Old shows sell well, in boxed sets suitable for bookshelves There's a growing market for videos of TV series, miniseries and high-impact productions.

June 07, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Another dispatch from the Culture Wars: The Box is getting boxed, and those doing the boxing are probably getting rich, as boxes bump books from shelves in libraries, homes and bookstores.

We are talking about boxed sets of television shows - old network series ranging from "Mr. Ed" to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and high-impact, one-time productions like "Pride & Prejudice" and "Merlin."

The phenomenon is too new to find any reliable estimate of how much money such recycled television is earning. But you can get an idea of the potential based on some recent success stories: "Merlin," an NBC miniseries about the wizard of Arthurian legend, sold more than 100,000 boxed sets at $29.95 each in one week after it aired in April, and the A&E cable channel has sold 200,000 boxed sets of "Pride & Prejudice" at $99.95 each since it aired that series last year.

And it's growing. This month, A&E will come out with an eagerly awaited boxed set of episodes from "The Avengers" television series of the 1960s, featuring Diana Rigg. Later in the summer, television fans from a younger generation will be able to buy boxed sets of "My So-Called Life," with Claire Danes.

Flush with the success of "Merlin," NBC last month announced plans to establish a regular business in direct marketing of boxed sets through the use of toll-free phone numbers displayed on-screen at the end of shows. One of the first to be offered will be "Homicide: Life on the Street," which NBC co-owns with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.

"The market is definitely growing," says David Walmsley, director of home video for A&E.

"It's astounding, what a show that people really connect with can do in terms of videocassette sales," says Steve Savage, president of New Video, which is putting out 10 MTM series ranging from "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

"Boxed sets are now getting reviewed in publications like Entertainment Weekly, and, more important in a cultural sense, they are finding their place on our bookshelves," says Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "This is the next step in the integration of television into the pantheon of culture that we take seriously in this country."

It all starts with technology. Without the invention of the VCR and its penetration into most American homes during the last two decades, there would be no boxed-sets story. But, even with the VCR, no one saw much of a market at first for television shows that had already aired.

"The conventional wisdom when the VCR was invented was that consumer would be willing to buy television programming on videocassettes, because why should they buy something when they can get it for free on television?" A&E's Walmsley says.

In fact, much of the classic programming, like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," is still available with a cable package that includes channels like Nick at Night. So, why aren't viewers simply recording such shows themselves?

Again, one answer is technology. Many of the boxed sets are digitally remastered from the original film and videotape - just as boxed sets of music CDs are remastered from original studio tapes - making for a high-quality, vivid video image.

There's also the matter of having to tape something yourself. "Most people just don't have the patience to wait and to plan for when the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode ["The Mary Tyler Moore Show"] is going to pop up on 'Nick at Night,' " Thompson says.

But that's only the surface story. The big surprise even to some in the television industry came when they discovered how deeply viewers connected to particular shows and how they wanted to preserve those shows.

Savage, who started with New Video in the early 1980s, when the company consisted of only a few stores in Greenwich Village specializing in feature-film rentals, says he started to take notice of television when customers came in looking for previously unpopular films.

"After a while what we figured out was the reason people were suddenly interested in those films is that they had been on television that week," Savage says. "So, while others saw television and home video as a competitors, we started thinking of them as collaborators."

Now Savage is a believer in television as culture. "Look, from the cultural point of view, what will be the artifacts that people will go back to 50 or 100 years from now? We don't know, and it's pompous to act like we do. But we kind of think television reflects the times and the attitudes and values of that mass culture that we all lived in to lesser or greater degrees, and we think people are plugging into that," Savage says.

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