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TV on DVD is keeping the medium’s history alive, against all odds

Two essential, classic dramas — The Defenders and Lou Grant — were released on disc for the first time in 2016.

Lou Grant
Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Lou Grant, starring Ed Asner, finally hit DVD for the first time in early 2016.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Releasing a TV show on DVD seems like a very 2000s thing to do. As streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu become the primary method for catching up on any given series — or just watching TV, period — the trusty old DVD set feels like an expensive doohickey that will just take up space on a shelf.

Yes, DVD sets are still released on the regular, especially for popular current shows. But the brief boom in TV shows hitting physical media that characterized the 2000s has, like the DVD business overall, slowed considerably compared to where it was even five years ago, much less 10 years ago.

Of course, DVD is still one of the best ways to ensure that classic TV lives on — especially dramas that haven’t always been available in reruns. But as the TV on DVD market dries up, there’s less and less room to release DVDs of the many classic shows that aren’t available anywhere else.

Remastering footage or clearing music rights for a TV show that hasn’t been readily available for decades often costs lots of money — and because the audience for such a project is typically very small, it can be difficult to recoup that expense from a streaming service that’s buying the rights to broadcast the show. DVD sales have often been a useful way to bridge that gap, but even in the heyday of the format, shows would often see only their first seasons released, with no follow-up sets.

In 2016, a handful of companies, led by Shout Factory, are still trying to keep that fire burning, but success grows a little more difficult with every new year.

Two classic TV dramas finally hit DVD in 2016, but one may never be released in full

The Defenders
E.G. Marshall (left) and Robert Reed star in The Defenders, newly available on DVD.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Two of Shout Factory’s 2016 releases — the first season of Mary Tyler Moore Show spinoff Lou Grant (which ran from 1977 to 1982) and the first season of 1960s legal drama The Defenders — show how narrow the margin for success has become.

Both shows are among the most acclaimed TV dramas of their eras, having won critical plaudits and boatloads of Emmys. And both have been barely available to view since they left the air. The Defenders hasn’t been available at all since a brief showing on the Armed Forces Network in the 1970s. (I wrote about how impossible it is to find the show here.)

By typical TV on DVD standards — i.e., getting most or all of a series’ run on disc — one of these releases has proved successful, while the other appears to be struggling. Lou Grant launched to little fanfare but has already gone on to release its second and third seasons, with the fourth (of five) arriving in early 2017. It seems likely the whole series will hit DVD.

The Defenders, meanwhile, was greeted with more hype (or, at least, what counts for hype in the TV on DVD world, which mostly amounts to posts on classic TV-centric blogs), but its second season has yet to be announced. (Sources have told me the first season sold poorly, but I don’t have exact sales figures.)

This makes sense. Lou Grant is centered on a popular character who was spun off from a well-known show. And because it’s part of the MTM Enterprises library (featuring shows from the famed ’70s and ’80s TV production company founded by Mary Tyler Moore and her then husband Grant Tinker), its first season was briefly rerun on TV in the ’90s, and it has been on Hulu for years. Shout’s established relationship with Hulu also means that seasons of the show continue to pop up on Hulu as they hit DVD. Thus, there was less of a bar to clear in terms of getting the show ready to release on DVD, as someone has already gone to the trouble of remastering and cleaning up the image at some point over the years.

The Defenders, meanwhile, wasn’t a huge hit when it was on the air, though it drew enough viewers. Today, it’s primarily remembered for the Emmys it won and its takes on hot-button issues of its era. (Notably, it’s one of the only programs of the ’60s to even mention abortion obliquely.) Its relative obscurity, and the fact that it hasn’t aired recently in syndication or on streaming, meant Shout needed to put more effort into cleaning up the image just to be able to put it out into the world.

This is too bad. Between Lou Grant and The Defenders, The Defenders is by far the one that most deserves to be readily available to TV fans in terms of the historical record. That said, the show’s first season is weaker than the rest, if its fans are to be believed. (Most of the series’ most beloved episodes came from its second and third seasons.) Like many shows in their first seasons, The Defenders takes some time to find its groove, where Lou Grant could coast on the idea of its main character moving from a sitcom TV newsroom to a dramatic newspaper newsroom.

Still, the simple fact that both shows are now available to TV fans and historians, at least in part, is a sign that a handful of companies like Shout are committed to curating TV history via a handful of significant releases every year. Being able to watch Lou Grant and The Defenders is a key part of understanding how TV drama worked before the 1981 debut of Hill Street Blues, which kicked off the long march toward the heavily serialized prestige dramas that are common today.

A service that truly serves fans of classic TV — or even just those of us who wish to trace its many abandoned evolutionary steps — is still some distance away. It’ll be awhile before classic TV has a similar option to Turner Classic Movies or the Criterion Collection, both of which serve classic and cult film fans. But a few companies are working on it, keeping the light of those old test patterns glowing as best they can.

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