Another dispatch from the Culture Wars: The Box is getting boxed, and those doing the boxing are probably 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 like "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, television 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. "This is the next step in the integration of television into the pantheon of culture that we take seriously in this country."
It all starts with technology. Without the invention of the VCR and its penetration into most American homes during the last two decades, there would be no boxed-sets story. But, even with the VCR, no one saw much of a market at first for television shows that had already aired.
"The conventional wisdom when the VCR was invented was that consumer would be willing to buy television programming on videocassettes, because why should they buy something when they can get it for free on television?" A&E;'s Walmsley says.
In fact, much of the classic programming, like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," is still available with a cable package that includes channels like Nick at Night. So, why aren't viewers simply recording such shows themselves?
Again, one answer is technology. Many of the boxed sets are digitally remastered from the original film and videotape - just as boxed sets of music CDs are remastered from original studio tapes - making for a high-quality, vivid video image.
There's also the matter of having to tape something yourself. "Most people just don't have the patience to wait and to plan for when the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode ["The Mary Tyler Moore Show"] is going to pop up on 'Nick at Night,' " Thompson says.
But that's only the surface story. The big surprise even to some in the television industry came when they discovered how deeply viewers connected to particular shows and how they wanted to preserve those shows.
Savage, who started with New Video in the early 1980s, when the company consisted of only a few stores in Greenwich Village specializing in feature-film rentals, says he started to take notice of television 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 says. "So, while others saw television 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 says.
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."
New Video and A&E; have been able to use the bookshelf insight to break new retail marketing ground. In addition to direct sales through Web sites and 800 numbers and retail sales in video superstores like Blockbuster and Sun Coast, New Video and A&E; videocassettes can also be found in major bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders Books. In fact, A&E;'s "Biography" series has its own section in Barnes & Noble, while videocassettes from A&E;'s History Channel are featured in Borders.
Commerce and culture work hand in hand in the selection of which episodes are included in boxed sets. Several firms use academic experts as "curators" for the sets. Thompson, who has written extensively on MTM in his book, "Television's Second Golden Age," made the selections in New Video's MTM collections.
Thompson says he has three criteria:
* "Chronology" - an attempt to include something from each of a show's seasons
* "Sensitivity to classics," such as "Chuckles," which Thompson thinks is overrated but which collectors might expect since TV Guide named it one of television's 100 best all-time episodes
* The "expert curator's personal judgment"
With "The Very Best of Rhoda," New Video's most recent release (April 28), what that results in is four cassettes containing nine episodes ranging from Parts One and Two of "Rhoda's Marriage" through her separation, as well as the separation of her mother (Nancy Walker) and father (Harold J. Gould).
The 3_ hours of video not only vividly resurrects the 1970s and the exciting sense of new possibilities for women that MTM captured so well, it also serves as a reminder of how daring "Rhoda" was in exploring adult relationships and breaking a 20-year television industry taboo against Jews as leading characters.
"In the end, maybe the difference between buying the boxed set and trying to tape off 'Nick at Night' is pride of ownership - caring enough about a show to want to display it on your shelf or give it as a gift to someone who will want to display it on theirs," says Dana Kornbluth, president of DKPR, a New York firm that has been in the home video business for 15 years.
"I think it's a lovely coincidence that the videocassette on a shelf looks just like a book," Thompson says. "It has a spine. We print the title on the spine. I've got my videotapes on bookshelves right down in my library next to the books, and I think that's exactly where they belong."
Pub Date: 6/07/98