Cult fans bring 'The Family Guy' back to TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jay Wilke is among the millions of fans of "Family Guy" who latched on to the animated TV sitcom long after the show had been canceled. "It is simply the funniest show," says Mr. Wilkes, an event planner from Tampa, Fla., who discovered "Family Guy" on DVD and has since signed an online petition to bring the show back to Fox. "I laughed so hard that I literally cried, and I haven't done that in years."

The wildly sophomoric mix of politically incorrect toilet humor and social satire, axed in 2002 after three seasons, became such a hit upon its DVD release that the TV network is doing the unthinkable: Bringing the show back for 35 new episodes.

The show's resurrection can be attributed to a fresh audience that discovered the show through late-night reruns on the Cartoon Network. As a result, "Family Guy: Season One" has sold more than 2.2 million copies, making it the second-bestselling DVD of a TV series (the highest-grossing DVD in that category is a live-action comedy of the basic-cable hit, "Chappelle's Show: Season One").

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"This is the first time I've seen something like this happen," says Peter Staddon, executive vice president of Fox Home Entertainment. Mr. Staddon says that the company considered the property "decent," but nothing special. "We were surprised at how insatiable the demand was."

The reason for the DVD's success is that it reached the lucrative market of 18-to 34-year-olds who avidly collect DVDs.

"They love viewing the shows multiple times, having their friends over and showing off their home theaters," says Jamie Hooper, founder of Giant, a new magazine devoted to this particular audience. The self-described 20something Gen X-er says this audience has been overlooked and underappreciated by Hollywood.

The success of these top-selling TV-show DVDs point to a rich, new direction for home entertainment.

"Hollywood doesn't even know this audience," contends Hooper. "These men have a very specific view of the world, humor, and common culture and 'Family Guy' [and Chappelle] fit all these perfectly."

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy," credits Monty Python, Bing Crosby, and his own father for inspiring what critics and audiences alike consider a trademark blend of sometimes sophisticated, sometimes off-the-wall in-jokes about pop culture, politics, Broadway musical theater, and unapologetically juvenile interests.

The 30something animator recalls the moment his dad, who was in his early 30s at the time, brought home an audio tape full of rude body noises. His whole family listened - and laughed, says MacFarlane.

"If my dad can laugh," he says, "I guess it's OK." He adds that the show "is a blend of a lot of things - you don't want too much of one thing."

The unexpected revival of "Family Guy" surprised MacFarlane as much as anyone. But he cautions fans of other extinct shows not to be too optimistic, noting that it's much easier to bring back an animated show than a live-action program. "For a live-action show to be revived would be a real long shot," he says. "It's much more difficult to get that production back up and running because you need actors who've all gone on to other things."

Nonetheless, he adds, the whole sequence of events that led to the show's rebirth - including the DVD sales and its success on Cartoon Network - has pointed out a new economic model, particularly for animated-adult programs.

"Coupled with merchandise, you can add all those things together and the show can make a profit," he says. He concludes that even if audiences don't show up to watch "Family Guy," the show "can still have a life of its own, even if the network doesn't want it."

TV studios raid vaults as fans clamor for DVD releases

Unexpected fan power has driven the explosive growth of the TV-to-DVD market since 2001, when obsessive fans showed up to buy anything connected to Fox's hit show, "The X-Files."

Prior to the show's debut in the home-video market, studios had been following the pattern originally set by VHS tape releases, issuing a few episodes at a time. But fans clamored for more. Fox issued the entire season of "The X-Files" in a multidisc package and set the stage for today's burgeoning DVD marketplace. Since then, studios have been digging through their vaults for entire seasons of shows dating back to "I Love Lucy."

But not all these series have a fan-base that will shell out the $30 to $50 for a box set. Moreover, fanatical fans can be tricky to please, says Gord Lacey, president of tvshowsondvd.com, a site he founded to help bring back "Family Guy." Mr. Lacey notes that TV studios often face unexpected roadblocks in clearing the rights to use music from each show's original soundtracks. "Home-video divisions are having to go back and relicense music to release the DVDs," says Lacey. "Sometimes they can't afford to do it." He points out that Universal incurred serious fan wrath when it substituted new music on the "Quantum Leap" DVD without informing the public. "There was a huge backlash," says Lacey.

Beyond that, studios sometimes struggle to gauge how much fan demand there is for shows. DVD producers at Sony Pictures briefly considered issuing "Werewolf" (1987-88), a show starring Chuck Connors, after being deluged with hundreds of e-mail requests. But then they discovered that the e-mail was coming from four sources - three fans in North Carolina and Chuck Connors, the star.

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