specialist indie labels bite the dust, so will the physical existence of many movies. Fans have, perhaps, begun to take the releases of the indies for granted – but this is a warning that it could all go away at any moment. And I can guarantee that Netflix is not going to be picking up The Owl Service or It Takes A Worried Man any time soon.

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  1. So there wont be a Journey To The Unknown box set … This is shit news – Network feels like an old friend, the catalogue holds so uch appeal to me personally and I have so many of their titles. They were excellent on all fronts. Strange situation that the DVD market is in. I haven’t upgraded to bluray, and can only look on enviously at some of the titles coming out on that format, but the prices are in any case eye-watering. I wonder if we’re entering the age where the physical release, if any, is a high-price, ‘limited edition’ instant-collectors-snob-artifact, with 5k+, bespoke art by Bozo Debrush, complete with director’s-nasal-hair-in-a-lucite-block. Much like beer in many city pubs, an expensive conversation piece and status-symbol ()

    Maybe – a first run limited edition, subsequently download or burn-on-demand option til the license is up? We’ll just have to go back to tape-trading days, back to bootlegs! Club together for a DVD burner. My dream would be to set up on an industrial estate, build video recorders and other obsolete tech from 3D printed parts! If we had Japanese levels of ingenuity, I’d propose a home video format for visual media akin to th e Minidisc. I’ll bet there’s a modest market for loons like me who would love a new re-recordable format, especially with digital picture and sound. But no – apparently, we have apparently arrived at the evolutionary dead-end of home entertainment. Big surprise – it’s whatever suits a few big companies best.

    Another factor is, has anyone actaully got any money?

    The Big Boys will clean up and eventually acquire everything. Indies can’t stay the course, unless on a tiny, boutique level? I notice that the trailer for the Argento season at BFI states ‘Inferno courtesy Park Circus/Disney’!!!! Though I suppose Disney came into ownership via buying the 20th Century Fox library (the studio that refused to even release the film in the early eighties).

    While I lament the wholesale plunder of culture by a few monolithic corps, Hammer’s shambolic afterlife makes me wonder if the properties wouldn’t be better exploited by the likes of Disney (TM). It doesn’t help that the back catalog is split between different studios. Their first mission should be to acquire the right s to all of it. There really should be a Hammer theme park, with a wallet busting gift shop attached. Boobs and blood made Britain great – are at least somewhat tolerable – why oh why can’t these (take your pick) get that into their heads. None of this ‘retro’ muck. That’s just branding to make whatever the latest swill being peddled look more palatable. Vampires are forever!

  2. Can only echo everything said in this article. The British Film series was a remarkable achievement on its own, and of course all those old TV series of the past. We can only hope the company can be resurrected in some form.

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