Where do TV shows go to die? It used to be that once a series vanished from the prime-time schedule, the only place for it was the purgatory of syndicated reruns. But the explosive popularity of DVD has erected a last-chance-for-gas way station on the highway to obscurity.
The thing is, what worked on TV doesn’t exactly correlate with what sells on DVD. Since May of 2000, when the first season of The X-Files made a digital splash on disc, the big aftermarket hits have been shows with rabid fans: The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons (which has sold more than a million first-season sets since September). Even shows that originally failed — the late-’60s cult item The Prisoner, for example — have found DVD followings. But recent months have seen a surge in DVD programming that’s more mass than cult: Shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H have tested the digital waters, and the first season of Friends is due April 30. The questions are, why and why now?
As with all things Hollywood, the answer to the first question is money. According to Matt Kennedy, cofounder and CEO of 1K Studios (the DVD production powerhouse behind HBO’s Sex and the City and The Sopranos sets), the cost of producing the prototype for the average five-disc boxed set is about $250,000, plus an added $1.25 to replicate each disc. A boxed set that goes for anywhere from $50 to $90 probably cost between $10 and $20 to make—and that’s a generous estimate. (To make it even cheaper, super-niche shows like My So-Called Life are being released exclusively on a preorder basis through websites — anotheruniverse.com in this case.)
For some entertainment companies, another benefit is exposure. Take cable outlet HBO, which has released season-by-season boxed sets for shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and most recently, the prison drama Oz. ”[We] target three very different audiences,” says Cynthia Rhea, senior VP of marketing. ”Those who are fans of the series, collectors of home video and series merchandise, and those who have heard the buzz surrounding the show, but have not yet subscribed to HBO. [We] give hard- core fans more of what they love and newcomers a taste of HBO’s original programming.”
As for the why now, it’s simple: The DVD revolution has officially arrived. More than 31 million players are in American homes, and those households are jonesing for product. Why not offer them something that they’ve proven they love? ”People just can’t get enough,” says Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons, which will release its second season to DVD on Aug. 6. ”Really, [our show is] jam-packed with so much material that you want to watch it again.” The same goes for classic Brit fare like Absolutely Fabulous, Fawlty Towers, and Upstairs, Downstairs: shows that are so rarely seen on these shores, one of the few ways to enjoy them is through the boxed sets.
So it’s only a matter of time before your favorite series makes it to DVD. Heck, you might even be pleasantly surprised by what turns up. ”I had no idea,” says My So-Called Life executive producer Marshall Herskovitz of his show’s digital revival. ”I’m going to have to talk to [coexec producer] Winnie Holzman about this.”