There have been a lot of articles recently on the success of television shows on DVD. The basic story is familiar by now: No one in the industry expected TV to sell on home video until Fox hit it big with the complete first season of THE SIMPSONS. (Even with that show, Fox was initially hesitant to release the first season first, fearing that the different drawing style of the first season would put people off from buying it.) Since then, almost every major show has been released or atleast considered for release on DVD, and tvshowsondvd.com has become one of the most popular upcoming-releases sites on the internet.
But one thing that hasn’t been discussed much is this: How, exactly, is TV-on-DVD different from TV-on-TV? Before THE SIMPSONS, people used to assume that no one would pay to see a show they could already see every day in syndication; why were they wrong, and why do we pay?
The first and most obvious difference between DVD and syndication is that shows on DVD are presented uncut, a concept previously unheard of in American TV reruns; a show like M*A*S*H loses three minutes from every episode in reruns, often eliminating entire plot points. Just watch the hacked-up reruns of sitcoms on TV Land and you’ll understand why we need more shows on DVD: to save them from syndication.
Along with letting us see all the scenes, DVD allows us to see all the episodes in a season whenever we want, and by doing so, it can change the way we experience a show. When it’s being broadcast, a show is evaluated on a week-by-week (or, in syndication, daily) basis. By giving us a full season all at once, a DVD set lets us evaluate the whole season as a unit. If we want, we can also watch the episodes in a different order, or watch only parts of every episode. This isn’t to say that DVD somehow makes us into “active” viewers – we’re still sitting there watching – but it does mean we have more options as to how to watch. On TV, the only really important question about a show is whether it makes us want to tune in again next time; the point of cliffhangers, sexual tension, and so on is to get us to come back for the next broadcast. On DVD, because we choose when and how to watch the episodes, these same-bat-time same-bat-channel gimmicks become less important; the question is not whether the show is exciting enough to hold our attention over the course of a year, but whether it’s interesting enough to hold our attention on repeated viewings.
What this means, too, is that shows that succeed on network TV can bomb on DVD, and expensive failures can somehow turn into huge moneymakers in the new format. The difference has to do with numbers: On network TV, a million loyal viewers is not enough to keep something running. But if those same million viewers buy that show on DVD, it’s a best-seller. By selling the shows directly to the people who are interested in it, rather than to the viewing audience as a whole, DVD changes the definition of what a hit is. This isn't exactly new to DVD; a show like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was no kind of a hit in terms of overall numbers but (fortunately) survived for five good years and two lousy years based largely on its success with a young demographic. Indeed, the networks' obsession with "young" demographics may actually be increased by TV-on-DVD, because that's where youth demographic has the most power.
Conversely, even if a show is extremely popular in its network run and in syndication, that doesn’t mean it will sell on DVD. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW proved that. When Fox (which acquired this and all other MTM-produced shows several years ago) released the complete first season, they did a terrific job: Beautifully remastered prints, a new in-depth documentary, commentaries, promos – it was a beautiful, and expensive, set. Since MARY TYLER MOORE had been hugely popular for over 30 years, there seemed no reason to think that it wouldn’t be similarly popular with DVD buyers; the head of Fox’s DVD marketing division, Peter Staddon, even said “To be honest, I know it will sell well. There is no downside.”
As it turned out, there was a big downside: The DVD set did what THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW had never done before – it failed. A few months after its release, Staddon cancelled plans for the second season, revealing that the show didn’t sell enough to justify the cost of releasing more sets. What happened? Part of the problem was that a portion of MARY TYLER MOORE’s fan base doesn’t have a DVD player yet; older viewers are less likely than young ones to capitulate to the latest technological fad. I suspect that if Fox ever gets around to releasing season 2, it will sell better simply because more MTM fans will have DVD players than two years ago. Then, too, the first season wasn’t quite on a level with the later seasons of the show, a problem that some shows are now trying to get around by releasing their later episodes first (SCTV is starting with its more famous, and more in-demand, NBC episodes rather than its early half-hour shows.) And perhaps most importantly, the set was overpriced: M*A*S*H, with no extras, has been released at a much lower price and has sold so well that all the seasons are going to make it to DVD.
But another problem is with the nature of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW’s appeal: It was a low-key comedy that deliberately strove to be quieter and more character-based than the average loud, brash American sitcom. It eschewed the loudness of ALL IN THE FAMILY and even the slapstick of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (which just became one of the first "classic" series to have all of its seasons released in the DVD format). In syndication, this makes it the ultimate in “comfort TV,” the sort of show you tune into knowing that you’ll get to see likable characters in well-written scripts every time. But when taken all at once rather than one a day, MARY TYLER MOORE’s first-season episodes seemed to suffer from a kind of sameness: One episode after another dealt with similar themes, included similar jokes from the supporting characters, and featured similar guys falling in love with Mary. In a serial format, this use of repetition is just part of the way the show works. The new DVD format, by taking MARY TYLER MOORE out of the week-by-week format the creators were working with, failed to do justice to the show. The shows that are big hits on DVD – like BUFFY, THE SIMPSONS, and M*A*S*H – are often the ones that do many different kinds of episodes, from farce to comedy-drama to adventure. When buying a whole season of a show as a package, what you want within that season is not familiarity but variety.
And so, ultimately, the biggest difference with the TV-on-DVD experience is not so much how it sells but how we experience it. On TV, a show is something you watch to pass the time, not something you pay for like a movie or a play (not even HBO shows, except for those who subscribe to the channel specifically to see a particular TV show). On DVD, a TV show is an investment; it’s something you pay to watch over and over again, like a favorite movie. Having to pay to watch a show (or at least watch it uncut) changes the standards a bit; it has to be more than just a time-killer or whatever TV usually is. It’s not that mediocre shows can’t sell well on DVD; the FAMILY GUY cult is going to look pretty embarrassing once the ‘80s references become incomprehensible and the show has to be evaluated on the basis of the stuff it did badly (writing, animation, characters). But it’s fair to say that no show can sell well on DVD unless it has a lot of viewers who think that show is *really* good, just as worthy of being paid for as a good movie or a good book. Television is a medium that has rarely been taken seriously, but in some ways the very act of buying a show on DVD is a way of taking it seriously. Yes, even season 1 of SAVED BY THE BELL.