VSDA – Video Revolution: Special-interest home video flows into the mainstream

Now that marketing mavens have cross-promoted the heck out of Hollywood blockbusters to spur home-video sell-though, factual product is the next new thing. With this month's Video Software Dealers Association convention in mind, ed kirchdoerffer reports on the status of...
June 1, 1998

Now that marketing mavens have cross-promoted the heck out of Hollywood blockbusters to spur home-video sell-though, factual product is the next new thing. With this month’s Video Software Dealers Association convention in mind, ed kirchdoerffer reports on the status of

special-interest home video in the U.S…

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but it took a sunken ship to draw the attention of retailers to the potential of special-interest home-video sales. Titanic in its feature-film incarnation created a ripple effect in its wake. A cottage industry of Titanic documentaries flooded the marketplace, and they all sold well, setting records for the likes of National Geographic and A&E. Retailers took notice.

Titanic’s success is perhaps the best proof that the non-fiction niche is emerging from its traditional means of distribution – catalog and direct response – and going more mainstream. As the public becomes accepting of non-fiction as entertainment, the ante has been raised for producers and distributors to ratchet up their marketing and promotional savvy, implementing traditional and innovative means to turn viewers into buyers.

‘Just as there are more tv outlets for documentary programming, people’s appetite for video in that genre is increasing as well,’ says Dan Markim, executive vp of Philadelphia-based Schlessinger Media.

Special-interest categories have been a driver of sell-through home video since the earliest days of the industry. Exercise tapes allowed couch potatoes to gain calories eating hot-cross buns, while they watched perky instructors burn them off doing Buns of Steel.

Hollywood movies dominate the sell-through business, but non-fiction producers have been trying to grab a bigger slice of the home-video pie, often by piggybacking on Hollywood product, more of which is derived from non-fiction-based topics, such as Twister (weather), Deep Impact and Armageddon (asteroids and comets), Titanic (shipwrecks) and Jurassic Park (dinosaurs). Producers have also been exploiting pop culture and news events, such as the death of Princess Diana, the end of the millennium and the cult success of pop icons, like Jerry Springer (see sidebar p.32).

When in Hollywood… the end of the world is coming

That’s good news for any distributor that may have a video on asteroids, wild weather phenomenon or the approaching millennium.

Videos that ride the coattails of movies, people in the news or trends in pop culture have proven to be among the top sellers. A&E Home Video’s Titanic has sold over a quarter of a million units – its best-selling title. Producers are actively seeking ways to tie in the entertainment world to the non-fiction universe.

‘You have to put some of those titles that play off of a theatrical release in the mix, because people who see a movie may have an appetite for more information about what they’ve just seen,’ says Paul Tayette, director of domestic licensing and distribution, music and video for Discovery Enterprises Worldwide.

‘We try to get products to market as quickly as we can in response to trends, like a popular movie or some kind of event,’ adds David Walmsley, director of home video, A&E Television Networks.

‘When weather became a big thing, we created Nature’s Fury from three Nova shows… [because] someone interested in Twister may also be interested in related subjects,’ says Sarah Slater, director of sales and marketing, WGBH.

Rush releases try to capitalize on news events. MPI Home Video’s Clinton’s Angels, profiles of the alleged other women in President Clinton’s past, is designed as the video equivalent of quickie books on subjects that seize the headlines, according to Sam Citro, executive vp of Orland Park, Illinois-based MPI Home Video.

So many shows, so little shelf space

Thousands of hours of programming are produced annually on special-interest topics, ranging from antiques to aerobics, animals to Everest, biographies to boxing, natural history to the history of rock. But that doesn’t guarantee every interesting tv doc will work on video.

The key component in any home-video purchasing decision is collectibility: whether you can offer a product people will want to view multiple times, or will want on their shelves as a conversation piece, a status symbol or because they feel it is important to own. Purchasing tendencies in special-interest home video mirror those of the non-fiction-book market, where the audience actually reading the book is smaller than the one wanting to own it for posterity.

‘Many broadcasters and producers have a real lack of understanding of what works in home video,’ says Peter Edwards, president of Bethesda-based Acorn Media. ‘A broadcaster’s goal is to get someone to lift his finger off the zapper and watch the program long enough to see some ads go by. We have to position video so consumers are motivated to take out their wallet and spend money.’

Genres such as history, sports, health and fitness, and animals are among the better performers in special interest, while how-to programs, cooking and science shows have been traditional underachievers. Videos that offer added value, such as extra footage or outtakes, give consumers additional incentive to purchase what they could otherwise watch for free.

More than theatrical releases, branding plays a vital role in special-interest home-video sales, because, unlike books, cd-roms, clothes, cars and most other retail items, a customer can’t walk into a store and try the video. This comes from watching it on television. ‘We look at broadcast as a preview mechanism for home video,’ says Eric Sass, senior vp of Alexandria, Virginia-based PBS Learning Media.

‘More and more, you’re going to see television not only as a means of entertainment, but as a retailing window where programming is a sampling vehicle for a purchasing decision,’ adds Richard Lorber, president of New York-based Fox Lorber.

The stamp of National Geographic, Discovery Channel and PBS to a documentary, MTV to music, or NFL Films to sports, gives these videos a competitive advantage over those from smaller, independent labels because consumers have an expectation of quality.

Packaging also plays a key role in collectability, according to Robert Potter, vp of domestic home video, National Geographic Television, ‘not only in terms of initial contact and impulse, but it’s extremely important to how that product looks on the shelf, in the store, and on someone’s bookcase at home.’

But good packaging can be deceiving. Some video suppliers who lack brand identity may sink disproportionate amounts of money into the look of the box, rather than the content of the video, and offer the product at a lower price than the $19.95 that’s the going rate for quality special-interest home video. Sass calls it ‘shovel wear,’ which in the end doesn’t help consumers or producers.

‘It puts pressure on you to work with resellers so they take pride in the programming that’s in the box,’ says Steve Savage, president of New York-based New Media. ‘People appreciate the fact that there is such a thing as premium programming. Branding is a very good tool to communicate that.’

Logical points of distribution

The best means to market special-interest video is a logical point of distribution, places where the documentary lives best. That means having videos about trains available at train museums, golf videos at pro shops, animal videos at zoos, Super Bowl videos in the city that won the championship. ‘You have to look at each product not as another widget to go in a pipeline, but as a unique production that has a unique audience,’ Savage says.

Traditionally, special-interest videos have sold best via direct response and catalogs. These two methods will continue to be the bread and butter of the business, as special interest is a fragmented market with no single overall channel to get product into consumers’ hands. National Geographic does up to 75% of its business through direct marketing, taking advantage of a membership base of eight to nine million.

In the retail environment, specialty stores and bookstores have been the most popular venues to sell special-interest home video. ‘The growth of special interest video is dependent on video being taken on as a product in a mix of many other types of products, by many specialty retail outlets,’ Lorber says.

PBS employs a home-video `acceptance’ test. First, it sees how a program does with on-air sales. Then it goes in the PBS catalog. If a title performs well there, it is rolled out to specialty retail accounts, such as Borders Books & Music. If it works in those venues, it rolls the video out into the mass market via Warner Home Video.

A&E formed an exclusive promotion partnership with Barnes & Noble for its Biography brand (A&E can still sell tapes elsewhere), promoting the bookstore in spots while Biography airs. In exchange, the bookstore prominently displays in-store signage featuring the video line, carries Biography magazine and the audio Biography book line. Borders also has a section dedicated to PBS videos, with special signage. Discovery puts its videos in its retail outlets: Discovery Channel Store and The Nature Company.

Acceptance of special-interest video among mass-market retailers has been slow (with the exception of areas like exercise videos and music specials), but the popularity of doc-heavy channels like Discovery and History Channel has opened eyes to the reality that non-fiction isn’t necessarily stuffy, dry material. ‘Retailers have become aware that our products sell well across a variety of demographics,’ Walmsley says.

Reaching desirable demographics

Networks such as Discovery reach the influential demographics which marketers crave. Taking a page from the cross-promotional success achieved with entertainment programs, marketers have begun forging promotional partnerships in the special-interest category to reach these highly coveted consumers in a venue traditionally not strong enough to warrant the dollars needed to carry out large-scale promotions.

Through its distributor, Warner Home Video, National Geographic partnered with Continental Airlines and Club Med Family Village on its Amazing Planet collection, offering consumers discounts on travel and vacations, respectively. For Savage Garden, it did a cross promotion with Flowers USA. ‘If there is a mass-market appeal, and if the non-fiction programming has a consumer appeal, you will get cross-promotional partners supporting it,’ says National Geographic’s Potter.

Discovery expects to build strong cross-promotional partnerships now that its distribution deal with BMG Video will make its product more accessible in the mass market. Sony Wonder, which has done third-party promotions with MTV, has established an in-house integrated marketing group whose job is to look for promotional partners for its music and home video properties.

Special-interest videos may never sell at the dazzling heights of Hollywood blockbusters, but they will continue to be a growing part of the market. Sales coming from the educational and library markets often makes up for consumer shortfall. The ratings of channels such as Discovery and A&E are proof that there is an audience who wants to watch and own these programs.

‘People love to collect unique experiences,’ says Al Scamardo, senior director of specialty programming at PolyGram Home Video. ‘That’s something we try to bring to the consumer.’

About the VSDA

Representatives from the video retail industry, home-video divisions of motion-picture studios, video-game and multimedia producers, as well as other related industries, will descend upon Las Vegas, U.S., for the 17th annual Video Software Dealers Association convention from July 8-11. Last year, over 12,000 industry professionals attended the convention, with similar numbers expected this year.

The VSDA was established in 1981 as a not-for-profit international trade association for the US$16 billion home-entertainment industry. Members come from over 3,600 companies throughout the U.S., Canada and 22 other countries, representing companies as large as Blockbuster and Warner Home Video, and as small as independent mom-and-pop retailers.

CBS news anchor Dan Rather will give the keynote address. Among the events at this year’s convention will be a special Kids Marketplace area sponsored by RealScreen sister publication Kidscreen.

National Geographic kiosks to international success

Like most U.S. companies, Washington-based National Geographic handles international home-video distribution through licensing arrangements in local markets. Nat Geo has found its greatest international success via direct marketing on its own channels, local-language versions of its publications and a large-scale kiosk operation.

At kiosks and newsstands, consumers purchase a video along with a chapter from a National Geographic publication called a `part-work’. The company bundles the print and video material together because the combination reduces the value-added tax which consumers must pay.

A part-work is a section of a book. Every few weeks, a new video comes out with a new section from the same book. Once all the videos are purchased, the customer has all of the chapters of a National Geographic book, which can then be brought back to the kiosk, where it is bound.

In countries such as the U.K. and Germany, which don’t have kiosk operations, video is sold through direct marketing and mass market retail channels.

‘Our biggest challenge is to make sure that we are in every direct marketing channel and that we come up with [collectible] new programming strands, like children’s products, that will cross all borders,’ says Julie Bellonte, vp of international video for National Geographic Television.

Too hot for TV: Jerry Springer

There’s no accounting for taste, which is as good a reason as any to explain the success of The Jerry Springer Show.

Part-wrestling match, part-confessional and mostly carnival freak show, Springer pulled the public into the gutter, vaulting past Oprah Winfrey to become the highest-rated syndicated talk show on u.s. television. All of the fighting, biting, spitting, screaming and other forms of deviant behavior in which Springer’s guests, America’s great unwashed, partake has hit a nerve with a cult legion of loyal fans.

It’s that demographic Real Entertainment of California has targeted with a line of best-selling Jerry Springer Too Hot for TV videos. The three-year-old company uses home video as a tool to identify consumers of brands in order to create databases to sell brand extensions to them.

The original video (there are seven in total) has sold upwards of a million units – all through direct response – since it debuted last September, and the company expects another spike when it becomes available at retail in July. Real Entertainment president Scott Barbour believes the home-video success of Springer and similar properties the company distributes, like Cops, comes from offering added value on the tape, such as the `too hot’ concept, outtakes or never-before-seen footage.

‘When you watch Jerry Springer, it’s apparent that there’s more going on than what you see on the tv screen,’ Barbour says.

Once a customer orders the first video, he is entered into a database, which Real Entertainment uses to market other Springer-related product via mailings and outbound telemarketing campaigns. Of the seven Springer videos, only the first one is advertised on tv.

‘If we can’t get you to pick up the phone and order that one video, then why should we advertise any of the others to you?’ Barbour asks. ‘There’s no replacement for advertising to the consumer who has taken the initiative to respond to something.’

When the product is at retail, the company will use a bounce-back offer as a means of expanding the database. The retail debut will be accompanied by a contest with a grand prize of a double-wide mobile home, towable to any trailer park in the nation.

Barbour believes that special interest is an area of opportunity where aggressive, guerrilla-oriented independent labels can thrive. ‘This is not just a video business. We’re selling a commodity, and you’ve got to use every channel of distribution applicable.’

You got a problem with that, buster?

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.