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TV discs are big hits with viewers and producers (joss whedon mention)

Diane Werts

Friday 5 May 2006, by Webmaster

Switching channels to DVD

Network prime-time shows without commercials. It’s been a dream for decades. Now more and more TV fans are making it come true with DVD.

"It’s one of the best things that’s happened to television in my career, certainly," says Frank Spotnitz, creator of ABC’s fall series "Night Stalker," who’ll see four unaired episodes of his quickly canceled spookfest "premiere" in its DVD release May 30.

"People can watch and absorb at their own pace. It really gives these shows an afterlife." And a finer one at that. "It’s a superior picture and superior sound," he notes, with progressive-scan video and Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Surround audio.

"Night Stalker" on DVD is also widescreen like a movie, rather than the 4-to-3 aspect ratio of ABC’s standard TV broadcast. "It’s the way the picture was meant to be seen," says Spotnitz, who shot his moody mystery in high-definition.

My time, my TV

But TV DVD isn’t only for keepsake copies of episodes people have already seen on the networks or cable. When a new breed of tube viewers hear about a sensation like "24" or "The Sopranos," they don’t race to the TV set to see it. They race away, to avoid "spoilers" as they delay first viewing until the inevitable DVD.

"Lots of people are not watching ’Lost’," says Gord Lacey, founder of the news Web site www.TVShowsOnDVD.com, "because they don’t want to sit through those three weeks of no new episodes after some big cliffhanger." His site has already reported that the current second season of "Lost," concluding on TV May 24, will be released on DVD Oct. 3, so fans know they don’t have to wait too long to view the ABC show on their own schedules.

Lacey increasingly hears from his site’s 250,000 registered users that "network TV is extremely frustrating to watch. There are way too many commercials, and the shows themselves are nearly impossible to watch with all the ’coming up next’ and logos and other garbage they flash on the screen."

While he admits DVD viewers miss out on "watercooler talk" about weekly episode developments, Lacey expects "you’re going to find more people covering their ears as they run away because they haven’t seen any episodes - they’re saving it all to watch when it’s out on DVD."

Binge viewing provides its own rewards. "When I was watching the first seasons of ’24’ on TV," Lacey says, "I hated when that clock came on at the end of the episode. But I watched seasons three and four on DVD, and all you have to do is press ’next.’ It’s not: I’m watching an episode tonight. It’s: I’m watching eight episodes tonight."

Some shows lend themselves to immersive viewing. "Night Stalker," Spotnitz says, "was meant to be a scary, suspenseful show. Every time you’d break for a commercial, you were breaking the mood."

TV DVD originally brought in bonus money for network hits like "The X-Files," where Spotnitz launched his career. That series propelled TV disc sales in 2000 by releasing the industry’s first full-season set.

Now DVD is also a way for a "failure" like "Night Stalker" to recoup a studio’s investment. (Unaired "Stalker" episodes already have been sold as iPod downloads.) While the Nielsens were not kind to Fox’s quirky "Wonderfalls" or "Firefly," for instance, each had a fan base rabidly eager to buy them on DVD. "Firefly" sold well enough to get creator Joss Whedon a studio deal for his spin-off theatrical film, "Serenity."

Lacey foresees more success for truncated series, whose brevity "makes them a 13-episode miniseries in a sense, where you know you don’t have to commit to buying a whole bunch of releases. A lot of people will take a chance" on low-priced TV DVDs with any sort of buzz.

Even outright ratings bombs like "EZ Streets" are hitting shelves. That critically acclaimed drama of urban corruption comes out on DVD May 16. Pulled by CBS in 1996 after just two airings, it starred now-famed "Sopranos" wiseguy Joe Pantoliano - and was created by Paul Haggis, recent winner of two Oscars for "Crash."

DVD sensation

So far, TV DVD’s most astonishing phenomenon would have to be "Family Guy." Seth MacFarlane’s scattershot cartoon satire sold nearly as many millions of its initial DVD set in 2003 as viewers who tuned in for free during its patchy Fox TV run 1999-2002. A shocked studio put the show back into production for the network, where it’s been a Sunday night hit since its May 2005 return.

That isn’t quite as easy to do for a live-action series where actors and crew members move on to other projects in the meantime. It’s harder still to expect a new show could actually debut successfully on DVD. Lacey has been approached by would-be producers advancing the notion, "but I think it would be extremely difficult to use that as a business model," he says.

The success stories of TV DVD have been pre-sold to some extent by their prime-time exposure. And the prospect of episodic TV’s continuing riches was what brought the concepts to fruition in the first place. Spotnitz says, "You need the platform of network television to pay for these shows, they’re so expensive."

On the other hand, Dave Chappelle had last year’s top-selling TV DVD with a cable cult fave. His second season of "Chappelle’s Show" sold half a million units on release day, explaining why Comedy Central signed him to the reported $50-million deal. But now that the mercurial comic has turned his back on the cable gig, where might Chappelle make his next big splash? DVD shelves suddenly seem within the realm of possibility.


1. "Chappelle’s Show: Season 2 Uncensored," 2.84 million

2. "Lost: The Complete First Season," 1.04 million

3. "Seinfeld: Season 4," 860,000

4. "The Simpsons: The Com- plete Sixth Season," 830,000

5. "Friends: The Complete Ninth Season," 790,000