Never underestimate the value of old TV shows.
The upstart Desilu studio built an empire of classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek from the stacks of cash it made from I Love Lucy reruns. CBS had signed away the rights because, really, who'd care?
Today's TV empire-building could well take place in the realm of DVD home video. Atop the current chart of best-selling discs, nestled amid such big-screen ballyhoo as Shrek and Pearl Harbor, lies a little number titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1.
TV content is a fast-growing segment of the exploding DVD market, which last year doubled its total of discs shipped (364.4 million, after 182.4 million in 2000) and DVD players became the fastest-adopted electronics product ever (31 million players sold in five years).
Now that the players are in one-quarter of American homes, disc distributors are pushing DVD sales over rentals, dropping prices and expanding the selection at mass marketers.
Dozens of TV titles can be found on single-disc or multiple-disc sets that range in price from $7.99 to $199.99. Offerings run the gamut, with everything from vintage 1950s programs to current series available. There are current hits such as The Sopranos and Friends, oldies such as Peter Gunn, perennial favorites like The Andy Griffith Show, special events such as Roots, and even cult classics like Twin Peaks and Spawn.
And tube lovers can get obsessive. Look at the passion poured into thousands of Internet fan sites for series that are decades old.
"The real focus of the business we do is on collectors," says Kate Winn, director of A&E Home Video. Along with titles such as Pride and Prejudice and Horatio Hornblower, A&E Home Video also releases a line of "Cult TV" classics that includes The Avengers, The Prisoner, Monty Python's Flying Circus and many more series.
"The capacity of DVD makes it possible for us to give people a complete series in a workable configuration," says Winn.
The $200 "Monty Python" box set holds all 45 episodes on 14 discs that take up less than a foot of shelf space.
More important, they offer DVD bonuses - an assortment of extra features to lure even fans who already own the VHS version.
The Monty Python set extra features include performer biographies, an animation gallery and trivia games. Elaborate additions are quickly becoming standard.
"With the DVD format now, people expect extras," says Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of the trade weekly Video Business. "It's kind of like going back in time to relive the event."
Last month's Roots 25th anniversary set included not just the 1977 ABC version of the landmark miniseries, but a full-length version with running audio commentary of recollections from producer David Wolper and stars LeVar Burton and Ed Asner.
A&E's DVD of its Kenneth Branagh TV movie Shackleton, to be released April 9 after its premiere on U.S. television April 7-8, will include a two-hour documentary about the Antarctic and the explorer's harrowing 1914 voyage and rescue.
The documentary comes from The History Channel, an A&E corporate sibling, showing how television is well-positioned for DVD features.
"You can draw on some of the resources that have been used for broadcast," said Rebecca Carr, director of producer services for PBS Home Video.
The addition of footage from the cutting room floor is also becoming more common. Farscape DVDs feature scenes that were trimmed from the Sci-Fi Channel series for commercial time. With PBS' New York history, director Ric Burns "pulled deleted scenes that were never transferred" from rough edits to the final cut, Carr says. His brother, Ken Burns, did the same for Mark Twain, adding excised interviews and readings.
Fans like to see rough edges like outtakes and mistakes. Showtime's new Queer as Folk six-disc box set of the first season's 22 episodes - one of the most impressive - includes bloopers as well as "extended scenes" that echo the director's cut of a movie.
"We didn't know when we began that we would have a DVD, so some of the blooper or gag-reel material wasn't to be found," said series co-creator Dan Lipman. "But we're very archival at this point in preserving things."
They aren't alone. Carr says when filmmakers are in production for PBS now, "they're actually thinking about things that would be interesting for the DVD."
Behind-the-scenes glimpses are big. Next month's new, two-disc set of 10 favorite episodes from Friends (Vol. 3-4) will include NBC's 40-minute condensation of one episode's making, from preproduction writing to post-shoot editing.
Audio commentaries - off-the-cuff chatter by series creators, stars or both as they watch an episode - are today's most familiar extra. On last year's DVD set of The Simpsons first season, creator Matt Groening joined crew members in heckling their own early blunders.