Can TV boost disc business?

Hot titles could put DVD sales on growth path

If you’re searching for an analogy to describe the still-potent TV-on-DVD market, look no further than NBC U’s “Heroes.”

TV-on-DVD titles alone may not be able to single-handedly lift the mature DVD biz into growth this year. But once in a while — like young protagonists on “Heroes” — tube-based releases show off impressive abilities.

The seven-disc “Heroes: Season 1,” for example, topped the DVD sales charts following its late-August release and

hasn’t slid very far since. And overall, these sales rankings have been dominated by current TV titles this month (see chart).

With overall homevid spending off 4.8% in the first half of the year, disc division toppers have expressed confidence that a fourth-quarter release slate buoyed by a bumper crop of summer tentpoles will push them into growth for the year.

But also working in their favor is a TV-on-DVD engine that hasn’t stopped running. And beyond still-hot demand for current TV titles, the major homevid units continue to creatively mine a high-margin business based on older tube fare — despite the fact that nearly every skein has now been authored to disc.

Fox — which boasts such entrenched franchises as “24” and “The Simpsons” — saw success last year with its 36-disc “MASH: Martinis and Medicine Complete Collection,” which includes all 11 years of the Korean War dramedy as well as the Robert Altman-directed 1970 film that inspired it.

In November, Fox will roll out “The X-Files: The Complete Collector’s Edition,” a $329, 61-DVD collection that spans the long-running sci-fi series’ 201 episodes, the 1998 theatrical feature that was spun off of it and over nine hours of bonuses.

“It’s a fairly traditional marketing strategy, not dissimilar to a movie catalog,” says Steve Feldstein, Fox homevid’s senior VP of marketing communications. “You have to make it a unique consumer proposition that clearly spells value.”

Shelf show-offs

According to Robert Oswaks, Sony Pictures Television’s exec VP of marketing, for the studio’s 32-disc “Seinfeld: The Complete Series” (out Nov. 6), the sitcom’s producers and Jerry Seinfeld himself “made it very clear that they wanted it to be more than just 32 discs, 180 episodes and 100 hours of value-adds. They wanted it to be something that you’re going to put on your shelf and say, ‘In addition to these great books I’ve got — look at this — I’ve got nine seasons of ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

But after such baroque repackaging excesses, what TV programming is really left to exploit?

For studios like Disney, it’s not so much new genres, but new audiences. Aging animated series like 1991’s “Darkwing Duck” and 1994’s “The Tick” are proving timeless, “finding a whole new generation of fans on DVD,” says Lori MacPherson, GM of Walt Disney Studios’ North America homevid unit.

And don’t forget the high-definition crowd, for whom MacPherson says Disney is stepping up its Blu-ray release slate with the likes of “Lost: The Complete Third Season.”

Smaller suppliers like Image Entertainment — with disc franchises spawned from cable staples such as Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” and “Sharkweek” that have grown to become tentpole products — find “very steady numbers” in the online distribution of TV elders on disc including ’60s war series “Combat!” and the Danny Thomas-fronted ’50s sitcom “Make Room for Daddy.”

Remarks John Powers, Image’s VP of marketing, on such special-interest fare: “Obviously there’s limited (physical) retail shelf space, but because there’s such good online business right now, the category will keep growing.”

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