Retro TV, without the frills

'90210,' 'Melrose' skimp on the extras, while Shout Factory revels in them

Caught in the CBS/Viacom split, “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” didn’t make their disc debut until last week. Sadly, however, their DVD overseers didn’t use the time to craft bonus features that tune into either show’s retro appeal.

In its eagerness to get the first seasons into stores, CBS DVD stitched old promo footage with fresh musings by creator Darren Star. While trenchant, his comments are no substitute for a broader look at the zeitgeist skeins and their casts.

Paramount Home Entertainment threw a Nov. 3 DVD bash in the Beverly Hilton’s Stardust Room, where most of the cast assembled to reflect on the show and update media on current activities. Fans who actually plunk down $61.99 for the first season of either show set get no such update.

Marketing older skeins on DVD is not without its challenges: Bonus material can be skimpy to nonexistent, and stars don’t necessarily want to look back on the projects.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Outfits like Shout Factory repackage a wide range of skeins for the growing retro TV market.

The company, created three years ago by Rhino Records founder Richard Foos, brother Garson and Bob Emmer, revels in the pop culture appeal of small-screen fare ranging from “Electric Company” and “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to “Freaks and Geeks.”

Describing the company’s approach, prexy Garson Foos explains, “Half of it is our taste as pop culture junkies creating programs that the entertainment-obsessed will want, and half is we do it right.”

A featurette on the second season of “That Girl,” released this week, outlines the mid-’60s skein’s groundbreaking portrayal of single career women, for example, with star Marlo Thomas explaining she wanted to play a woman who shared some of her concerns.

And Shout’s latest compilation from “The Dick Cavett Show,” this one focused on “Movie Greats,” once again features fresh intros by Cavett, along with an informative booklet resembling the liner notes of yore. The set also contains bonus material from Katharine Hepburn’s 1973 interview, her first TV appearance, and a remarkable 1972 session devoted to directors Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, Robert Altman and Peter Bogdanovich.

Shout’s biggest challenge is finding material it can license — between studios and small indies vying for product, “it’s very difficult and sometimes impossible,” Foos says, especially now that studios have woken up to the potential of TV shows on disc.

Unlike the new-release market, the overall TV market is growing, and within that category, classic skeins are gaining traction. According to the NPD Group, classic TV, defined as any show before 1990, accounted for 30%-40% of all sales as of late 2003, but has now pulled even with current programming.

“There’s certainly been an emptying of the vaults that’s been happening the last few years,” says senior NPD analyst Russ Crupnick. “They ran out of the new stuff, so they’re going to the ‘Sgt. Bilkos’ and ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ ”

A large part of the appeal of older skeins is nostalgia for the shows and their place in our past. It’s impossible for this scribe to watch “That Girl” without recalling earlier viewings while home sick from school, or to stop associating “90210” and “Melrose” with the period after relocating to L.A.

Marathon viewings of the sudsers exacerbate their weaknesses — even Star admits neither hits its stride until late in the first season — and provide amusing reminders of early ’90s fashions and how old Luke Perry looked for a high school student.

Even more startling are other signs of how TV has changed: “90210” riled affiliates with depictions of teen sex that today seem tame, while “Melrose” raised eyebrows with a gay regular, played by “Desperate Housewives” star Doug Savant.

CBS DVD may tackle some of these issues for upcoming installments; Gabrielle Carteris, “90210’s” brainy Andrea, told a reporter at the skein’s DVD bash that she was in talks to provide commentaries on subsequent seasons. But if execs don’t want to go to the trouble, Foos would like to remind them of Shout’s eagerness to license their product.

“We could be the Criterion of TV shows,” Foos suggests hopefully, “if the studios would let us do it.”

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