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DVD Rattles TV Windows

18 Nov, 2003 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Stu Weiss was puzzled. His L.A.-based entertainment-marketing firm, Studio City, had been promoting top-rated TV drama “The X-Files” since it went into syndication in 1997, when the floor dropped from underneath him.

Seems in 2001 the show’s ratings vanished, disappearing from the top 10 so quickly that Weiss thought maybe it had met a paranormal fate often seen on the quirky Fox network show.

“How do you go from No. 1 to off the charts?” asked Weiss, incredulous that competitive programming could be the culprit. “I’m having a hard time getting my arms around any drama in syndication that would have dethroned ‘X-Files.’ Something happened, and it just tumbled.”

What happened was DVD. Specifically, TV on DVD, and studios are using the platform as a form of syndication that appeals to different sets of fans and different types of shows.

To date more than 3,100 TV shows have been released on DVD, and 47 are scheduled to bow at retail this month alone. The market has become a veritable mint for classic and current TV programming, with “complete season” boxed sets driving sales.

Bite the Hand that Feeds?
With the meteoric rise of TV DVD, its effect on the financial and scheduling aspects of TV syndication depends on the program and its position on the syndication food chain, said several industry experts.

Typically, a TV show is sold into the syndicated markets across the country after 100 episodes (five seasons), with some programming entering into syndication after 88 shows (four seasons).

The rules for entry haven’t changed, but the growing influence of TV DVD is forcing the studios to weigh the long-term potential of select titles versus the potential for more immediate returns at retail.

“It’s the reality of the future,” said TV analyst Marc Berman. “When a drama goes into syndication, it’s also simultaneously airing on cable. It’s all about making money.”

Berman cites this year’s release of “Las Vegas,” which would go into syndication in 2007 if the market warrants. Should NBC decide to put out a DVD of the show’s first season this year, Berman said it wouldn’t affect syndication.

That would not apply to the gritty Fox drama “24,” which Berman said is made for DVD because the show’s serialized format robs it of a shelf life in syndication.

Dramas that work in syndication generally represent a self-contained segment that has an opening, middle and closing. When the show is written around a season finale, it typically won’t work in syndication because most viewers will already know the ending.

Perennial ratings favorite “E.R.” has fared poorly in syndication due to its non-episodic format, and by favoring syndication ahead of DVD retail, the show has missed out on a jackpot that has thus far rewarded the “Friends” franchise to the tune of about $400 million, some industry analysts observed.

“The WB could have made a whole bunch of money if they had done the DVD release of “E.R.” first and then syndicated it,” Weiss said.

Most successful off-network products in syndication are 30-minute sitcoms that can play in non-prime-time slots. “Syndication is something you turn on while making dinner,” Berman said. “You don’t have to commit [emotionally] to the characters that much. You can watch it, have a few laughs and turn it off.”

Salad Days
The potential for conflict between TV DVD and TV syndication appears to be a nonissue, as the studios have discovered that both markets can coexist.

“The studios used to be worried about it about a year ago,” said Gord Lacey, operator of TVShowsOnDVD.com, a Web site that analyzes TV titles’ transitions to DVD. “But now I don’t think they’re finding it [negatively] affects syndication.”

The studios have discovered the existence of two mutually exclusive markets representing hardcore fans who purchase TV DVD, have taped every episode from TV and believe syndication is an inferior product, and the bargain hunter who won’t buy the $69.95 boxed set of “Friends” because the sitcom is on in syndication “five times a day,” Lacey said.

“One market is not pirating viewers or revenue from the other,” he said.

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