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Why the Hell Can't I Watch Murphy Brown Online?

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer says that without the 1990s TV series Murphy Brown to inspire her, she wouldn’t have gotten where she is today. The show was so influential that Vice President Dan Quayle turned the main character, played by Candice Bergen, into a political meme. And yet this series isn’t available anywhere online.

In her new memoir, A Fine Romance, Bergen talks about how much the character Murphy Brown meant to her, and how many women have told her that it helped them get the courage to go into business. For those who never watched, the show was a sitcom about a professional television magazine journalist and single mom, Murphy Brown, who used her sharp wit and talent to break through the glass ceiling — or at least bang against it in a way that was always funny, not preachy. It was kind of like Parks and Recreation crossed with Mary Tyler Moore, and it had the same level of cultural impact.


The show was so popular (and controversial) that Vice President Dan Quayle blamed it for the L.A. riots after the Rodney King video came out. By giving us a happy, successful single mother as a main character, Quayle argued, Murphy Brown was breaking down family values. And from there, of course, riots were sure to follow.


Stanford University has an archived copy of Quayle’s much-derided Murphy Brown speech to the Commonwealth Club, and sums up the section on Murphy Brown like this:

He singles out television character Murphy Brown ... as someone “who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” yet “mock[s] the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

Quayle’s argument was beyond ridiculous, and completely ignored the issues facing low-income mothers with none of Murphy’s considerable resources. But the point is that the whole country was obsessed with the show, and even Washington, D.C. knew it. Murphy Brown moved the goalposts for what many people believed women could accomplish in the professional world.

So why isn’t this show online? It seems more relevant now than ever before. Why is a triumphant, well-written tale of a professional woman not being streamed on Netflix or iTunes or any other service for those of us with 1990s nostalgia? Hell, only the first season is available on DVD, fer chrissake. Sure, it’s on TV in syndication in some markets. And yeah, there are torrents of a few seasons that you can download here and there. But shouldn’t such an important show be available legally?


Bergen has said that she thinks it has to do with the Motown songs that they used in each episode’s opening credits. Music rights are notoriously tricky, and hold many shows back when it comes to streaming or DVD rights. But this is a new era. Why not just create a streaming edit of the series, producing some new music that doesn’t snare everybody in a copyright hellhole, and make it available?

This isn’t just about entertainment, though Murphy Brown is extremely entertaining. It’s about history. Losing our history due to foolish copyright kerfuffles, especially at a time when digital binge watching rules supreme, is worse than pathetic. It’s the kind of thing that Murphy would have laughed at — and then fixed, with a really smart idea.


UPDATE: A few of you have mentioned that the show is streaming on Encore Play. Unfortunately, this is still unaccessible for many customers — Encore is only available in limited markets, and in many cases requires customers to have a satellite dish.

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