Stewie Griffin is back, and he has DVD sales to thank for it.
With his oblong cartoon head, sinister voice and taste for "total world domination," the infant Stewie set the tone for the irreverent animated series Family Guy, which Fox canceled nearly three years ago because of lagging ratings. After they went off the air, however, Stewie and his bizarre family refused to die.
Right away, fans complained. Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television, remembers getting a first inkling that his company should not have pulled the plug while speaking at Yale University. When it came time for questions, he recalled, "about 20 hands shot up, and they all asked about Family Guy."
But the DVDs were what really caught Newman's attention. With no new episodes to watch, fans quickly snapped up more than 1 million copies of the first two seasons of Family Guy (as well as T-shirts, ball caps and dolls). More than 3.5 million units have been sold at a rate that has at times outpaced that other off-kilter Fox animated family The Simpsons.
Now, Family Guy is officially "uncanceled," Fox's Web site says. On May 1, fresh episodes will begin airing on Fox.
The return of Family Guy illustrates the shifting dynamics of the TV industry. As the proliferation of digital video recorders such as TiVo Inc.'s device enables more people to watch TV when they wish, 30-second advertisements are losing some luster.
Hungry for other revenue sources, television executives are increasingly turning to DVDs. Last year, sales from TV shows on DVD topped $2.3 billion, said Judith McCourt, director of Home Media Research, based in Orange County, Calif. That's up from $880 million for 2002.
More and more, said DVD industry analyst Ralph Tribbey, "shows eventually may be designed for their DVD potential. The broadcast network will almost act like a promotional platform for the entire package."
Seth MacFarlane, creator and executive producer of Family Guy, counts himself as a beneficiary of this DVD boom.
"The DVD market barely existed when we were canceled," he said. "But now, fans can protest the cancellation of a show with their wallets, buying the DVDs, rather than just writing letters to the network."
That means that the wacky Griffin family from Quahog, R.I., lives again. Fox executives have ordered into production 35 new episodes of Family Guy, even though the network has thus far committed to airing only 13.
"We're producing 35 no matter what," Newman said. "Even if it doesn't work for the Fox network, the Cartoon Network wants them. By producing new episodes, we will be able to keep this thing alive."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.