In one of the quickest turnarounds ever for a television show to appear on DVD, Twentieth Century Fox Television today is expected to release the season premiere episodes of "24" less than 12 hours after the popular drama finishes airing.
The sixth season of the show starring Kiefer Sutherland as federal agent and terrorist fighter Jack Bauer was launched Sunday and Monday on Fox Broadcasting Network.
By this morning, DVDs of the shows will be on retail shelves. Usually, studios release a television DVD months, if not years, after the network run and package them as a boxed set with an entire season's worth of discs.
"This is an interesting approach to marrying the DVD format with the broadcast network," said Amy Jo Smith, executive director of Digital Entertainment Group, a trade organization that tracks the home entertainment business. "The entire industry has been discussing convergence -- but this is an actual illustration of it."
Fox's release of the "24" premiere on DVD is as much a promotional device as it is an experiment in collapsing the windows that traditionally separate a show's network run from its appearance in other formats. The latest "24" DVD will contain the first four hours of the new season plus 12 minutes of the episode that is scheduled to air Monday.
But Fox's gambit also illustrates the speed at which studios increasingly must operate to keep up with a world where consumers prefer to watch shows on their own time schedule -- not the networks'. Several networks, including ABC and CBS, have offered Internet downloads of an episode a few hours after the show airs.
"The trend of the network business is to try to tap into the value of shows earlier in their life span instead of waiting four or five years like we used to," said Gary Newman, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, which produces "24." "Shows today have a relatively short life span. We've got to make money while there's heat on a show."
The DVD release also is aimed at hooking viewers early into the show, whose complex plots and building story lines require faithful viewing to keep up. Although this is the first year for the immediate DVD release, Fox over the last three years has tried to whip up excitement by running the first four hours of "24" over two consecutive nights in January.
"The window of opportunity is so narrow, particularly for a show as episodic as '24,' " Smith said.
Fox didn't want its scheduling quirks to leave viewers behind or discourage them from watching during its network run. Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire, doesn't show reruns of "24." The series consists of 24 one-hour segments, set over the course of a single day.
"There are people, for whatever reason, who cannot tune in on those two nights, and this allows them to catch up and be part of the season," Newman said.
In addition to viewers who missed the premiere, the DVD, which has a suggested retail price of $14.98, should appeal to fanatics who buy the DVDs to dissect and replay the Bauer action sequences, he said.
"This is not going to be a huge moneymaker for us," Newman said. "It's more about servicing our audience."
Last year saw a high-profile experiment involving the near-simultaneous release of the Steven Soderbergh movie "Bubble" in theaters, on high-definition TV and on DVD within four days.
Fox studio executives have tried to keep under wraps the existence of the "24" DVD so they would not hurt ratings for network airings.
Adding the 12 minutes of next week's episode was another way for the studio to mollify executives in the broadcast network division and network advertisers. They figured that adding the first act of the upcoming episode would prime viewers to watch the rest of the season on TV.
"It's little baby steps into the world of '24,' " Smith said.