Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The impact of DVD on TV...

R. Dittmer on the Jabootu message board started a thread on a subject I’ve been meaning to address here. He begins: “I may be a totally unrepresentative consumer, but the only DVD's I find myself buying or renting recently have been full season releases of TV shows.”

R. will be glad to know this is not the case. To the panic of the industry, DVD sales are stagnating, in fact. People seem to have gotten over the initial rush of buying everything on disc (“Look, my new Van Helsing DVD set features four audio commentaries!”), and are moving more towards rental, as home video did.

However, the one share of the market that’s still burgeoning is TV series on DVD. Every week on the blog here I put up a list of what looks interesting to me amongst that week’s new DVD releases, and there’s generally a good dozen or more TV season sets being offered. Obviously one advantage, is that the bang for your buck is tremendous. For under $30 dollars the other week I got a set containing the thirty-five episodes that made up the first season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. That’s nearly 17 hours of material.

Another advantage is pure nostalgia. Certainly many folks of my generation ran out immediately to buy the Kolchak: The Night Stalker set, even while studiously ignoring the new ‘reimagining.’

However, I must disagree with my good friend Henry Brennan, who writes on the subject: “Theater experiences are not nearly as ubiquitous and lack the sit-at-home easy comfort and familiarity of the tube. For myself, I enjoy a good (or bad) film every so often. But a series like "Night Stalker" or "Night Gallery" actually means something to me in terms of my past.”

That’s true, but I’d argue that DVD will kill part of what makes that so. One reason TV shows stay with us is that they ‘grow’ with us. Take something like Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you got hooked on that show when it was initially broadcast, it became (for part of the year) a weekly companion for seven years of your life. That’s a completely different emotional investment than would be the case if you instead spent seven weeks (for example) burning through all the shows on DVD.

Also, I would argue that for my generation and up, TV held a fix on our imaginations because, like seeing a film in the theater, TV ‘controlled’ the experience. By this I mean that before video tape machines and home video, you basically got one shot at seeing a show, unless it got syndicated. This is especially true back in the ‘60s and before, when shows ran nine months without reruns, but instead were replaced by summer shows between seasons. You had to have your ass on the couch when the show was broadcast, or you missed it. For all of the convenience of home video, Tivo, DVD, etc., you’ll never replicate the power of media that was so potentially ephemeral.

Watching Lost (for example) on DVD is more convenient, and definitely advantages the material in terms of presentation (improved picture quality, often widescreen formatting) and by the lack of commercial breaks and those annoying promo bugs that you can’t escape now, etc. However, I don’t think those who catch up on shows one weekend a year—as I do with many series—will have the same investment in the show as those who watch it unfold over the span of an entire five or six months.

Max Torque: “My prediction for the future: TV studios will start to produce a few series with an eye toward a DVD-only future. That is, if the series does well in season one, they will pull it from the airwaves, freeing up space for a new series to have a go, and release future episodes directly to DVD without airing them first. Doing so will free up the schedule, and production costs can be lowered. Some nut will think that it's at least worth a try.”

I think that’s true—the makers of Futurama supposedly will be putting out three movie-length episodes on home video some time soon—but also there will be another element involved. I’ve been lamenting to people that Arrested Development probably came out a few years too earlier. I believe that aside from strong DVD sales helping to keep shows with a narrow but fervid following around, you will at some point in the next five or ten years start seeing shows soliciting ‘subscriptions’ to keep the shows in production.

For instance, if I am laying out money to buy Arrested Development on DVD even after following the show in broadcast, and I am, wouldn’t I be willing to pay another $30 towards a new season of the show, if otherwise it would cease production? You bet. Perhaps, like PBS, there will undoubtedly be packages. Subscribe in the amount of a $100, and you’ll receive ‘free’ the DVD set when it’s released.

So if a half million fans are willing to subsidize a production budget that would otherwise need to be solely be covered by the network buying the show…

Admittedly, that model won’t always work. Fervid fanbases tend to be, well, nerds, and for instance at the current time there are several sci-fi and genre series on the air. Nerds spend their money freely, but even so, most would want to only subscribe to a limited amount of shows. Thus a certain level of broadbase support would still be required, unless one or two insane and wealthly fans were willing to kick in several millions themselves.

Still, I suspect we’ll see this at least attempted sooner rather than later. The Internet makes it almost inevitable.


At 5:53 PM, Blogger Henry Brennan said...

Hey Ken - great article. Oh, just a footnote - I've started my blog up again. It only took five minutes of "Oasis of the Zombies" to kick me out of my writer's block. Go figure...

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