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October 14, 2006

Jeremy Dauber Feels Like He's Living in 2004: The Shift to Watching TV on DVD

The occasional commentaries in the Christian Science Monitor by Jeremy Dauber are an intelligent look at the cultural changes related to a shift in viewing from watching episodes on television to watching them on DVD. Dauber, who has long been viewing his favorite series as they air on television, writes about the growing confusion when people are chatting it up with him about new shows like Veronica Mars or what's happening in the latest episode from the third season of 24 or how good Arrested Development is. These are the people watching on DVD, and Dauber says that he now feels behind because he watches them when they air and can't remember some of the storylines people are referring to now that they are watching on DVD instead.

He says that he gets frustrated because he is "constantly trying to remember fuzzy details of jokes I heard one evening three seasons ago, not to mention the constant anxiety about spoiling a show's future developments for my friends. As a result, I'm in the conversations, but not of them; it's like I've got a bad case of jet lag - except that, ostensibly, they're the ones who are off cycle." Dauber points out that his cycle is still the one that guides the TV executives but that he is increasingly finding the shift going to DVD instead, meaning that the model will have to change.

This significant cultural shift shows how the model of consensus television and water cooler discussion is deteriorating even more. Not only do you have niche programming splitting the audience into increasingly smaller sizes, you also have the added complication that, of the shows that large numbers of people do watch, now they aren't necessarily watching them at the same time. This "spoiler anxiety" is very real and something I see happen on a very regular basis among my friends. You can never assume what season someone is on these days, even if they are a professed fan of a particular television show.

Dauber writes that these people are now reacting to "great shows that have been on the air for years, often on ratings life support or even cancelled because they couldn't attract an audience. It turns out, though, that they could attract an audience after all. It just took that audience a while to get there."

And here lies the complication that many people have found. Shows that do well in syndication may not always fare so well to begin with, and the classic examples of shows like Seinfeld that did not immediately catch on are instructive as to why the current policies do not work as far as creating and sustaining long-term television shows. It's very complicated, as there is no stand-alone model for DVD distribution right now, and everything is still negotiated by advertising and viewer ratings, yet the money made from an initial airing of a show is only the tip of the iceberg, and one has to believe that substantial long-term money is lost on shows that are cancelled all the time. The entertainment industry just isn't prepared, in its current business model, for such long-term investments, if it takes years for a show to start catching up and making a profit.

Dauber writes about his enjoyment of Smith, already cancelled. Since the fate of as how is determined after only a few episodes, he points out that he "kind of liked Smith, and I'm pretty sure that a good number of those aforementioned friends and family members (have I mentioned how wonderful they are?) would have loved the show when they watched it on DVD in 2008. But now we'll never know, since no show, no DVD."

I don't know if everyone would agree that Smith is a good example, but his point is hard to argue. And the difference between shows popular on DVD and shows popular on broadcast can sometimes be substantial. What does this mean for alterations of business models? That remains to be seen...

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