Fans’ demand prompts revival of sci-fi classic

George meets an alien. (Photo: WNET.)

George meets an alien. (Photo: WNET.)

WNET, dastardly villain in a two-decade scheme to deprive science-fiction buffs of the coolest public TV program of all time, this summer will redeem its reputation among fans. “The Lathe of Heaven,” digitally remastered and repackaged with additional material, will be distributed to public TV stations for broadcast in June [2000]. A home video and DVD will be released in the fall.

Originally broadcast on PBS in 1980, the drama inspired a cult following that never forgot the show, and never let WNET forget it, either. Fans of the program came together in an “extensive Internet community” to rage against the producing station’s “ruthless warehousing” of their favorite public TV show, and one site accused WNET of “corporate amnesia,” recalls Joseph Basile, director of program rights and clearances. He has been dealing with requests for “The Lathe of Heaven” ever since he joined WNET early in 1995.

“Lay people don’t understand that to take a program out of mothballs, we have to pay for and clear rights with all participants in the program,” explains Basile. “It’s a difficult and time-consuming and expensive endeavor.”

“We weren’t convinced that this was a program that had enough back-end value that we would recoup our investment,” he added. But numerous diehard aficionados of the program eventually convinced WNET of its potential.

“The Lathe of Heaven” is a classic speculative fiction revered by fans of the genre, both as a novel and as a public television drama that acquired a mystique of rarity. The novel by Ursula Le Guin was a bestseller in 1971. The television adaptation, produced by WNET’s Television Laboratory in 1979, was faithful to the original work. In 1998, Entertainment Weekly named it among the top 100 greatest works of science-fiction.

The production stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a disaffected 30-year-old whose dreams and nightmares literally come true. Orr seeks treatment from sleep-disorders specialist Dr. Haber, played by Kevin Conway. The plot twists when George realizes that Haber is manipulating his dreams to his own ends.

The sci-fi drama “struck a chord with young people when it came out in 1980,” recalled Ron Hull, a programming veteran who led PBS’s Archives Project in 1997-98. It was among Hull’s top picks of old public TV shows worthy of being brought back, but PBS declined to acquire broadcast rights to the re-upped show.

“It’s a worthy work, but we didn’t feel we’d have the right opportunity to present it in a significant way,” said John Wilson, PBS’s chief programmer.

Boston-based American Public Television is distributing the drama, to be released to coincide with stations’ June pledge drives.

“It wasn’t cheap”

In 1997, Basile co-opted the sci-fi drama’s Internet fans by asking the producer of a web site that flamed WNET to post an open letter from Basile. That communique prompted a steady stream of e-mails to Basile–up to three per week–urging the station to bring back the show. Today, the collection comprises a “huge stack,” approaching the size of a telephone book.

Through the outpouring of fan support, “we began to realize what a jewel we had in our closet here,” said Basile. He believes the drama’s rebroadcast will be a “major television event.”

WNET began clearing rights in 1998. Le Guin, who had sold the option for a remake to Showtime, was “very enthusiastic” about WNET’s interest in re-upping the original drama. New York-based New Video Group eagerly signed on as video distributor, and granted public TV an exclusive window to market home videos and DVDs as pledge premiums.

Re-clearing rights to the program required deals with “every Tom, Dick and Harry” involved in the original production, said Basile. He had to negotiate a special agreement with the composer, and insert a new version of a Beatles song excerpted in the original soundtrack. A cover version of “With A Little Help from My Friends” replaces the Beatles’ own rendition, which would have taken too long to clear and cost “an arm and a leg.”

Basile is “sworn to secrecy” about the total cost of re-upping the show. “It wasn’t cheap, and people don’t really understand that.”

His boss, Susan Marchand, demanded the oath. “The whole license fee and the advance from home video is not going to cover all of this,” she says. Marchand, executive director of program marketing and distribution, hopes to recoup WNET’s investment through royalties.

One new element “bumped up the price” of what’s being billed as the 20th anniversary broadcast of “The Lathe of Heaven”: Bill Moyers will interview Le Guin in a 20-minute segment to be attached to the program and packaged on the home video/DVD. Le Guin is “really the woman of letters for science-fiction,” says Marchand, and the author rarely gives interviews. WNET is billing Moyers’ interview with Le Guin as a companion piece to his recently televised talk with George Lucas.

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