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TV Airing a Big Plus for Documentaries

14 Sep, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

The movie studio window system has trained most video dealers to the idea that if a title has been on pay-per-view (PPV), cable, satellite or TV before it gets to video, then sales and rentals on the title will suffer.

Not so with the battery of documentaries that are increasingly finding a fan base.

“The opposite is true with documentaries,” said Ellen Capon, director of marketing for New Video's Docurama line. “If there is overlap, it won't hinder sales -- it will even enhance them in some cases. The blockbuster is going to saturate the market. It will be on 4,000 screens. Even the biggest documentaries don't get that kind of attention.”

“What we've heard from our buyers is that it doesn't hurt. I'm not even convinced that one or two exposures on cable hurts theatrical releases,” said Steven Demille, SVP, marketing, for First Look Home Entertainment.

“Most documentaries, because of the unique funding required to get them made, end up on PBS or HBO first. All of the Netflix First stuff that we have done has probably had an airing or a theatrical run. Rental gets a boost from the advertising for the airplay,” said Ted Sarandos, VP of content acquisition at Netflix. “The director of Hell House said more people have rated it on Netflix than ever saw it in a yearlong theatrical run.”

Suppliers find that exposure increases interest not only in specific titles, but in the genre in general.

“Out at the VSDA [Video Software Dealers Association] show, for the first time retailers were coming to us and saying television is doing very well for them and is a category that they are using to differentiate from the big chains,” said Sarah Slater, director of sales for WGBH Boston Video. “The video stores are finding our stuff attractive because it's profitable. We don't have all those complex pricing programs; we sell it to them for $19.95.”

Other documentary lines are experiencing similar expansion.

“We have definitely seen our business grow over the past three years. I would like to believe that is because retailers are interested in carrying a wider variety of product,” New Video's Capon said. “We have seen retailers willing to carry smaller titles.”

WGBH's Slater sees that as a factor of the industry's format shift.

“During the DVD-VHS shift, particularly at retail, that whole category disappeared from retail. Now that everybody's pretty much switched over to DVD, people are bringing the category back,” she said.

The category is growing not only because of increased shelf space, but because, frankly, documentaries are getting better.

“Ken Burns really jumped the whole category to a new level. Sometimes we look at re-releasing old documentaries, but they are so flat. Before the world caught on to his style, they were dull,” Slater said.

“When we came out with The Civil War last fall, there was so much promotion by PBS and the sponsor, General Motors, that the response -- for the documentary world -- was massive,” said Tehya Kopp, director of marketing, special interest, for Warner Home Video. “Target really stepped up their support with an endcap. It flew off the shelves.”

Burns and his brother, Ric, did the writing on The Civil War before each turned to other historic topics. But while the Civil War is firmly in the past, Ric Burns' history of New York City is still evolving. Initially released as a five-part history, Ric Burns added two parts to New York: The Center of the World, then another in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Part eight streeted last week, just before the 9/11 anniversary.

“After 9/11, he was compelled to tell the rest of the story,” Kopp said. “It stopped prior to the building of the World Trade Center.

“Now it has had enough time to gain some perspective,” he said, noting the effort that went into having the discs ready for street very close to the broadcast date.

The increasing credibility of video learning is also helping documentaries.

“It used to be that people felt if you want information, you had to read a book,” Slater said. “People are starting to see documentaries as a three-dimensional way to see the subject. You have the images, you have the audio track and you have the music. It's sort of like a layer cake.”

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