When you sell more than 2 million copies of a DVD collecting TV episodes that people can still catch for free in reruns on a basic-cable channel, you know you’ve tapped into not just a new market but a new hunger. That’s what Dave Chappelle did with his “Chappelle’s Show Season One Uncensored,” a two-DVD set released in February. It was this year’s second season of Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central that turned the lanky, laid-back comic into a mass-culture favorite, and so lots of “folks,” as Chappelle invariably calls his audience, scrambled to catch up with what his cult already knew—that he’s the rare comic who’s breaking new ground on TV.
And it’s paid off, in a $50 million, two-year deal with Comedy Central. It also proves that his show is at the forefront of a new trend: watching entire seasons of TV programming on DVD, on your own schedule, and the hell with the networks or even TiVo. Lots of people are ignoring shows when they first air, confident that, a few months after the season-ender, they’ll be able to watch Alias or 24 or whatever season of Sex and the City you thought spoke most directly to your love life.
This represents a business alteration that can have artistic impact. If Chappelle, a guy whose career had previously been characterized by failed network sitcoms and a well-reported frustration with conventional TV outlets, could prove a moneymaker by pursuing his muse, this gives media executives the feeling that there are profits to be made by backing stuff that, just a few years ago, would have been considered too edgy, too dark, too creative—choose your favorite cant word. Maybe they’ll green-light a series or a movie that might not appeal to Nielsen families or opening-weekend teen moviegoers, betting that the project will bear fruit later, as word-of-mouth builds and the DVD hits the market. It’s the opposite of every marketing strategy since Jaws: Don’t look at the first three days’ haul or the overnights—look at whether the product has legs.