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Boxed TV classics put money in the bank

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 20, 1998

Boxed TV classics put money in the bank

Another dispatch from the Culture Wars: The Box is getting boxed, and those doing the boxing probably are 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 such as "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, 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 in New York. "This is the next step in the integration of television into the pantheon of culture that we take seriously in this country."

The big surprise even to some in the television industry came when they discovered how deeply viewers connected with special shows and how they wanted to preserve those shows. Savage, who started with New Video in the early 1980s, says he started to take notice of TV 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 said. "So, while others saw TV 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 said. "It's just like, if you read a good novel, you may not read it again for a long while, but you put it on your bookshelf to say, `Yeah, this relates to who I am and what I care about,' " Savage concluded.

Or, as Thompson puts it, "Boxed sets are a major step in changing television from this kind of oral tradition where it used to go out into the ether never to be seen again like Homer's poems, to the immediately addressable tradition where you can now go to the bookcase and pull out your translation of `The Iliad' or `The Odyssey' whenever you want."

In addition to direct sales through Web sites and 800 telephone numbers and retail sales in video superstores, New Video and A&E videocassettes also can be found in major bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Copyright © 1998, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Ignore her. She got up on the wrong side of the coffin this morning.”

Enrique (Rickie) Vasquez, Episode 9: "Halloween"