This has been takedown summer for television.
In June alone, episodes of acclaimed comedies like “30 Rock,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Scrubs” were removed from Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, each for scenes featuring white characters wearing blackface; five episodes of “South Park” that depict the Prophet Muhammad were withheld from HBO Max by Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom; and an episode of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” was taken off the network’s website and streaming services after a guest star, the comic Chris D’Elia, was accused of sexually grooming underage girls. (D’Elia has stated that all of his relationships were “legal and consensual.”)
Such removals seem likely to continue, thanks to a combination of technological advances and cultural shifts. As viewers are more aggressively interrogating issues of race and representation and holding people in the industry accountable for bad behavior, vast streaming archives have made thousands of episodes from throughout TV history — offensive and otherwise — accessible with just a few clicks.
While simply taking down offensive content might be expeditious for media companies, the practice seems to have few other fans. Some content creators and viewers have cited it as evidence that networks and distributors are succumbing to cancel culture. Even those offended by the content at issue point out that removing it can let companies off the hook for having created it in the first place. As the screenwriter Bianca Sams told Insider recently, “Pretending these episodes never existed doesn’t change the fact that they did.”
Rarely discussed is what “pulling” something actually entails in the digital production age, when film or tape hard copies rarely exist, as well as what the risks are of losing some content forever. Then there is the ethical dimension: While it’s natural for creators and corporations to want to distance themselves from offensive episodes, is the best approach really to erase history, rather than put it in context?
“It’s a business decision: ‘Sweep it all up! Anything with this goes!’” the comedian and actor David Cross said in an interview. “Then they can say to everybody, ‘Look, we’re good, there’s none of it! Nowhere! You’re not going to find it!’” (Cross’s Netflix comedy series “W/ Bob and David,” from 2015, had an episode taken down in June over a blackface sketch.)
Unsurprisingly, studios, streamers and showrunners are reluctant to give any oxygen to controversies regarding their content. Netflix, Hulu, BritBox, Adult Swim and Comedy Central all declined to comment for this article, as did several creators of affected series, such as Tina Fey, Trey Parker and Noel Fielding. Amazon Studios, BBC Studios and NBCUniversal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While this summer has seen a flurry of removals, withdrawing controversial episodes from distribution is nothing new, noted Ron Simon, the senior curator at the Paley Center for Media. Simon, who started his career working with studio archives, cited episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (“The Encounter” in 1964) and “Seinfeld” (“The Puerto Rican Day” in 1998), both of which were withheld from syndication by their respective networks over complaints that they were racist. (“The Puerto Rican Day” returned to syndication four years later; “The Encounter,” about an escalating racial conflict between a white and Japanese man, was not rerun on television until 2016.)
Dan Wingate, a filmmaker and former technical specialist in film and television preservation at Sony Pictures Entertainment, says that so-called “takedown” requests were standard, if uncommon, practice during his time at the studio. The reasons for them varied, he said, but their source did not: “It always comes through legal.”
What has changed is the mechanics of removal. In predigital days, taking an episode out of circulation meant cutting it from the syndicated rerun schedule and, behind the scenes, removing the physical tape masters and “servicing files” from their designated inventories and labeling them “out of service.” Episodes or films were then funneled to climate-controlled vaults and, in the case of companies like Sony, the Library of Congress’s National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va.
Nowadays, with most shows entirely shot and stored digitally, pulling one of them “is just to take the digital file down,” Simon said. An episode — or potentially an entire series — can be ordered down, fully removed from streaming and access-restricted in less than 24 hours.
In a sketch called “Know Your Rights” from the episode, Cross plays Gilvin Daughtry, a citizens’ rights vlogger who desperately dons blackface to try to provoke a Black police officer, played by Keegan-Michael Key, into arresting him. Daughtry is then pepper-sprayed and tased by a white cop played by Jay Johnston, another writer on the series.
In certain cases, takedowns are executed voluntarily. Fey and Robert Carlock, the creators of “30 Rock,” as well as Bill Lawrence of “Scrubs,” requested that episodes of their series featuring blackface be removed from streaming services. NBC, ABC and their various partners complied.
Other times, however, the process is more complex. Cross said his episode’s removal, for example, set off a series of contentious discussions involving his manager, Odenkirk and Netflix executives. He and Odenkirk also tweeted about the episode’s withdrawal, prompting a phone call from Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer (since promoted to co-chief executive), who was “very, very respectful” of “the frustration that we would be feeling as artists who put this thing out there with no ill intent,” Cross said.
“It was the adult thing to do, and guess what we did?” he said. “We had an actual dialogue and a conversation about it — we didn’t scream at each other in 240 characters.”
Netflix paid the creators a flat fee for their work on the series, Cross said. The episode’s disappearance therefore won’t impact any potential residuals he might have received at a traditional broadcaster, as happened to stars of “The Cosby Show” when that series was removed from syndication in 2014. Regardless, he insists that if there is a way to help get the episode back up, “I would. I know Bob feels the same way.”
That networks and streamers can now pull problematic episodes with such speed concerns those charged with maintaining television’s historical record.
Jane Klain, who has worked to recover and save lost footage as the Paley Center’s research manager, notes that permanently displacing shows, whether for social or financial reasons, threatens to purge “treasures” from the historical record. Before syndication (and later streaming) proved the value in saving old television, she said, “the networks were very lax” about preserving footage.
In the current environment, Klain understands why a company “may want to pull [an episode] because it’s uncomfortable to show, or it’s wrong or improper.” But she argues that it is the network or streamer’s responsibility to preserve it until they decide how and when to “put it into a good context” regardless of the content. In a much-discussed recent example, HBO Max attached videos to “Gone With the Wind” that give context to the film’s romanticized vision of the slavery-era South. Disney also added warnings about racist depictions in “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan,” which are available on the Disney+ streaming service. (The chief executive Bob Iger has said that the 1946 film “Song of the South” will never appear on the platform, though.)
While Cross acknowledged that in his case, “there’s really nothing we can do,” he said he hopes Netflix considers restoring his episode with a disclaimer that would allow viewers to come to their own conclusions.
“You say, in as diplomatic and anodyne a way as you can: ‘The following sketch contains a scene that might be upsetting to some people. A character dons blackface. Skip ahead if you don’t want to see it,’” he said.
The Paley Center has long warned users of its archive about potentially offensive imagery. “We’ve done that in the past with certain attitudes from shows of the ’50s,” Simon said. “We will just put an advisory that the perspectives are not ours today.”
Two media companies that recently pulled episodes are considering such measures, said two executives who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue.
What is never acceptable, Klain said, is to try to rewrite history by doing away with or destroying a show or film permanently, even if “after the fact, somebody was accused of something.”
“It was still made!” she said.
Pulled episodes and movies generally aren’t destroyed, but remain sequestered in proprietary digital storage platforms, with internal access indefinitely limited to trained asset managers.
While this method of storage may be significantly less laborious than climate-controlled physical archiving, it comes with its own particular set of risks. Wingate warns that each instance of removing an episode of a digitally produced show increases the possibility of accidentally losing or destroying the content, whereas series or movies shot on film can survive for 100 years when preserved correctly.
Wingate also cautions that as the digital universe continues to expand, many new employees may not be properly trained to migrate media across ever-evolving formats, a result of what he describes as the “corporate practice of letting go of people with specific, valuable knowledge.” Historically and potentially financially valuable assets stand to suffer: “With new distribution companies popping up that don’t have these asset protection structures in place, and metadata requirements for their inventories, a lot more digital assets could be lost.”
Simon, the Paley curator, admits that streamers overeager to hide problematic material might inadvertently damage content instrumental to “the arc of television history.” But he also suggests that as with most cover-ups, the attention such efforts inevitably draw only increases the desirability of the thing being withheld.
Simon gave the example of the racist comedy “Amos ’n’ Andy,” which despite being pulled from syndication during the civil rights movement remains widely available in bootlegs. News of pulled episodes likewise could spur “cult fans” to protect the content from being disappeared by corporations. Cross and Odenkirk’s “Know your Rights” sketch, for example, is still easily accessible online.
“If a show had any type of momentum and has attracted a group of passionate fans,” Simon said, “there will be some type of preservation effort.”