In his book “Monty Python: The Case Against” Robert Hewison explains how a lawsuit changed everything. The members of Monty Python only owned the rights to two things, the copyright to their material and the trademark to the name Monty Python. The BBC owned their groundbreaking television series which they leased to Time-Life Television to syndicate in America. One other thing the Pythons had going for them was that in their contracts they had final edit rights over their shows. Time-Life had successfully syndicated the first three seasons and were awaiting the fourth. ABC Television approached Time-Life wanting to air the next season on their network. What they were handed was a six episode abbreviated season with word that the BBC had cancelled the series.
ABC decided that the best thing to do was to air the episodes in two late night comedy specials instead of as a weekly series. They immediately began editing the episodes for content and to fit in their commercial. The Pythons were unaware that their shows were being edited. When they were sent a copy of the first edited special they immediately hired a lawyer to prevent the specials from being aired on the grounds that they were not consulted for final edit and that ABC had done such a poor job that most of their jokes were ruined making it look like the group as a whole had released shoddy material. Ultimately the judge agreed but could not prevent the shows from airing because it was two close to their broadcast dates. He did set the groundwork for the Pythons to sue ABC for damages. The Pythons were trying to sell albums, movies, books, and concert tickets for their live shows. If Americans saw the ABC shows then they would think that the Pythons were not funny and avoid buying any of their products. The BBC interceded. If Python sued ABC and won then ABC could sue Time-Life for not warning them about the groups final edit rights and Time-Life could sue the BBC for the same reason. A deal was struck with the Python members that once the syndication deal with Time-Life ran out that the full rights to the show and the master tapes would go to Monty Python Ltd.
In 1979 Time-Life was about to lose the syndication rights to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. This meant that all stations airing the show would have to stop until another syndicator distributed the show. The Pythons had not yet chosen a syndication company and probably would not get around to it for a few years. The news of the Monty Python leaving television was not good news for the many PBS stations who broadcasts the show. During pledge drive weeks fans of Monty Python contributed lots of money to their respective local PBS stations to keep them airing the show. At WNET Channel 13 in New York City plans had to be made as to how to keep those viewers after Python stopped airing. The first obvious replacement was “Fawlty Towers” which had already aired on the channel a year earlier. But with only 12 episodes of “Fawlty Tower” in existence this could be only a temporary fix. When the channel ran through all 12 episodes they came up with another replacement series, “Ripping Yarns”. At first it seemed like “Ripping Yarns” would be the perfect replacement. It’s pilot episode “Thomkinson’s School Days” had the same silly humor that Python did and had Palin and Jones in the cast playing different roles. But the followup episodes only had Palin in the cast and the humor and pacing of the episodes was far more sedate and not as silly. And only six episodes were offered in syndication. WNET next offered “Doctor in Charge” which had some episodes written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman but quickly looked for another replacement when the humor on the show turned out to be standard sitcom jokes. Next came “Not the 9:00 News” which the BBC claimed was the next Monty Python. There were plenty of episodes but it was very different from Monty Python. Once again when the pledge drive came around very few viewers donated any money to keep “Not the 9:00 News on the air.
Inevitably the idea of replacing Python with anything it’s former fans would enjoy was abandoned. The Python’s time slot was filled by a show called “Meeting of the Minds” hosted by Steve Allen. It was a panel talk show where actors playing historic characters and/or famous literary characters improvised their lines while Steve Allen interviewed them. It was experimental television that only lasted a few weeks. “Meeting of the Minds” was finally replaced with one Brit Com after another, “To The Manor Born”, “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fall and Rise of Regenald Perrin” and many others. For a while “The Two Ronnies” were brought back as was “The Goodies”. Other PBS stations found a new champion with the series Dr. Who. Previously Time-Life had only syndicated the episodes with Tom Baker. But now the BBC’s new syndication company Lionheart was syndicating the Peter Davison episodes and had announced that they would be syndicating all the episodes they still had in their library starting with the first episodes and continuing til they reached the newest Sylvester McCoy episodes. Dr. Who fans donated money just as eagerly as the Monty Python fans had.
In July of 1983 Monty Python’s long absence came to an end when it went back into syndication. There it remained on WNET for the next five years before MTV Networks paid for the exclusive broadcast rights. But by that time things had changed. Video tape meant that viewers could record or buy episodes and not have to donate money to a PBS station to see them again. The Flying Circus would stay with MTV for a decade where the rights would be bought by A&E for another decade.