TV could learn a thing or two from the business of comics.
A few years ago, I was immersed in television. There were innumerable sitcoms I followed, both in prime time and in syndication, and there were plenty of game shows and hour-long dramas on my list of favorites as well. But a couple of years ago, I found I was whittling down my TV viewing, with only four or five programs on my must-see-every-week list.
In recent years, it seems as though TV producers have realized that new ideas — and more importantly, smarter writing — can make for hit shows, and never has that attitude been more apparent with the slew of new shows that debuted this fall. But some of those shows are already in danger of cancellation, and NBC has announced that the intriguing Kidnapped is already kaput, and it had just barely begun telling its story. CBS has announced it’s turfing Smith as well.
Fortunately, it seems NBC is giving the producers and writers of Kidnapped several episodes to wrap up the storyline early (for a total of 13, the network’s original commitment). It’s a shame shows aren’t being given more time to develop their viewer bases, especially when one considers that such success stories as Seinfeld didn’t catch until it had a couple of seasons already under their belts.
What’s perplexing about it is that executives seem blind to the fact that there’s another revenue stream available to them today that wasn’t a few years ago: DVD sets. We comics fans (and those in the business of comics) know it as the collected edition. It seems the world of network TV is focused on advertising as the be all and end all of success. Comics publishers learned long ago ads weren’t going to keep them afloat. The prices of comics went up and the audience has shrunk, but the business marches on.
TV exists in a new reality thanks to TiVo, pirated recordings online and the proliferation of specialty channels. And executives could learn a thing or two from their comrades in this niche corner of the entertainment industry.
Comics writer Steven Grant pointed out in an interview a while back that comics have outpriced themselves but they still have a role to play in the industry. He predicted that individual issues of comics — or “floppies,” as some have come to call them — will serve as a loss leader for the real payoff: trade paperbacks. He said that’s how Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan earned bucks for DC Comics, and I guarantee you that any profits DC saw from the individual-issue sales of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman pale in comparison to the cash generated by the hardcover and softcover collections.
Many businesses use loss-leader products to make money. Grocery stores occasionally offer pop or other products below their actual cost in order to lure customers to their marketplaces, where they’re bound to buy other items at a higher price.
DC, Marvel and other comics publishers have embraced the promotional, loss-leader product as well. Just look at DC’s 10-Cent/12-Cent Adventure comics from a few years back (and Marvel’s nine-cent Fantastic Four issue). DC’s has released two 80-page, one-dollar comics recently (Countdown to Infinite Crisis and DCU: Brave New World), featuring original material, designed to generate interest in other comics, not to bring home the bacon themselves.
DVD collections of TV shows have proven to be big business. The big money in the huge Comedy Central contract that Dave Chapelle ended up turning his back on was actually based on potential home-video sales — namely, DVDs. There’s a reason every TV show — hit or otherwise — is showing up in Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Dave’s Porno Hut (um, so I hear). Money.
So why haven’t the big networks recognized that more aggressively in their marketing? The producers of such shows as Lost and Desperate Housewives treat their DVD releases as promos for the new seasons, so at least there’s some recognition of the power of DVD. Some pilots for this season were even made available for DVD rental online.
It’s a safe bet Kidnapped will be released on DVD. A complete 13-episode story at a reasonable price will have a certain appeal, especially over the holidays when there’s nothing to do or next summer when we’re immersed in reruns. But why isn’t home video a part of the plan rather than an inevitable fallback position?
Mind you, it took the world of comics a decade or more to realize and capitalize on a new reality, and the business continues to adapt. And certainly the smaller size of the comic-book industry makes for shorter timeframes for change in attitudes, business plans and marketing.
So the day that actual network time is seen as something of a promotional investment for a DVD release is probably a long way off. But then again, we live in a time when people are shelling out bucks for premium cable channels, paying to rent copies of pilot programs and watching reruns online for free (not only illegally, but on the networks’ websites themselves). So maybe the big boys in the pop-culture biz will be forced to evolve more quickly than their counterparts in comics.
Now if you’ll excuse me, The Amazing Race is on. I’d rather see if a sheltered couple from Kentucky can make their way around the world faster than a pair of reformed drug addicts/models.