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December 17, 1995|Donald Liebenson | Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes about home video

The video industry's biggest event traditionally is the Video Software Dealers Assn. Convention. Usually in Las Vegas, it attracts thousands of retailers for a week of celebrity-studded brouhaha supplied by studios and distributors on behalf of their hottest releases.

By contrast, there were no celebrities or flashy booths or exhibits at SIVA '95. The sixth annual convention of the Special Interest Video Assn., held last month in New York City, attracted fewer than 300 special-interest retailers, producers, marketers, duplicators and broadcasters.

But the disparity in numbers can be deceiving. These days in the home video industry, special-interest video is where much of the action is. Consumers have spent more than $900 million on special-interest videos this year, up from $823 million last year, said Dick Kelly, president of Stamford, Conn.-based Cambridge Associates, a management consulting firm.

SIVA has defined special interest as programs that deal with "subjects that teach, train, guide, inform, inspire, entertain, enlighten and enrich." More illustrative is a title check of some of the videos that were honored with SIVA Awards.

"Fire Safety for Kids," produced by Children's Video Development, was named best children's education video. "The World's Most mysterious Places," from Goldhil Home Video, won in the travel category. "Gourd Masks," from Life Base TEam, was the winning crafts, hobbies and home arts tape. In the sports category, "The hitter's Commandments," from 44 Sports II Enterprises, struck out such heavy hitters as NFL Films and Sony Music Video's "MTV Sports."

Among the programs screened for attendees in the Producer's Showcase were "Milk Cap Mania," "The First Salzburg Model Railroad Club," "The Woman's Secret Weapon for Auto Buying" and "Spinal Tips--Home Remedy."

"By definition," Kelly said, "you have limited audiences for some of this stuff."

This is special-interest video's blessing and curse. Companies such as V.I.E.W. Video, Kidvidz, Kultur Video and Mystic Fire Video produce or distribute programs that are labors of love for people who share particular passions. They may enjoy the odd hit, such as Mystic Fire's "The Power of Myth," featuring Joseph Campbell, which sold 700,000 copies, but for the most part, they are in the business of perennial videos that sell steadily and consistently.

"We are building a catalog that by nature will be category specific and will have longevity, whereas some companies may roll the dice with programs that are extremely timely or exploitative in nature, such as those covering the O.J. Simpson trial and the Gulf War," said Bob Karey, president of V.I.E.W., which distributes videos in the areas of fine arts, classical and jazz music, nostalgia, documentaries and parenting.

While priced for the sell-through market, special-interest videos cater primarily to niche audiences. Traditional retailers are resistant to surrender limited and valuable shelf space. Only exercise, sports and nontheatrical children's programming have enjoyed cross over mainstream success. (Yet, Kelly said, the crowded exercise field is losing its weight, dropping to $198 million from $248 million last year.)

Among other special-interest genres that Kelly studied, the one with the most significant gain was the diversified "other," on which consumers spent $275 million this year, up from $195 million in 1994. documentaries, too, were up, from $152 million to $184 million.

These gains, Kelly said, can be attributed to aggressive alternative marketing. More than half of special-interest videos are bought through direct response, he said. Other viable routes are specialty catalogs, infomercials and cross-promotions.

Goldhil Home Media in Thousand Oaks, a nontheatrical distributor and producer, has nurtured these nonretail outlets to help sell half a million copies of "David Carradine's Tai Chi Work-out," more than 200,000 copies of "America's Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills' and more than 100,000 of "Alien Autopsy," which was previously broadcast on the Fox Network and is available on the Vidmark Entertainment label.

"You must know your audience," said Goldhil President Gary Goldman. "Our 'Tornado Video Classics' [which sold 25,000 copies in three months] is working because people are interested in tornadoes, not just natural disasters."

With more and more consumers buying videocassettes, major studios are taking a more focused look at special-interest video.

Tie-ins with high-profile theatrical releases are one way for special-interest titles to get their foot into retail's door. MCA/Universal Home Video, for example, is re-promoting its series of David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon in anticipation of Oliver Stone's film "Nixon," which comes out Wednesday.

Companies such as PolyGram Video, Columbia TriStar Home Video and WarnerVision are diversifying their catalogs with programs that have brand-name recognition and series potential.

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