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The 'Family Guy' Effect

16 Feb, 2006 By: Thomas K. Arnold

TV shows are dying at a breakneck clip. ABC made headlines when it canceled Heather Graham's highly promoted comedy “Emily's Reasons Why Not” after only six episodes were produced — and one aired.

An updated “Night Stalker,” hailed as one of the great hopes of the fall 2005 TV season, also lasted just six episodes.

And just recently, CBS canceled the comedy “Love Monkey,” itself a midseason replacement, after the fourth episode aired.

But mourn not for these and myriad other noble TV series that failed. For even the most lowly canceled show, there's quite often life after broadcast.

It's called DVD.

“I think pretty much every canceled show is going to make its way to DVD,” said Gord Lacey, who runs the Web site TVShowsonDVD.com.

He notes that the fan base for TV DVD has become so rabid — some studio executives say sales are approaching $4 billion a year, which translates to nearly a quarter of the entire DVD business — that even a broadcast bomb can become a DVD diva.

That's what happened with “Family Guy,” the crude animated series from Seth MacFarlane. Low ratings killed the series after a Fox network run of less than three years. But after spectacular DVD sales — three boxed collections of episodes have sold more than 6 million units — Fox took the unprecedented step of putting the show back in production, and on the air.

“We had a terrific asset lying dormant, and it energized the fans and brought new ones into the fold,” Fox's Steve Feldstein said of the DVDs.

Granted, “Family Guy” wasn't an immediate network kill. But Lacey believes even shows that only lasted a few episodes have potential on DVD. “Love Monkey,” for example, was canceled after the fourth episode drew a disappointing 5.4 million viewers.

“And if you can translate that to just 10% sellthrough, that's more than half a million DVDs,” Lacey said.

Garson Foos, president of Shout! Factory, has released several short-lived TV series to DVD, including “Freaks and Geeks,” which ran one season (1998-99) on NBC.

“It had just under the needed ratings to stay on the air,” Foos said. “But it's an amazing show, and the people who are into it are almost evangelical — plus many cast members have gone on to do big things, including James Franco and Linda Cardelini.”

Shout! Factory also has enjoyed success with several other one-season wonders, including “Undeclared” (13 episodes), “Significant Others” (12 episodes) and “All-American Girl” (19 episodes), the 1994 comedy series with Margaret Cho.

“It's a mixed bag when making the decision to put a TV series on DVD,” Foos said. “Some one-season shows are ‘legendary' and clearly have a large cult audience; others have cast members who have gone on to become bigger stars and the audience is interested in seeing their earlier work.”

No word yet on whether “Love Monkey” is headed for DVD. The jury's still out on “Emily's Reasons Why Not,” as well.

But “Night Stalker,” freshly canceled, has just been announced for May 30 DVD release, with Buena Vista Home Entertainment promising four unaired episodes plus the six that were shown.

“For everybody who does what I do, you hope you have life beyond network television, and DVD provides that,” said Frank Spotnitz, the series' executive producer and writer. “It's television's equivalent of immortality — you get to stay on retail shelves and in home libraries.”

He said he feels vindicated that all 10 episodes he created will be on the DVD, including the ones that were never shown on TV.

“I think the last four are among the best we ever did,” he said.

Lacey said the sales potential of a canceled TV show is greatly enhanced when unaired episodes are tacked on.

“That's pretty attractive to the fan who wants to see all the episodes ever produced,” he said. “Unaired episodes are the best special feature you can ever get.”

Shout! Factory's Foos agreed. “Undeclared,” Judd Apatow's follow-up to “Freaks and Geeks,” came in a boxed set with five unaired episodes.

“We put it out last summer,” Foos said, “and it has sold reasonably well.”

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