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Reality TV Survival Tactics

25 Aug, 2005 By: Thomas K. Arnold

After years of snubbing reality TV, DVD suppliers are taking a second look at the category with a flurry of releases packed with bonus features and marketed primarily on TV and over the Internet to the shows' most ardent fans.

“We used to always use the phrase, ‘the genie's already out of the bottle,’ CBS' consumer products VP and general manager Ken Ross said of the general feeling that reality TV would be a hard sell on DVD because the outcome is already known.

That's why CBS, distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment, scrapped its series of “Survivor” compilation DVDs after just two releases in 2000 and 2001. But a year ago, a complete first-season set with gobs of extras sold so well that CBS has since released two more: “Survivor Season 2: The Australian Outback” and “Survivor All-Stars: The Complete Season.”

“You've got to provide consumers with compelling footage that they did not see in the broadcast,” Ross said. “We go to great lengths and expense to provide not only extra footage and commentaries and insights, but also special things a fan of the show will want to see and own.

“Essentially, what we're selling on DVD is what you saw on television plus a whole lot more, so if you're a true fan or looking to give a gift to a true fan, these reality DVDs fill that void.”

Ross said CBS now is preparing a fourth “Survivor” season set for first-quarter 2006 release, jumping ahead to season seven. “It's because of the significantly higher ratings, the way the game played out and the likability of Rupert and some of the other castaways,” Ross said. “Ratings are a critical factor in deciding what to release, but so is the size and the intensity of the fan base.”

Ross and his team spend a lot of time trolling the Web, seeing how the various reality TV shows measure up in such areas as number of fan sites and comments on discussion boards.

“We're very in touch with our viewers,” he said.

Internet buzz, Ross said, was a key factor behind CBS' decision to release the complete first season of “The Amazing Race” on DVD Sept. 27, followed by season seven right before Christmas.

“We're leading off with the first season because that's the one that started it all and not that many viewers had come aboard and watched that first race,” Ross said. “Since then, viewership has exploded and the show has won numerous Emmy Awards.”

Season seven was tapped as the second release in the series, Ross said, because it scored higher in the ratings than any of its predecessors, thanks in large part to the popularity of contestants Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich, both alumni of “Survivor.”

“We're straddling the current season, with season one coming out when the new season launches and then, toward the finale of season eight, coming out [on DVD] with season seven,” Ross said.

Not all DVD marketers share Ross' enthusiasm. Universal Studios Home Entertainment tested the reality TV DVD waters last year with the first season of “The Apprentice” but has no plans of releasing subsequent seasons. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment released two seasons of “The Simple Life” last year and while SVP of marketing communications Steve Feldstein said sales were strong, Fox has yet to schedule any more reality TV shows for DVD release.

“We've definitely seen some casualties,” said Gord Lacey, who operates the TV Shows on DVD Web site. “In addition to two unreleased seasons of ‘The Apprentice,' there are one or two seasons of ‘The Anna Nicole Show' and even a season of ‘The Osbournes,' which supposedly did well when it was first released.

And yet Lacey, who maintains what many consider the most comprehensive roster of TV DVD releases, confirms an upswing in the reality TV DVD business.

“The past few years have seen a major swift towards reality-based shows on TV, so it's no surprise we're seeing more of the genre released on DVD,” Lacey said. “The release of ‘Survivor' showed the studios that reality shows on DVD could work, at least some of the time.”

Indeed, so many reality TV DVD releases are coming to market that Amazon.com maintains a separate “Reality Shows” department in its recently opened “TV Central” cyber-store. The site lists more than two dozen shows, with complete season sets of “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica” topping the best-sellers list.

One of the biggest players in the reality TV DVD arena is A&E Home Video, which has released on DVD such A&E Television reality shows as “Growing Up Gotti,” “Airline” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Next up: “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” which debuted on television in July and is headed to DVD in October.

“A&E's focus is really on personality-driven real-life programming —the inherent drama in the lives of larger-than-life characters,” said Kate Winn, SVP of sales and marketing for A&E Home Video. “The viewers form a relationship with the characters, and that makes ownership more compelling that competition-based shows where the drama is in the outcome.”

Buena Vista Home Entertainment also is keen on reality TV on DVD, having scored well with the first few seasons of “The Osbournes.” The studio has similarly high hopes for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” coming to DVD Nov. 22.

“There are an increasing number of interesting, diverse reality shows being created,” said Lori MacPherson, Buena Vista's SVP of brand marketing. “This category is no longer limited to the ‘contest' format. ABC's ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' is a great example of a reality show that is as much about reaching out and touching people's lives as it is about the final reveal.”

MacPherson agrees with Ross that bonus features are critical to success.

“Offering extras that give fans insights into things they didn't get to see on TV can be very powerful,” she said. Among the extras on the “Extreme Makeover” DVD are a behind-the-scenes featurette, bloopers and outtakes, a lighthearted documentary on the wacky cast, and a montage of banter between the two on-set designers, Preston Sharp and Paul DiMeo.

Lions Gate Home Entertainment is taking a different tact with reality TV programming: The supplier is creating two workout videos based on the weight-loss show “The Biggest Loser.” The DVDs feature many of the contestants from the show's first season as well as the upcoming season two, along with celebrity trainer Bob Harper.

“Reality TV is hot right now and it is up to the studios to figure out how this format can work in home entertainment,” said Anne Parducci, Lions Gate's EVP of marketing. “Just re-airing ‘The Biggest Loser' on DVD would have had a very limited audience.

“We looked at the series differently. We realized that the name recognition for the television series, combined with people's desire for a workout video that is fun and can be done by anybody, gave us the perfect opportunity to launch an all-new fitness brand that is different from anything else on the market.”

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