It's Not TV. It's TV on DVD

  • In the backwards calendar of TV, spring is the season of death, a time when fans launch drives to save endangered shows, a cause usually as futile as protesting the falling of autumn leaves. So it was unusual last month when fans of the animated sitcom Family Guy managed to bring it back, not by writing letters but by spending cash. When Family Guy — canceled not once but twice by Fox during its 1999-2002 run — was released on DVD, fans bought 2.2 million copies. That number helped persuade Cartoon Network (which reruns the show) to give Family Guy a third life, committing to 22 new episodes starting next year.

    Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane says few cult series turned DVD hits are likely to get this kind of reprieve. "In animation," he says, "it's much easier to be revived because you don't have to rebuild sets." Or reassemble the cast. But Family Guy's resurrection does demonstrate the growing importance of DVDs to the TV business, a development that may affect what kinds of shows get made — and stay on the air — in the future. Following the success of movie DVDs, which now bring in more money than the box office, TV DVDs made more than $1 billion last year and are expected to reap even more money this year. And TV executives, who can smell a quarter buried in a pile of gym socks, have taken notice. "A show like Family Guy could not be justified in the old TV model," says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox TV. "Now we have a new model that allows us to put high-quality programming on the air in a new way."

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    How so? Because the DVD business is, in one important way, the opposite of the TV business. Traditional TV, which depends on ad and syndication sales, rewards breadth of appeal: the ability to keep millions from changing the channel. DVDS reward depth of appeal: the ability to get thousands to pay to watch something again. One reason there are so many cop dramas, for instance, is that their stories, which are resolved in an hour, sell better in reruns. Series like Alias and 24, which have deeply involving serial plots, are poor candidates for reruns, but they have committed fan bases willing to buy DVDs. And while Top 10 hits like Friends and ER sell well on DVD, animated, sci-fi and other kinds of cult shows do best, in proportion to their ratings.

    One of the cultiest, NBC's one-season high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks, was just released in a massive collectors' compilation through . Shipped in an 80-page "yearbook," the eight-disc set includes all 18 episodes, audition tapes, Museum of Television and Radio panel discussions, a never shot episode script, and commentary tracks by the producers, writers, studio executives, actors — and even the actors' parents. It is one of the most insanely complete TV artifacts ever and, at $120, one of the most expensive. (A more modest, six-disc set sells in stores for about $70.) Executive producer Judd Apatow says the doomed series' crew had planned its shooting schedule with a DVD in mind. "We shot the final five episodes way before production ended," he says, "because we didn't know if we'd be allowed to finish."

    DVDs are not going to keep great but risky shows like Freaks from getting canceled, but the discs may ease the sting when they do. Likewise, British TV series have had limited commercial potential in the U.S. because they usually have too few episodes for syndication. Golden Globe winner The Office aired for only two seasons and, despite all its buzz, was available only to digital-TV subscribers with BBC America. DVD allows it to reach a new audience, and could build interest in an NBC adaptation of the sitcom planned for next season. (The BBC's season two hits stores April 20.)

    Another beneficiary of the DVD market may be big-budget mini-series, which in recent years have proved to be money losers and have been replaced by reality stunts and cheapo made-for-TV movies. The market is no guarantor of quality, but a Band of Brothers — a $100 million — plus project but a big DVD seller for HBO — has better DVD prospects than would, say, a Saving Jessica Lynch. Even in the world of free TV, sometimes you get what you pay for.