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Are DVD Box Sets A Dying Business? Studios Hope The Answer Is 'Not Yet'


This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has a review of several recently released big DVD box sets. He says there are reasons to grab them now while you can.


ELVIS PRESLEY: This is probably the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life. And there's not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good, and we want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now, "Don't Be Cruel."

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That's Elvis Presley the first time he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 setting off a revolution in rock 'n' roll and setting ratings records for an entertainment program on TV. Eight years later, also on "The Ed Sullivan Show," The Beatles did the same thing. Their entire performances have been available on DVD before, and they're only sampled on the new "The Best Of The Ed Sullivan Show." But the sheer range of this new collection from StarVista and Time Life stirs up a ton of great memories if you were watching the first time around.

I'm personally excited because finally, I have a complete performance by Erich Brenn. I didn't know his name either, but he's the plate-spinning guy, the guy who's served as a metaphor of my entire hectic adult life. This new six-DVD Sullivan set is only one of many new or repackaged box sets rolling out lately. Oh, did I say rolling? That reminds me. One of the new releases from Paramount, covering eight seasons on 59 discs, is the show that gave Clint Eastwood his start and provided one of the most memorable theme songs in TV history - "Rawhide."


FRANIE LAINE: (Singing) Keep moving, moving, moving though they're disapproving. Keep them doggies moving, Rawhide. Don't try to understand them. Just rope, throw and brand them. Soon, we'll be living high and wide. My heart's calculating. My true love will be waiting, be waiting at the end of my ride. Move them on. Head them up. Head them up. Move them on. Move them on. Head them up, Rawhide. Cut them out. Ride them in. Ride them in. Let them out. Cut them out. Ride them in, Rawhide, Rawhide.

BIANCULLI: Paramount also is releasing other mega sets in compact packaging - complete series versions, for example, of "Cheers," "The Fugitive" and "Frasier." The reason, as with most of these new sets, is technology and concern. Now that more and more viewers are relying on streaming sites to find and watch old TV shows, the fear is that bulky, often-costly DVD box sets may soon become a thing of the past. The studios owning rights to those shows are rushing to release complete collections, especially of long-running series while consumers are still in the habit of buying them.

And these are pretty much great deals. You can get "Cheers" for about $10 a season. But the best deal is binge watching some of these old shows in retrospect. "Frasier," the Kelsey Grammer spinoff from "Cheers," doesn't just hold up. It glistens. Just listen to the way the pilot episode introduces David Hyde Pierce's Niles, Frasier's brother and fellow therapist. Frasier, by this point, is an established fussbudget, but Niles is an even-fussier-budget and scores with the studio audience instantly. Most comedy goes for odd-couple pairings, but this time, the humor stems from the siblings' similarities.


DAVID HYDE PIERCE: (As Niles Crane) You haven't heard a word I said.

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier Crane) Oh, Niles, you're a psychiatrist. You know what it's like to listen to people prattling on endlessly about their mundane lives.

PIERCE: (As Niles Crane) Touche. And on that subject, I heard your show today.


BIANCULLI: Yet another welcome set from Paramount is "The Fugitive, them from Paramount is "The Fugitive: The Complete Series." This was TV as film noir, with David Janssen as escaped accused murderer, Richard Kimble, roaming the country for years in search of the one-armed man who was the actual killer of Kimble's wife. The episodes are moody and well-acted, and they all lead up to the 1967 finale in which Kimble finally catches up to the one-armed man and starts beating a confession out of him.


DAVID JANSSEN: (As Richard Kimble) You killed her, didn't you? You killed my wife, didn't you, didn't you, didn't you? You killed her.

BILL RAISCH: (As Fred Johnson) Yeah, yeah, I killed her.

JANSSEN: (As Richard Kimble) Why?

RAISCH: (As Fred Johnson) 'Cause she wouldn't let me go - liked to have clawed my eyes out. I didn't mean to hit her so hard.

BIANCULLI: It may not sound like much, but that was a huge moment in TV history, a moment that out-rated both Elvis and The Beatles. It was a show that actually ended rather than just stopped and provided a long-awaited conclusion. Every show since then which goes out with a much-anticipated final chapter has "The Fugitive" to thank, including "Breaking Bad" and, this season, "Justified" and "Mad Men."

Another series that ended this season, NBC's "Parenthood," is getting the box-set treatment from Universal, and it may be the most satisfying release of the bunch. This show premiered in 2010, based on the 1989 Steve Martin movie, but quickly developed its own tone, path and following. It was a great family drama at a time when TV had all but abandoned them. And watching the children in this show grow up before our eyes is like watching the movie "Boyhood." From five years ago, here's Peter Krause as Adam Braverman. He's coaching a Little League team whose players include his son, Max, played by Max Burkholder. As viewers, we don't yet know that young Max has Asperger's syndrome, but we do know that Max doesn't want to go up to bat.


PETER KRAUSE: (As Adam Braverman) OK, everybody, we are only down by seven. We can do this. You ready, Max?

DAX SHEPARD: (As Crosby Braverman) Come on. This is our date with destiny. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: (As Character) Oh, no, Max is up.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: (As Character) Oh, God, Max is up.

KRAUSE: (As Adam Braverman) Hey, not cool. All right, Max, listen to me. All right, I know I told you to swing at everything, but in this situation, you've got to know that a walk is just as good as a hit, OK?

MAX BURKHOLDER: (Max Braverman) Can't someone else hit, please? I suck. I'm going to strike out. Everyone's going to hate me.

KRAUSE: (As Adam Braverman) Max, listen to me. Max, Max, listen to me. All right. Now, it doesn't matter if you get a hit or not, OK? It's a game. It's all about having fun.

BURKHOLDER: (Max Braverman) I'm not having any fun.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Character) Who's up? Let's go.

KRAUSE: (As Adam Braverman) All right, well, look. Just try your best, Pal, OK?

BIANCULLI: You can lose an awful lot of time diving into these box sets, enjoying the extras as well as the episodes. And the extras, most times, are found only within these DVD releases. Personally, I'd rather own the shows I like on DVD, just like I'd rather hold a book in my hands than read an e-book. If you're like me, now is the time to pounce on these box-set deals while you still can.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.


GROSS: Monday on our show, the story of how yoga, as we know it, was created through a series of surprising meetings of East and West. It was popularized in the U.S. by a Russian woman born in 1899 who first learned about yoga in a book by Yogi Ramacharaka, who was actually a writer from Chicago. There's much more in the new book "The Goddess Pose." We'll talk with the author, Michelle Goldberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.