Like almost every homebody in the past year, I found myself going through my house and taking an inventory of what George Carlin, in his immortal routine, called “all my stuff.” One night I spent an hour in my closet going through a shelf full of DVDs I’d completely forgotten about. And that’s when I was reminded of something that the powers that be in Hollywood seem to have forgotten.
Remember those alternate audio tracks that used to be included on DVDs of movies and television shows? In particular, the commentary track where the director, and maybe the screenwriter or a couple of stars, would watch the DVD with you and talk about Their Craft? Commentary tracks were cheap and easy to produce, and in those days before social media, it was a rare chance to go inside the process of making a show or film. Usually it was pretty glib banter, lots of verbal back-rubbing going on — but if you were a fan of that show, you couldn't get enough of it.
Case in point: when Freaks & Geeks: The Complete Series came out on DVD in 2008, it had 29 separate commentary tracks. They only made 18 episodes of Freaks & Geeks! When the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out in an “extended edition” — the kind of overpriced DVD set that used to be marketed to superfans — director Peter Jackson and nearly every major actor in the films participated in the more than 11 hours of commentary.
Then streaming came along and those commentary tracks followed their DVDs into the storage closet, never to emerge again. But why? What’s going on here? I found a few physical-media diehards on Reddit saying things like, “I buy Blu-rays almost exclusively for the extras these days.” The cost of adding an audio track to a Netflix or HBO Max video stream is virtually zero. There are no rights issues. There is no explanation. Hollywood has just moved on as Hollywood does.
But there is a spark of hope. Just last week Hulu uploaded a new "commentary cut" of Andy Samberg’s 2020 romcom Palm Springs, featuring commentary from Samberg, costar Cristin Milioti, screenwriter Andy Siara and and director Max Barbakow. Turns out Samberg misses DVDs, too. “We realized that Palm Springs will always be on Hulu, which is great, but there are elements of the DVD experience that just don’t exist anymore,” he told Variety. Hooray for Andy, but why should it take a bankable star to do what executives at Hulu get paid to do — improve the user experience? (At least I hope there’s someone at Hulu whose job is to improve the user experience.)
And again, what about those thousands of commentary tracks from DVD-era programs that are currently streaming on Hulu, Netflix, Disney, Peacock, and CBS All Access? Why aren’t they offered as audio options? Writing in Fast Company, Joe Berkowitz argues that with all the new content, viewers don’t have time to watch something twice, once with the original audio and then with the commentary track. Instead, he thinks the old DVD tracks should be released as podcasts. “The way directors and stars talk about their work on commentary tracks is pretty similar to the way they do as guests on these and other podcasts,” Berkowitz writes.
I disagree. First, you can’t just release a commentary track as a podcast. One way or another, you’ll need to do some post-production work to make it streaming-ready, whereas if you simply include the commentaries as alternate audio tracks … just like God put them on the DVDs … no extra work is needed. Second, because these are old shows and movies, it’s already the second time around for many viewers, and it’s not unreasonable to think they might watch it with the commentary on this time. Third, how enjoyable is it going to be listening to a podcast when the director starts describing a complicated visual effect on the screen?
Really, all of my objections boil down to this — we are letting the streaming channels off the hook. Disney+ can offer The Mandalorian in a dozen different languages, but can’t be bothered to port the commentary from the Toy Story DVD… which itself was ported from the Toy Story laserdisc?? This is pure laziness. Or how about those “Superfan Episodes” of The Office on Peacock? The Season 3 episode, “The Coup,” has several deleted scenes in the Superfan edition, just like on the DVD (from which it was probably lifted). But there’s no commentary option for Peacock’s version — even though the DVD had a commentary track featuring Rainn Wilson and three other actors on the episode. Peacock knows these tracks exit -- in fact, while you won't find it on the service itself, Peacock recently posted this five minute excerpt featuring the DVD audio commentary to YouTube, of all places:
The streaming channels can’t say there isn’t demand for alternate audio. Netflix and Apple created demand for its Audio Description tracks, which are included on all originals (Disney and Hulu are slowly adding them, too). Even though these audio tracks were meant to paint word pictures for low-vision and blind viewers, lots of people use Audio Description nowadays — people who are making dinner in the next room for example. Now, in a sign that it’s created demand among viewers, Netflix has begun going into its library of legacy films and describing those as well.
Look, they don’t have to put every lame commentary track online — just the good ones. Back in the day there was a site called RateThatCommentary.com where users voted on the best tracks. If the streamers only added commentaries from the top 100 tracks in that list, they would see the needle move. Heck, I’d rewatch No. 54 on the list — the “Weird” Al Yankovic classic UHF, currently streaming on Tubi and Pluto. That thing could only be improved by listening to Weird Al talk about it.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.