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DVD Brings Back the Golden Age of Television

15 Oct, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Forget Nick at Nite or TV Land. The real rebirth of the golden age of television is taking place on DVD.

Over the past year, hundreds of classic TV shows, from Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows” and “The Honeymooners” to “Star Trek,” have been arriving on DVD, often in elaborate “complete-season” packages packed with bonus features.

“It's great to watch TV with no commercials, particularly since on TV a half-hour classic sitcom is typically cut to under 22 minutes and then speeded up electronically,” said veteran TV DVD producer Paul Brownstein. “Also, very few of these old shows are airing on TV these days — maybe 80 of the thousands of great shows sitting in the vaults.”

What's behind the rush? For one, the TV DVD business has exploded. Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen recently echoed earlier projections from Video Store Magazine Market Research director Judith McCourt that consumers this year will spend about $2.3 billion on TV DVD, or 14 percent of overall DVD spending.Moreover, Reif Cohen predicts TV DVD will grow at an annual rate of 30 percent, becoming a $3.9 billion business by 2008.

TV DVD Waxes Nostalgic
Initially, the business was driven by hot contemporary series like “Friends,” “The Sopranos” and “The X-Files” — and their younger, tech-savvy fans. But this year, studio executives say the TV DVD bug finally bit nostalgic baby boomers — in a big way.

“The demand for classic TV shows on DVD has grown dramatically,” said Thomas Lesinski, president of worldwide home entertainment for Paramount Pictures. “The difference from two years ago [when the TV DVD boom began] is that the number of classic TV shows has surpassed the number of new shows being released on DVD, and they are selling better than anybody could have predicted back then.”

Lesinski should know: Paramount has scored big with complete-season sets of “Star Trek” and “I Love Lucy,” as well as a collection of 39 classic episodes from “The Honeymooners.”

Steve Feldstein, SVP of marketing communications for TV DVD leader 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, also cites several classic TV DVD triumphs from his company, including a first-season set of “Lost in Space” that sold several hundred thousand copies.

“Nostalgia is a big part of it,” Feldstein said. “For consumers who buy classic TV on DVD, a lot of times it's the memory of their own childhood and their desire to share that memory with their children.”

Not every vintage TV show works on DVD.

“We are highly selective on what shows we seek and release,” said Barry Gordon, VP of acquisitions for Image Entertainment, with classic properties “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Twilight Zone.”

“Generally, a series should be something that either the mass audience remembers and has some type of emotional attachment to, or a program that has a cult following and is highly collectable,” he said.

The trend in the TV DVD business to finally embrace special features can be challenging in the classic TV arena, since so much archival footage has been destroyed or lost. Moreover, Gord Lacey, founder of the Web site TVShowsonDVD.com, noted: “People involved in these shows are getting older, and many of them are passing away. If commentaries and interviews aren't done now, the chance may be lost.”

Producer Brownstein believes it is incumbent on suppliers to include as much extra material as possible, both to enhance collectability and to give a treasured show its due. That's why he strives to come up with unique features.

On the “Here's Lucy” set he produced for Shout! Factory, for example, he got Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. to record commentaries, and also found rare footage from a benefit dinner in which the children play their parents in an “I Love Lucy” sketch.

Any complaints about some of the classic TV DVD now being released? Lacey has one. “Two words: syndication edits,” he said, which are often a lot shorter than the network originals and sped up, to boot. “It's something that shouldn't happen,” he said, noting that studios can elicit help from fans in tracking down originals.

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