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Locking up History

Eyes on the Prize, the series about fighting for civil rights, is now fighting for its right to be rebroadcast, bobbing and weaving through licensing issues in an effort to renew all the necessary rights.
June 1, 2005

Eyes on the Prize, the series about fighting for civil rights, is now fighting for its right to be rebroadcast, bobbing and weaving through licensing issues in an effort to renew all the necessary rights.

Produced by Boston-based Blackside Inc., the first part

of the Emmy award-winning series, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965), consists of six hour-long episodes and premiered on PBS in 1987. The second part of the series, eight hour-long episodes, is called Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985) and first aired on the pubcaster in 1990.

Blackside founder Henry Hampton and his team felt the pinch of limited funds when rights were being initially negotiated. ‘With the first series, we cleared PBS broadcast and non-theatrical educational audio visual rights,’ says Cindy Kuhn, the post-production supervisor on the first series (and later the rights coordinator when all 14 hours were released on home video in 1992). ‘We subsequently cleared foreign broadcast, for standard television, not cable.’

While some rights were acquired in perpetuity, most were for very limited periods of time, such as six years, says Kuhn, so they have expired at different times. ‘It’s all over the map,’ she admits.

The Filmmakers Collaborative – a Massachusetts-based group that supports indie filmmakers – received a US$65,000 grant from the Ford Foundation that has helped spur efforts to bring the series back to PBS and educational markets. Granted a year ago, the money was largely used to research the costs of renewing the rights, as well as post-production and technical issues (like converting analog to digital). A study that sampled Eyes rights holders – for example, Kuhn contacted or researched 19 of the 82 footage and 10 of the 93 stills rights holders – was completed over approximately six months, and the results were recently submitted to the Ford Foundation.

Kuhn explains that she’s only looking for specific rights.

‘We wish we could ask for all rights, in perpetuity, but at this point we’re just asking for PBS broadcast and non-theatrical educational audio visual use in the U.S. and Canada.’

It’s proving especially tricky to negotiate music rights, as they are often formed on the basis of a most favored nations clause, says Kuhn. With over 100 music titles in Eyes, it’s easy to see how this can be problematic.

Rena Kosersky, the music rights coordinator who originally cleared music for the second series and also worked on the Ford-funded study, explains: ‘So far, nobody’s denying [Blackside] the rights, it’s all an issue

of money. There are some music publishers who view granting licenses as strictly business, and don’t get involved in social issues or causes.’

Blackside attorney and project director for the relicensing effort Sandra Forman says the numbers

in the resulting study didn’t shock anyone. (She was not able to reveal a figure since negotiations are ongoing, but outside sources put it at $1 million.)

The next step is to secure funding, which Forman is optimistic will be in place this summer. She is currently in discussions with PBS to determine an airdate for Eyes – possibly as soon as 2006. For Kosersky, renegotiating the rights for the series is a way to help preserve the country’s heritage. ‘Music is that extra little layer that gives you a sense of the times. [When music rights are] denied, then all of this history will be lost and our culture will be reduced to using background stuff, like Hollywood does.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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