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TV Series Are Making a Killing on DVD

Video* Repackaged episodes and entire seasons of television shows are a hit with fans and a bigger hit with studios.

January 25, 2002|RAOUL V. MOWATT | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Newly released on DVD, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is out to kill the competition in sales. And so far, she's doing the same sort of job on them that she has done for years on demons, monsters and the undead.

Even before its debut, advance orders for the DVD, which contains the first season of the popular TV drama, already had pushed it to the top of Amazon.com's DVD sales list, beating out such movies as "American Pie 2" and "Moulin Rouge."

"Buffy," whose heroine battles both bloodsuckers and typical teenage problems, is just the latest example of a rapidly expanding media trend: studios repackaging television programs (from series seasons to miniseries to made-for-TV movies) to capitalize on often-rabid fan bases. This increasingly lucrative market combines the digital clarity and compactness of a maturing technology (DVDs) with the growing reach of television (especially cable) into niches often thought reserved for the video release of movies.

And these TV DVDs often offer the same features as movie DVDs: outtakes, narratives by stars or directors, documentaries, all at a relatively modest add-on cost to the producers.

"It's just a way to extend the moneymaking opportunity for the TV series," said Andrew Johnson, vice president of consumer research at Gardner Dataquest. "It's just a natural."

"There is obviously a great market for TV product on DVD in a way that there never was for TV product on VHS," said Peter Staddon, senior vice president of marketing at Fox Home Entertainment. "It seems to be the right format to deliver this property. In DVD, you can get the whole season in a neat little package that takes up two inches of shelf room as opposed to two feet of shelf room for a VHS collection."

"It wasn't that long ago that once a television show played, it went out into the ether and the only way you could retrieve it was if you were waiting up on Alpha Centauri and picked it up as it flew by," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University and director of its Center on Popular Television.

What DVD brings to the table is sharper pictures, better sound, the ability to advance to specific sections of a program, and the ability to include large amounts of programming in a smaller, more durable package.

That's what has boosted the phenomenal growth of DVD as a format during the last five years. Consumers spent $4.6 billion buying all types of DVDs in 2001, according to the DVD Entertainment Group. The industry shipped about 364.4 million DVDs last year, compared with 182.4 million in 2000.

The studios generally won't release sales figures for TV-based DVDs. But Steven Beeks, president of Artisan Home Entertainment, said he thinks other studios are experiencing DVD successes similar to the one he had with the first season of "Twin Peaks," the moody David Lynch drama about solving a murder in a quirky town. In the three years that it has been distributing videos of "Twin Peaks" episodes, Artisan has sold between 30,000 and 40,000. In contrast, Beeks said, in the few weeks since the series' first-season boxed set has been out on DVD, Artisan has sold about 150,000.

"There's a certain amount of sexiness attributed to the fact that this is a new medium, and you can put a lot more on it," Beeks said. "You can have access to every episode. The sound and picture quality is much better. Add it all together, and it adds up to a much more successful, much more desirable release."

Burton Cromer, vice president of Home Video and BBC direct, said DVD has quickly accounted for about 25% of lifetime sales of such comedy titles as "Black Adder" and "Fawlty Towers," even though they have been available for years on video.

"There's a whole new group of people that didn't buy things on VHS that buy them on DVD because it's the new toy and if you have a new toy, you need new software," he said.

So new software is what they're getting.

In the last year, fans have been able to select from seasons of TV programs ranging from the sitcom "MASH" to the alien-conspiracy drama "X-Files," the animated high jinks in "The Simpsons" to those in "South Park." Prices range from $40 to more than $100, depending on the length of a season.

Additional seasons of some of those shows will come this year, along with an array of newcomers. Paramount recently announced it would boldly go into the new format with seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The gritty prison drama "Oz" will be put on DVD. The final episode of "Xena" will come out on disc, followed by individual seasons.

It's not purely coincidental that the fans of many of these series match nicely with the demographics of DVD owners.

Basic math says if you can entice even 10% of regular "Friends" viewers into buying a season DVD, that's about 2.6 million you can sell, said Doug Wadleigh, vice president of marketing/special features for Warner Home Video.

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