Wasn’t That Show Cancelled? – The Increasing DVD Phenomenon

Invasion DVD Set

Invasion DVD Set

As the new fall season begins (and we in Britain wait patiently for an extra couple of months before the shows arrive), there is a great deal of chatter about what the hot new shows will be. This is not a new phenomenon with new shows coming and going every season. The successful shows are renewed for new seasons and the cancelled shows tend to be forgotten or remembered only as cult shows by a minority of viewers. However I was struck by an odd sight in the window of HMV the other day. There was a large sign for Invasion: The Complete Series. Now I’m sure some people liked the show, but personally I thought it was dreadful and gave up after two episodes. The cringe worthy female characters in particular turned me off this poor Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either version) rip off. (Surely Eddie Cibrian was better off in Sunset Beach than in this?).

What I find interesting here is not why anyone would want to buy the DVD of Invasion but the expectation that seems to be emerging that at the end of any series, or season, the show will be distributed and sold on DVD. There is in an increasing market in the UK of online sales of US television series which finish airing in the US before they finish in the UK, but have been released for sale by international online sellers. This is accompanied by an increasing activity on some television web forums expectantly discussing the DVD release dates of shows. These shows may have only aired for one season but fans already want to prolong and repeat their experience.

In the golden age of television, syndication was the key to future sales and continued success but that was only after the show had amassed enough episodes to sell on to syndication. Whereas with DVD sales of ‘complete’ seasons and series, shows can live on as collectable items even if they failed to meet audience (advertiser) demands when first broadcast. There could be an argument that it is harder to meet viewer demands now with networks facing fierce competition from cable and other modes of entertainment and thus they have to try to produce hits quickly, but if the shows creators know that the show will be available on DVD after the show has been cancelled is there also an argument that they have stopped trying to produce quality work? There are a number of shows airing currently which would fit Feuer’s notion of “quality television” (1984), such as “24”, “Lost”, and “CSI” to name but three. However there are almost as many which do not last beyond one season, but may continue to make money through DVD sales. Do shows then still strive for the success level of reaching enough episodes for syndication or has DVD rendered it irrelevant?

Television box sets and collectors editions are not new, indeed the practise of collecting series on VHS has, at least in Britain, a long history, particularly with sci-fi. In Britain new releases of TV shows such as Dr Who, Star Trek, and later The X Files was big business, and this extended to comedy too. There has always been a market in Britain for television collections, perhaps more so than in the US. But these were successful, long running shows, which saw the release of episodes long after their original airdate.

There have already been discussions on this journal regarding the impact of new technologies on broadcasting, including internet, DVD and PVRs and indeed they are all impacting upon our collective viewing experiences, by making them personalised experiences with more choices. Likewise the global nature of the internet, and increasingly early purchase of US shows to Britain television, and vice versa, is producing something of a collective experience on two different sides of the Atlantic. However despite these technological advances in broadcast and distribution, the immediacy of production to DVD or indeed the speed at which new US shows are appearing on British television has created an odd situation. We have new shows from the US shown on British television, but if they are even a few months later than the US debut we can immediately find out if they have been successful and renewed for a second season. Personally my PVR is too full to commit to another new series which has already been cancelled. This suggests odd purchasing practises on the part of the British networks but they clearly think there will be an audience for the short lived shows, just as the DVD distributors do.

The networks/distributors use clever marketing of these cancelled, short lived shows to boost sales. By emphasising ‘complete’ on the cover of Invasion there is an implied sense of the collectability of the show. Just as Joss Whedon fans experienced with the release of Firefly as a complete series, DVD boxed set. Of course this was followed up by a highly successful cinematic release.

Firefly DVD

Firefly DVD

Perhaps I am being ‘anti – Invasion’ , after all many cult television shows (such as Firefly) and films are able to live on and find new audiences with the aid of new technology and the keen interest and support of the fan base, no matter how small. Indeed many shows cancelled early may come under the quality banner, Arrested Development comes to mind, but networks are unable, or unwilling to support the shows. These shows then can achieve some of the success that the network system could not offer them. (Another example is Clerks: The Animated Series which only lasted for six episodes but has reached a wider audience through DVD sales). All of this supports the notion of new methods of consumption and distribution moving further away from the traditional networks.

This leaves the network in a difficult situation when the DVD sales of a cancelled show are so high that they are forced to re-evaluate their decision. The unusual case of Family Guy and Futurama are the subject of my next column as I leave this as something of a cliff-hanger. Sorry to cut this one short but I’m heading stateside for a short vacation, and perhaps I will be able to sample some of those hot new shows and return to Britain with tips of what might last!

Bibliography
Feuer, J., P. Kerr, and T. Vahimagi. MTM ‘Quality Television’. London: BFI, 1984.

Jenkins, H. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Firefly

Please feel free to comment.

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9 comments

  • TV Cut Short

    Nice column. It works in tandem with Amanda Lotz’s well, too.

    There seems a national TV system element at work here, since Brit TV viewers are used to seasons of 6 episodes, or one-off programs of a few episodes. And the industry allows it in the UK. So I guess I’m less surprised, by, say, a Brit channel buying Firefly, even though it’s dead. What I’ll be interested to see is if such a system starts to acclimatize American viewers (and, importantly, the industry) to short runs. Though I wouldn’t hold my breath on this: when Friends and Seinfeld can each get $3B in reruns, that would take a WHOLE lot of, say, Arrested Development DVD sales to come close to making it accepted industry practice to “cut short.”

    Of course, what would be lovely is a breakaway, indy direct-to-DVD/OnDemand “television.”

  • Watching Trends

    As a Television major (sounds funny doesn’t it?), I hear plenty of talk around the department about so and so just HAVING to go out and get “Brisco County” on DVD or how whatsername was up for eight hours watching her “Arrested Development” season one comentaryspecialfeaturesbackflipapalooza. I love getting caught up in the reminiscent wonder of it all. Being a hardcore “Buffy” fan, all I have these days are my DVDs, action figures, graphic novels, t-shirts…

    ahem.

    But as soon as I say, “Hey fellas, did you happen to catch “Saved” last night?” The room grows eerily quiet and I am ostracised because I still watch real TV.

    According to many, and sometimes myself, all of the good TV shows are the ones that are cancelled. I go to school with people who love TV, but not real TV because there is nothing good out now… or so they say. Now DVD TV it is like a security blanket for viewers. Personally, I think it takes the bite out of knowing that your favorite TV show is lost and gone forever. You can take solace in the fact that the DVDs keep it alive for you even if you buy them all and never watch them.

    And since TV is all about commerce, the sale of DVDs makes The Ones In Charge happy. Shows with cult followings gather a wider fan base, giving the show life after death. And in the case of the end of the article, the power of the viewer can be astounding in regards to Family Guy.

    Yes, the trend may be getting a little out of hand with releasing everything on DVD, but it could mean the world to someone who thought that their favorite show went Clementine. Plus, we TV majors need something to talk about.

  • TV on DVD

    I have to say that what I really despise is when a show is cancelled without any resolution and then is released on dvd. Watching that is like having a sneeze suddenly disappear from your nose–it’s ultimately frustrating and disappointing. So no dead-ends for me, thank you.

  • DVD & Syndication

    I can see where people are coming from when they dismiss short-lived series on DVD as frustrating dead-ends, but at the same time, they seem like the best fit due to their manageable size. Indeed, shows intended to be limited run (the British Office) are truly the best fit, as they do not leave you hanging nor do they feel cut short.

    Long running shows on DVD don’t make as much sense to me. I love The Simpsons as much as the next media scholar, but I can’t afford to buy every season on DVD and buying a season or two seems arbitrary. I have come to love the show through syndication. Even when the show tells more of an extended narrative, I cannot afford to pay several hundred dollars to get the whole story, and buying an individual season feels even more arbitrary. If I’m fiending for an episode of the Sopranos, should I buy a couple of seasons on DVD or just wait and see if it makes it to syndication? I’m tempted to put up the delay and the inevitable censoring sure to befall the show and wait until it makes its way to 6:00 and 11:00 on the CW.

  • Pingback: FlowTV » Wasn’t That Show Cancelled? – part two

  • Personally, though limited in the scope of what they have “on tap” , sites such as “Project Free TV” offer individual episodes as streaming media (or d/l, should you wish to have a ‘hard copy”), which offers a bit of compromise between the randomness of watching shows in syndication and having to commit to a DVD boxed set of the season in question (or rent the DVD from a local video store)
    I recently watched the first episode of the US version of “Life on Mars”.In discussions with fans of the show, I was informed that the UK version of it was, in their opinion, better.

    The existence of these sorts of sites made it possible to quickly check out the UK series and indeed it was, to my mind, superior..

  • Have have always felt that this, in tandem with the move towards a universal adoption of “on demand” programming would not only save programs like Firely Sports Nights and Veronica Mars, but also positively effect the continued proliferation of more serialized story telling and long form narrative arcs.

    I have a friend who doesn’t watch Lost on TV, but, after each DVD season is released, sits down with many of his friends and watches the entire season over a couple of days. This is actually the perfect way to view shows like Lost because the inherent problems associated with serialized storytelling — turning in for a week, then going about your life and having to come back next week and remember not just the specificities of time, place, and what was going on, but also the emotional space the series had put you in and the characters were last occupying.

    When you could digest Lost in 3-4-5 hour chunks the narrative momentum comes into much clearer focus and the detail work in finely fitting threads of the story — particularly visual metaphor and philosophical theme — are easier to track and appreciate. Similarly the second season of Veronica Mars, that seemed too confusing, busy, and convoluted in week by week distribution, was deliciously dense and intertwined on a more condensed DVD viewing.

    We’ve seen HBO shows like The Wire and Deadwood present us with a “novel on film” in terms of telling many aspects on one long story. Does the proliferation of a secondary market for TV episodes (like TV Episodes on DVD) offer the possibility that we will continue to see similar attempts at long form storytelling trickle into more decidedly “episodic” entertainment usually found on Network and Basic cable?

  • I agree with all of this, especially in the case of Firefly‘s DVD popularity leading to a feature film. One could also say that this affected Joss Whedon’s following show Dollhouse, which had Joss-fans up in arms about the show’s survival past a first season. After making the November sweeps, fans rejoiced…and then it was cancelled during its second season.

    I think another great value to DVD sets (and Netflix Instant Watch for that matter) is it encourages binging, something broadcasting or syndicating television does not offer – apart from certain networks having special rerun marathons of Happy Days, The Wonder Years, etc. I was fortunate enough to become a massive fan of 24 during its sixth season, so I was able to binge-watch an entire season over a literal 24-hour period. Complete DVD sets allow for this special kind of TV viewing.

  • I love watching TV with my family. There are many shows we have enjoyed watching together but are no longer on any channels. The fact that TV shows are now more available than ever because of the rising demand for DVD box sets, makes me very excited. I agree that DVDs are now rebounding back from being irrelevant, at least for myself.

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