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Published October 20, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

The world is filled with stuff beyond my understanding. String theory, for example. And the Electoral College. Or how anyone could possibly have thought it was a good idea to give Tony Danza his own talk show.

Recently, I've found myself confronted by a development that truly defies comprehension. Millions of Americans -- presumably otherwise sane and responsible -- are paying for the privilege of watching television that airs for free. Video trade publications call it "the newest and hottest pop culture phenomenon." Entertainment industry types hail it as "the TV DVD revolution." You and I know it as shelling out major bucks for complete-season sets of popular programs.

The scope of the craze hit me when I started noticing more and more ads for these collections in magazines such as Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. Not that long ago, sets were limited primarily to vintage titles such as "I Love Lucy," "The Twilight Zone" and "The Avengers" -- shows that are disappearing from syndication in many markets. I could understand the thinking behind this. Though I'll go to my grave a happy man if I never see another second of Lucy in one of her grating incarnations, I did buy a four-volume set of "Fawlty Towers" on VHS several years back. Some-times you just need a little John Cleese to get you through the day and can't wait for a PBS pledge drive to roll around.

But all DVD hell has now broken loose, and consumers are gobbling up sets almost as fast as shows can be put on the air. It's instant nostalgia. Can people really be yearning for the "good old days" when they watched "24," "Punk'd" and "CSI"? These are some of the most popular programs on TV at this very moment! Yet sales of sets of these and dozens of other current and recent series are helping to make TV on DVD the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry.

"TV DVD will become a $2 billion business this year," Thomas K. Arnold informed me recently. He ought to know. Arnold's not only the group editor and associate publisher of Video Store Magazine; he's also executive producer of the second annual TV DVD Conference, which took place this past Tuesday in Los Angeles. "DVD grew 35 percent overall in 2003," he pointed out. "TV DVD grew 61 percent!"

The conference is essentially a TV DVD think tank where the industry's top professionals formulate strategies, analyze emerging trends and see humungous dollar signs as they schedule upcoming releases. Even they can't believe they're getting away with selling collector sets of, for example, "The Simpsons," "Friends," "Dead Zone," "Gilmore Girls" and "The West Wing." Does a day go by when you don't run across most of these on the tube for free? Some of them multiple times?

Anyone who presides over a cabal that can transform free television into a $2-billion-a-year bonanza is either an evil genius or one super-savvy dude. So I figured Arnold might be able to shed some light on the whole mystifying business for me:

Seven Days: Whattha? Have Americans gone mad? How do you account for the explosive popularity of sets of shows still on the air and available for recording by anyone with a VCR?

Thomas Arnold: Quite simply, we don't watch TV the way we used to. People today are so overbooked, they no longer congregate in front of the TV, say, at 7 each and every Sunday night. They don't have the time, and, given the episodic nature of series TV, if they miss one or two episodes, they're lost. TV DVD lets them watch what they want when they want. Plus, it lets you cut through the commercials.

SD: Whose bright idea was this, anyway?

TA: A smattering of sets came out in the VHS era, but they were cumbersome, took up loads of cassettes and simply didn't sell. It was Fox in 2000 that really triggered the boom by releasing a boxed set of the complete first season of "The X-Files."

SD: Prices for compilations are all over the place -- $31.49 for a season of "Will and Grace," for example, compared with $81.98 for one of those "X-Files" sets. How are prices determined?

TA: The lavish sets with extras typically sell for more than straight transfers. It takes time and money to get the director and cast to sit down and record a commentary. Warner and Columbia seem to believe in blowing series out at relatively low prices -- as low as $30 or $40 -- while Universal likes a higher price point. At this point, though, I really don't think TV DVD is price-sensitive. It's all selling, and the studios can't churn this stuff out fast enough.

SD: Care to give us a hint what they'll be churning out for the holiday season and the coming year?

TA: "Seinfeld" is going to be huge. That's probably the marquee title of the holiday season. All the principals got involved. Of the current shows, "Alias 3" is going to be big.

SD: Here's what has me flummoxed: If people will spend money on DVDs of current comedies and dramas, can you imagine any genre which would not be likely to find a market? Talk shows? News broadcasts? Sports events? Morning shows? TV commercials? Soaps? Weather coverage of storms? Is there any limit that you can see?

TA: Talk shows actually sell well -- just look at the "Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection." Same with news broadcasts of memorable moments; there are all sorts of great Peter Jennings reports out there now. I really think the only thing that wouldn't sell would be Weather Channel reruns. But, then again, given the power and frequency of the hurricanes this season, I can't even rule that out. I think the studios are looking at anything and everything right now.

"Every time we think it's exploded, it explodes more," says Brian Lucas, spokesman for the 560-store Best Buy chain. "Demand for these products is equal to or more than that for film product," reports Stefan Pepe, group merchandising manager for Amazon. com. With 70 million sold over the past seven years, there are now DVD players in more than 50 percent of American homes.

The best news? People will buy anything. On store shelves right next to "The Sopranos," you'll find season sets of "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "Big Brother," "MTV's The Real World," "The Anna Nicole Show," "American Idol" and "The Bachelor." If those are too toney for you, don't worry: "The Best of Trading Spaces" has just arrived. And, hey, that three-pack of "Cops" will make a great stocking stuffer.

If people are so overbooked today, as Arnold maintains, how do they have time to watch all this TV they've already watched before? And why would anyone want to sit through "The Anna Nicole Show" a second time? To catch all those nuances they missed the first time around? Honestly, the whole freaky phenomenon has me worried. I worry that Bush's people will get wind of this and cite it as proof that the economy's in fabulous shape. After all, this may be the most flagrant display of disposable income in history. Also, I worry that Arnold is going to mention my idea to contacts at the Weather Channel and cut me out of the deal.