Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WAIT, WAIT, I NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO LOVE YA*: Spacewoman and I just finished the second season of Breaking Bad on DVD, and now we're going to have to wait, probably until a week or a few days before the fourth season premieres on AMC, to get the DVDs for Season 3. That got me thinking about the curious alchemy of TV season DVD release dates.

As a viewer, it seems that the best time to release a full-season DVD is long enough before the start of the next season premieres that a person can get completely caught up and catch the new season in real time. For a number of shows, however, that's not the model. Shows like Weeds, Chuck, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, among surely others, seem to hit the market on DVD as part of the promotional crescendo for the following broadcast season, so if a person wanted to catch up, he or she would have to cram a whole season into just a week or less in front of the TV. Marathons are only fun if you want to run them. I am sure that in making this complaint, I am thinking too much like a viewer and not enough like a company with a financial interest in the show. But I'm not exactly sure what I'm missing.

Who has an incentive to do this? I understand the value of using the DVD release to create synergistic marketing. Promotions for the DVD tend to remind people of the broadcast season and vice-versa, and the effectiveness of this synergy is probably greater the higher the percentage of DVD buyers are obsessive rewatchers. But if a network wants to grow the audience for its product, one would think that the countervailing interest -- allowing people to get up to speed so that they can begin watching the broadcast version -- would trump the cross-promotional benefit.

Networks (or their broadcast executives), of course, may not make the DVD release-date decisions. I don't know for sure, but I imagine that the production and distribution companies would have some role in that decision. Those companies, superficially, might have an interest in withholding the DVDs long enough to prevent viewership of the broadcast season, thus ensuring the purchase of another season's worth of DVDs the following year. Except that I think that's wrong -- to the extent that the licensing fees for the broadcast rights fund the production itself, hindering broadcast viewership seems like shooting oneself in the foot. And DVD producer/distributors might even benefit from increased popularity of the broadcast version. Plus, if there really were competing incentives, one would expect that the broadcast partner would write some deadlines for DVD release dates into the broadcast licensing contract (just as networks write earliest-allowable DVD release dates into those contracts, so that the DVDs don't compete with the broadcast versions of the same shows). And that's not to mention the numerous instances in which the broadcaster is a partner in the production of the DVDs.

So who is it, exactly, who benefits from making me wait until -- what, May 2011? -- to watch what everybody says is an intense and brilliant season?

*Yes, that's a White Lion tag. So?


  1. Andrew12:31 PM

    You can buy season 3 from Amazon Video on Demand (and watch it on your TV through a Roku player or TiVo) right now.

    Even if it's less permanent than DVD, were I in your position, I'd probably spend the money on the downloads, because season 3 of Breaking Bad was just that good. Few other seasons of television would I recommend it for. 

    Last summer, I caught up with Breaking Bad season 2 when AMC ran it in reruns after Mad Men (though I did keep a big backlog on the DVR of them.) Perhaps AMC will be re-running season 3 before then? Although with Rubicon running post-Mad Men, who knows if there's going to be any Breaking Bad re-runs. 

  2. Carmichael Harold12:47 PM

    I haven't checked lately, but BB S3 was on free VOD on my cable system several weeks after the season ended (so it may still be there), and S2 was on there several weeks before S3 started.

    As to Isaac's broader question, I think it's a combination of two things you mentioned, which are that the entity that profits from DVD sales often has a separate P&L than those involved in the production (whether it's a straight distributor, or a distinct division within the production company or network), and that commerce divisions usually have a significant smaller marketing budget than the broadcaster, and so they want to piggyback the DVD sales on the marketing of the new season of the program.

  3. isaac_spaceman1:01 PM

    For various reasons, I can't watch VOD on our TV and I don't want to watch it on my computer. 

  4. lisased1:03 PM

    I was lamenting this yesterday, when I saw that Season 1 of "Community" won't be out until four days before the season premiere. I missed several episodes in the beginning of the season and decided to wait until DVD to watch it all at once. I can handle five episodes a night, right?

    As for the tag, I still giggle every time I hear the lead singer's plaintive "Wait, wa-ait!" 

  5. I think there's another logic at work (whether it makes sense, I don't know, but I will at least presume that the people charged with maximizing the financial take have a reason for doing it):  The network, the studio, and the advertisers all have some interest (not the same interest, to be sure, but some) in maximizing the audience viewing the season when it airs.  For Season N, the advertisers want to make sure that the content will not be made available in certain other formats for period X, and it could well be that period X gets tied to the beginning of the next season.  Even if the network and/or studio have some different interest, the advertisers can negotiate contracts regarding how the material will be distributed going forward, and I expect they do so. 

    Now, I agree that this may be short-sighted, in that it may undercut the number of folks who view Season N+1 as it airs, but if I'm negotiating a deal for my ads during Season N, I may be much more concerned with protecting that investment (by limiting physical distribution) than with hypothetically increasing the value of future ads (especially because if viewership goes up in Season N+1, ad rates will likely rise too -- so it's more important to protect the value of the already-priced investment than the unpriced future investment).  (I also understand, of course, that most networks "air" the content online.  I am sure this gets priced into the ad rates, but I also suspect that there's a much bigger threat from DVD sales, because many -- like Isaac -- don't view streamed content as a pure substitute for a DVD.

    Also, the DVR plays in here, right?  Isaac and Spacewoman can record BB Season 4 as they watch the Season 3 DVDs, and then watch the recorded versions, perhaps catching up -- a fact that undermines (but does not destroy) the argument that this arrangement prevents them from watching Season 4 as it airs. 

    This is all hypothesis -- while (as you all know) I do communications law, I do NOT for the most part do media stuff, and certainly don't get into the business issues.  And I'm sure Isaac will have a clever UChi rebuttal.  But, again, I'm not arguing this necessarily makes sense; only that there's some economic value in preserving the primacy of the broadcast run,

  6. That last comma should have been a period -- nothing was omitted.

  7. By the way, Carmichael, were you responsible for the giant shark looming over Silver Sprint last weekend?

  8. I have a simpler solution for this problem.  Simply make all of us at ALOTT5MA voters in some major television awards show.  Then we'll get every show mailed to us on DVD for free! 

  9. cagey7:56 PM

    Through a DVR/Provider-related tragedy, I missed the last half of the Chuck season last year.  Then, I had to catch up on that season very quickly to catch up to the newest season.  While it was well worth the effort to do so, let's just say that if I had balls, I would have been busting 'em.

    And I really, really, really want to jump onthe Breaking Bad bandwagon.  Sigh.

  10. Jenn.8:48 PM

    The boyfriend and I ran into exactly this problem.  I had carefully worked on hooking him on Chuck, via the first season.  And then, boom:  couldn't get a hold of the second season on DVD.  As it happens, hulu or video on demand actually is a feasible option for the boyfriend, given that he runs everything (TV, DVDs, video on demand, Sony Playstation) through his computer, which is hooked up to a projector for use with a rather large screen.   But many of the second season episodes were not up on hulu, and it's irksome, having to buy individual episodes on, when I wanted the DVDs for my permanent collection. And they delayed the DVDs until so damned close to the season premiere.  Highly annoying.

    I'm sure there is some business-related reason for this silliness, but I tend to think that the easier it is to get people up to speed on a show, the more likely they are to watch the show in real-time (or close to real-time) going forward.  That makes advertisers happy, but it also increases the likelihood of on-line chatter, whether on blogs or on twitter or other social media.

  11. Heather K9:49 PM

    I vote Matt 'ALOTT5MA Genius of the Month'

  12. isaac_spaceman9:55 PM

    <span>All of the underlying assumptions you make are absolutely right (either explicitly or implicitly), and the N+X blackout period is written into the contracts.  But there is no logical reason for X to be different for a 13-episode basic cable show that airs only over a quarter of a year than it should be for a 26-episode show that airs over 3/4 of a year.  If there is a rational fear that consumers will substitute away from broadcast content if they know that a DVD will be released only a month after the finale, but that they will not substitute away if a DVD is three months away, that still doesn't explain the eight- or nine-month wait for a DVD of Breaking Bad, Weeds, Mad Men, Deadwood, or The Wire.  As I say that, I realize that there is an argument that it is the starting point of a season, not the endpoint, that is the relevant date for calculating X, but that makes no sense to me, since you would expect from a behavioral standpoint that viewers would underrate the downside of a distant event (waiting 11-12 months for the DVD) as opposed to a present event (I have not yet watched last season; therefore I cannot watch this season on broadcast). </span>

  13. Pure speculation, but maybe the advertisers just have more leverage with regard to cable shows, which (in the case of the shows you have in mind) are critically acclaimed but probably still often do worse than many inferior "big four" shows?

  14. Why has nobody mentioned that AMC is re-airing "Breaking Bad" Season 3 this summer?  Oh... because they changed their minds:
    ("However, Season 3 episodes will encore later in 2010.")

    I caught up on all 33 episodes of BB for free!  Before the third season started back in February, AMC reran all of S1 and 2 over a two-week period, at like 3:30 in the morning (which I must have read about via TVTattle).  The DVR picked them all up, along with S3, and I watched the whole thing in May and June.  Damn that's a good show.