During the summer hiatus on new network TV comedies or dramas, it's easier than ever to choose your own reruns. That's because TV shows are booming on the DVD market.
Every week, new and old shows roll out on shiny discs as studios open their vaults and production houses put the finishing touches on recent series. Shelves at DVD outlets now include everything from Lucille Ball sitcoms and "The Cosby Show" to "Roseanne" and "Law & Order."
But the market isn't just catering to viewers feeling nostalgic about "Hogan's Heroes" or "Knight Rider." Television studios are also rushing current TV series onto DVD in a bid to snag new viewers. NBC's "The Office," which arrives on DVD on Aug. 16, was a modest critical hit but the quirky comedy only ran six episodes and failed to find a sizeable audience. The network is hoping the DVD release will help the show as it heads into its sophomore season this fall.
TV executives have good reason for believing such strategies can pay off. In contrast to the feature-film market for DVDs, which has slowed to a 1 percent growth rate, the public appetite for TV programming in a box has exploded. According to industry trade magazine Variety, sales of TV titles on DVD hit nearly $3 billion in 2004 - a massive increase from the $160 million sales in 2000.
"The DVD market is critical for TV shows now," says Marc Berman, the Programming Insider columnist at Mediaweek.com. "Everybody's releasing them as soon as they can and consumers are buying them for all the obvious reasons - they don't have to sit through the commercials, the quality is digital so it's great, and they can watch their favorite shows all the way through to the end of the season. They don't have to wait."
These DVDs have all the elements of the feature-film DVD and then some, says Ben Silverman, an executive producer of "The Office." "Fans of the show know that they have more [bonuses] to look forward to, and newcomers to the show know that their time isn't wasted if they watch the show and like it, because hopefully the show will still be on the air."
As scripted shows lose more time to ads, the extra space on a DVD becomes even more valuable, says fellow executive producer Greg Daniels. "The Office" is a comedy that relies heavily on the improvisation of the stars, says Mr. Daniels. Much of the actors' additional material had to be cut from the broadcast shows, but will be included on the DVD. "The great thing is to be able to have the audience quickly see all the fun, extra stuff that they did," says Daniels.
In the case of NBC's "Las Vegas," a drama set in a casino, the DVD-release extras include racy, unrated material not suitable for network broadcast.
Releasing a show on DVD is now a key programming strategy for TV executives. "They're an incredibly profitable business for us," says David Janollari, president of entertainment at the WB network. "They actually help to perpetuate awareness and publicity for a series as it's on our air."
DVD sales benefit the programs beyond helping to build new audiences, says Garth Ancier, WB chairman. "This is helping the shows become more profitable and allowing producers to put more money on the screen."
Few consumers have bought digital or high-definition televisions, so the pristine quality of DVD is a clear draw. But that doesn't fully account for the popularity of TV series on the format. Some observers believe that sales of TV titles are outpacing those of movies because the highest-quality storytelling in Hollywood has gravitated to television.
"The writing that's happening is vastly superior to what you're seeing in the theaters," says an industry insider who calls himself simply McG.
He sees "a real renaissance" taking place in TV. "Television is in a fantastically healthy place," says McG, who directed the movie "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." "There's always going to be ridiculous shows and shows that are going to be weeded out, but there are a great many shows that are rising to the top."
Since both new and old shows are fueling DVD sales, industry observers say the trend has the poignant benefit of reviving the "careers" of television pioneers, many of whom are no longer around.
"We're seeing the younger generation suddenly developing appreciation for all kinds of old-timers, from Milton Berle to Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar," says Richard Askin, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
"It started with TV Land and all these rerun networks, but now that kids can watch these shows on their own time and as often as they want, suddenly these people like Lucy are getting a whole new appreciation and new fans."