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The Nation

Some Television Reruns Hit Their Prime on DVD

Both vintage and recent series crowd stores, changing the way shows are made and marketed.

November 13, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

The TV studios love guys like Mike Moore.

A die-hard television fan, the 22-year-old Boston resident has a burgeoning DVD library of favorite series, including "24," "Family Guy" and the short-lived "Freaks and Geeks." He rented "The Shield," an FX cop drama he initially wasn't crazy about, and on second viewing was "blown away by how good the program is," he said. He has barely had time to dip into his first-season DVDs of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Third Rock From the Sun."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
TV on DVD -- In an article in Sunday's A section about the effect of DVD sales on TV series, a caption on a photograph from the show "Lost" incorrectly referred to it as "ratings-challenged." The series is one of the most highly rated on ABC.

"The more [the studios] pump out, the better chance I will be able to buy a show I love," Moore wrote in an e-mail. Tops on his wish list: '80s shows such as "The Wonder Years," "Family Matters" and "Perfect Strangers."

Moore's enthusiasm may sound extreme to some, but there's little doubt that the tremendous success of the television series-to-DVD category is changing the way television programs are made, marketed and consumed.

Cult shows, for instance, that yield unspectacular ratings by network standards often have surprising clout, thanks to high DVD sales. In several cases -- such as Fox's spy drama "24" and animated sitcom "Family Guy" -- DVDs have helped keep on the air shows that otherwise might have been headed for cancellation. "Family Guy" has sold more than 5 million DVD units (in four separate editions); typically a TV series would be considered successful if it sold 500,000 units.

"DVD has been the savior of '24,' where the consumer can control the experience," said Howard Gordon, the executive producer who is running the show this season. The series' strong performance in stores, he added, has helped offset some of the problems the show, featuring Kiefer Sutherland as an unconventional and sometimes unlikable secret agent, has had in building an audience in prime time.

Studio spokesman Chris Alexander pointed out that, although its ratings have improved over time, "24" was relatively expensive to make. "DVD revenue is a key component to the show's overall profitability," he said. "Without it, the show's economics might be harder to justify."

The DVD results encourage studios to produce other "high-concept grabbers," Gordon said, citing Fox's new drama "Prison Break" as an example.

Indeed, DVDs are altering the financial model that has governed the TV business for generations. Now, industry veterans say, series no longer need to survive for at least 100 episodes before entering the lucrative syndication market on local stations.

Television DVDs are expanding the nation's collective pop-cultural memory as well, as long-forgotten shows are resurfacing (anyone up for a double marathon of Buster Crabbe's "Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion" and Jeff Altman's "Pink Lady and Jeff"?).

"Television on DVD is becoming part of the movie-viewing experience," said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, the online DVD rental service that has 3.6 million subscribers. "This blurring of lines between television and film was something video stores were never able to do" when VHS tapes reigned supreme. "It used to be that [some] video stores wouldn't even carry HBO shows because [they] were considered second-tier."

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, noted that at the dawn of commercial television in the late 1940s and early '50s, programmers often didn't bother recording their telecasts. "In half a century, we've gone from TV being live, completely disposable programming to [consumers assembling] libraries of these things."

For major hits such as ABC's dramas "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," DVDs have become a vital extension of the studio marketing machine.

TV shows are also giving a boost to the DVD market generally, which can no longer count on spectacular growth from feature film titles, especially as box office interest has dipped this year and some film DVDs have registered lower-than-expected sales. Earlier this year, DreamWorks Animation and Pixar said DVD sales of their respective animated titles "Shrek 2" and "The Incredibles" would be weaker than predicted.

This year, for the first time, the 499 new releases of multi-disc sets of TV series on DVD through October will outnumber those of recent theatrical films, at 441, according to the trade newsletter DVD Release Report. In the last three months of this year, studios will be churning out TV-related titles at the rate of 18 per week, according to Ralph Tribbey, the newsletter's editor. TV series on DVD have become the fastest-growing segment of the overall DVD business, netting $1.5 billion in estimated consumer sales so far this year, up 34% compared with the same period last year, industry executives say.

TV-to-DVD "is a business that essentially didn't exist 3 1/2 years ago," said Ron Sanders, president of Warner Home Video, which will release the 10th and final season of "Friends" on DVD Tuesday. But "for the foreseeable future, it's going to be a big and growing business."

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