TV biz playing homevideo library card for pure profit

NEW YORK — TV programmers are aiming to duplicate the success of theatricals in the homevid market, with encouraging results.

Although still small, the TV slice of the video pie is “expanding like crazy,” says Tom Arnold, editor in chief of Video Business, who also credits pay and basic-cable networks’ docus and original movies for fueling the pipeline.

Recent theatrical versions of TV shows from “The Brady Bunch” to “Beavis and Butt-head” also may be fueling interest among collectors, even though many early series are now regularly shown on cable networks such as Nick at Nite.

TV-based videos sold 9.8 million units at retail in 1996, a 93% increase from 1994 figures, while total video sales rose 42%, according to VideoScan, which tracks sell-through videos at major chains.

Unlike theatrical films, which often rely on homevid ancillaries to help recoup production and marketing costs, homevid sales of TV product represent pure profit to the studios.

“You see more and more people venturing into this category,” says Harry Elias, VP-video library at Columbia House, the mail-order giant owned by Sony Corp. and Time Warner that last fall launched a specialty “re-tv” label for “classic” TV programs, adding rare pilots or footage not seen in syndication.

“They’re reacting to the fact that people have an emotional tie to this product. It’s not like a theatrical film that people see once or twice; it’s something people have grown up with and have an attachment to.”

“Overall, it’s a relatively new category,” says Terry Finn, president of In-Finn-Ity Direct, an infomercial marketer using half-hour shows to sell reruns of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “The Outer Limits” for MGM/UA after initial success with library sales of the studio’s James Bond films.

Columbia House has sold 50 to 60 episodic TV series, led by “Star Trek” and “I Love Lucy,” aimed at the avid collectors market. They’re typically sold in continuity programs, with regular monthly shipments of two-hour tapes priced at $19.95, often in a short window prior to a general retail release.

Others, like L.A.-based Marketingworks, sell new versions of cult hits like “Highlander” or retreads of “Cops,” with added footage “too hot for TV” that adds sizzle to the sell.

Using direct-response TV spots during network or barter syndication ad time, the tapes are marketed to an already loyal audience, which can also be sold books and other related merchandise.

“Cops” — a top seller in ’96 along with “X-Files” and “Goosebumps” — moved 650,000 units, a raging success for TV product that has since lured demand from retailers, not prone to support small-screen fare.

“TV they don’t support unless it’s the flavor of the month, like ‘Power Rangers,’ or an evergreen like Disney,” says Charles Salmore, president of Marketingworks.

And it’s no wonder why. “The marketplace is so fickle,” says Kris Larson, senior VP of marketing at Cabin Fever Entertainment, which has moved millions of copies of big-event miniseries like “Lonesome Dove,” but sees diminishing returns for movie-of-the-week fare.

“TV series like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Star Trek’ go gangbusters, but yet you can come out with nostalgia stuff and it won’t work,” Larson says.

Although “Star Trek” — with its fanatical fan base — has sold 7 million units since debuting on video on 1985, for the most part TV is “basically a niche business,” says Jack Kanne, exec VP-sales and marketing at Paramount Home Video.

That’s especially true at retail, where VideoScan estimates that TV vids account for just 3.5% of total sales, up from 2.6% two years ago.

Perhaps the biggest market for TV retreads is among kidvid fare like “Goosebumps” or Par’s Nickelodeon lineup, a category that represents perhaps half of industry sales and is more easily prone to repeat viewing.

But “the competition for shelf space for that stuff is vicious,” Kanne says, requiring heavy volume to make the lower-margin sector pay off.

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