A while back I was hoping to do an article on the biggest problem with TV on DVD, the fact that so many shows, maybe even most non-current shows, are abandoned before all the seasons can be released. The piece never went anywhere because, understandably, it was hard to get anyone to talk about this: studios don’t officially admit they’ve given up on a show, so the official word from a studio representative would simply be that there are no plans at this time for season X but it’s “under consideration.”
And of course sometimes they really are under consideration; just because season 2 or season 4 hasn’t been released for a year or even several years, doesn’t mean it never, ever will be. If the studio’s management changes and they need to throw TV DVDs on the market real fast, some unexpected releases can come our way. Cheers was nearly abandoned by Paramount with only three seasons left to go, but Ted Danson’s return to TV in Damages helped convince them to bring out season 9 (now they’re so close, so close to the finish).
Still, it’s not hard for the most part to figure out when a show is abandoned; it’s the Year Test. If it’s been a year since the last season release and TV Shows on DVD hasn’t had anything about another release, that doesn’t mean it will never be re-started, but it means it’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future.
The thing that leads to the abandoned-series problem is structural. In the early days of TV on DVD, we thought it was pretty simple: if the first season sells well, then we will get the rest of the series, and if the first season doesn’t sell well, then we won’t. But it hasn’t worked out that way; shows that sell well enough to bring out seasons 2 or 3 may still be abandoned due to that structural problem, which is as follows:
Every season set sells less than the one before it.
This is an iron-clad rule. It doesn’t matter if the first season is the worst ever and the second season is the best thing ever made in history; the second season will not sell as well as the first. Die-hard fans of a show will always want all the seasons, or at least all the good seasons, but DVDs don’t make a profit on die-hard fans alone. And many people who like, but don’t love, a show will buy the first season and stop there, either because 13-22 episodes are enough for their collection, or because they haven’t finished watching all the episodes from the first season by the time the second season comes out.
Now, take this principle and apply it to each subsequent season set release. There are fewer people who will buy the second season, but there are even fewer who will buy the third. And still fewer who will buy the fourth. And so on. That means that even if a series starts with a reasonably high sales level for the first season, by the time we’re into the fifth season, it may no longer be selling above the level at which it can be profitable. And the studio, knowing that the next season set will sell even less than the one they just brought out, may say to hell with it.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons single-season cult flops are so perfect for DVD; there’s nothing left of Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life or Firefly after the one box, so the studio can go all-out without having to worry about how to sell the next one.
But with shows that didn’t flop, the DVD structure is a problem. And the studios apparently never really considered how to deal with this problem; they seemed to put seasons out without having any plan in place about how to get all the seasons out. And this actually is a problem for studios, because complete-series sets make pretty good Christmas gifts and they like bringing out those full-series packages for the holidays, but they can’t do that much because there are fewer and fewer series getting completed.
There are solutions that do present themselves. One is to license any remaining seasons out to a smaller distributor. Another is the solution that Time-Life took with its sets of Get Smart and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: just release all the seasons at once, as a big expensive collectors’ set. Time-Life learned this from experience; when they put out a set of the first season of The Odd Couple, which is not as good as the subsequent four, it didn’t sell that well for them. So they packaged Get Smart as a huge five-season box, and it’s been a big success for them. It’s like, instead of going for a mix of die-hard fans and casual fans, maybe the series should be aimed to get as many of the die-hard fans as possible, meaning giving the die-hards everything they want right up front.
Anyway, this is going to be a considerable problem for shows, particularly older shows, but also any current show that doesn’t sell big. People have been assuming that TV on DVD would be a replacement for TV reruns of older shows (which are becoming harder to find), but it really isn’t, because in reruns, you get most if not all of the seasons, whereas for most TV shows you get only one to three of the seasons. When Oprah had her Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion this week, she gave her audience the first four seasons on DVD, which are all that are available and probably all that ever will be available; but people who grew up watching that show in syndication, where they showed the last three seasons (when the show was very different and in many ways better) will know more about it than viewers who only know it from what’s available on DVD.
Using TV Shows on DVD’s DVD releases list, here’s a very partial list of series that seem to have been cut off by the studios that were releasing them on DVD. I’m not saying we’ll never see another season of these shows, just that we’re probably not going to see them any time soon. Actually, there are many other shows that could be on this list, but I’m trying to restrict it to shows that have been abandoned for a year or so.
20th Century Fox
- The Bernie Mac Show (one season released)
- The Bob Newhart Show (four seasons out of six)
- The Fall Guy (one season)
- Hill Street Blues (
one seasontwo seasons)
- King of the Hill (six seasons released, all the rest unreleased)
- Malcolm in the Middle (one season)
- Mary Tyler Moore (four seasons out of seven)
- NYPD Blue (four seasons)
- Picket Fences (one season)
- The Practice (one season)
- Reba (four seasons)
- St. Elsewhere (one season)
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (three seasons out of four)
- The White Shadow (two seasons out of three)
- WKRP in Cincinnati (one severely mutilated season)
Warner Brothers (for the most part, a little better than most about continuing series once the first season sells well, but ruthless in abandoning series after the first season if it doesn’t sell great)
- Cheyenne (one season)
- The Drew Carey Show (one season)
- Everwood (one season)
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (four seasons)
- Knots Landing (one season)
- Murphy Brown (one season)
- Night Court (one season)
- Welcome Back, Kotter (one season)
- Without a Trace (two seasons)
Paramount actually seems to complete more series than not, albeit usually with cuts and music edits, but they abandoned Taxi after three out of five seasons.
- All in the Family (six seasons out of nine)
- Benson (one season)
- Charlie’s Angels (three seasons out of five)
- Diff’rent Strokes (two seasons)
- The Facts of Life (three seasons)
- The Flying Nun (two seasons out of three)
- Hart to Hart (two seasons)
- The Jeffersons (six seasons)
- The Larry Sanders Show (one season and a best-of)
- Maude (one season)
- Mad About You (three seasons and a best-of)
- The Nanny (two seasons)
- The Partridge Family (two seasons)
- Police Woman (one season)
Universal also has a fairly decent record at completing series, but they’ve abandoned a bunch, notably Leave it To Beaver, which was dropped after two seasons (and which honestly I never thought wouldn’t sell).
I’m going to stop there, though I haven’t gotten to all the studios or shows; as you can see, though, Fox appears to be the most problematic studio when it comes to abandoned shows. If Fox starts an older series and it isn’t M*A*S*H, you can probably assume that they will not finish it, no matter how many seasons they release of it, there will always be some left over that they don’t bring out.