ABC Can Soon Speed Up DVDs

Nov 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A paragraph buried in ABC’s pending deal in which its affiliates agree to help pay for pro football would allow the network to significantly speed up the release of DVDs of some of its most popular shows. That means the network could use the DVD release to promote a show between seasons without breaching exclusivity guarantees made to ABC affiliates concerning repurposing of programming.

As an example, ABC could release the first season of “Lost,” the buzz-making adventure-drama, next summer. That would enable new viewers to watch the first episodes on DVD and then tune in for the second season without feeling, well, lost because they missed out on the freshman season.

“DVDs of previous season’s [sic] primetime entertainment programs may be released 180 days from the end of its original airing or 30 days prior to the next season, whichever is earlier, and this would not count against the 25 percent cap on repurposing of primetime programming,” said a tiny paragraph included in the terms of the most recent agreement, under which affiliates share some of the network’s $550 million-a-year National Football League expenses in return for, among other things, guarantees of exclusivity to the local stations’ signature network programming.

Known as Network Affiliate Program III, or NAP III, the agreement has not yet been approved by the requisite number of affiliates. The ABC Affiliates Association board of governors hammered out the pact with the network and recommended it as a good deal to fellow affiliates the week of Oct. 11.

For NAP III to take effect, stations representing slightly more than two-thirds of the country must sign on. There is anecdotal evidence that some affiliates have agreed, but there is no reliable sense of how many because only the network knows and the network does not discuss the specifics of such issues.

Some affiliate sources suggested that NAP III is stalled by the lack of new long-term affiliation agreements for a significant number of affiliates, many of them owned by powerful station groups. Since NAP III-which is structured in two two-year components-and its predecessors are amendments to the longer-term affiliation agreements, some affiliates believe they would be giving up precious leverage by approving the amendment to a contract they have not yet hammered out.

ABC, which extended the window for affiliate approval to Oct. 26, has the right to restart NAP III negotiations, but the word at the network is that ABC remains confident that it will slowly but surely reach the required two-thirds-plus approval.

While the DVD provision seems brand-new to some affiliates, a network source said ABC already had the right to release a video 180 days after the original broadcast season. Under the new deal, the network has gained flexibility by codifying the right to release a DVD a month before the start of the following season.

Either way, ABC has been and will continue to be essentially limited to repurposing 25 percent of the network’s prime time. And ABC does appear to have taken the lead in addressing the DVD issue in a binding agreement.

NBC has no written agreements with its affiliates regarding repurposing.

Fox, which put the first season of “24” on DVD and released “Arrested Development’s” first season in October in hopes of similar network audience growth, does not address DVDs in repurposing agreements with its affiliates. Neither does CBS, which has gotten mileage out of well-timed releases of previous seasons of “CSI,” “CSI: Miami” and “Survivor.”

In most cases DVD rights are controlled by or shared with the producer of the show. That means the networks can control the release on DVD only of programming in which they have ownership. Some industry executives who take the long view on home entertainment predict that some licensing agreements for shows picked up for the 2005-06 season will address the potential for DVD windows during the initial four years. The DVD release is increasingly viewed as a way for the studios to defray some of their early deficit expenses and boost the audience (and thus the value of the show) for networks, and all without risking the sort of overexposure that could devalue the show in syndication.

ABC’s sister studio, Touchstone Television, produces “Lost” as well as “Desperate Housewives” and other prime-time ABC shows.

Increasingly, even once-skeptical affiliates see the timely DVD release at what one network executive described as “key times in the life of the show” as a win-win-win situation for stations, for networks and for studios.

No decisions have been made at ABC about DVD releases for this summer, but “Lost” seems to be a perfect candidate since it’s a serialized drama. Current comedies tend to perform more modestly on DVD. ABC’s biggest TV-to-DVD success is “Alias,” the critically praised but modestly watched action drama that will return to the ABC lineup Jan. 5 as “Lost’s” lead-out at 9 p.m. Wednesdays. That will give creator and executive producer J.J. Abrams a two-hour block on ABC’s Wednesdays.

“We look at the DVD as something good for the network and the affiliates in terms of helping us strengthen and promote our shows on the network,” said Spencer Neumann, executive VP of the ABC Television Network.