Reality-based video titles pose tough merchandising choices for supermarket retailers. Undeniably popular but often slanted toward sensationalism, the category requires careful consideration in many markets, observers note.
The genre itself is a relative newcomer. As distinguished from traditional documentaries, reality video has come to be associated with earthier pursuits like car crashes, chases, arrests, mishaps, women fighting and animal attacks. From the paranormal to the subnormal, its fondness for sex and violence makes it a controversial topic, observers say.
"Do you write about what people should know about or what they want to know about?" asked Kirk Kirkpatrick, vice president of marketing at WaxWorks/VideoWorks, Owensboro, Ky., comparing video to print media. "There's a place for both -- The New York Times as well as the tabloids."
Many retailers are similarly conflicted. "It's a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation," said Clifford Feiock, video coordinator for Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis. "Some customers are looking for it, while others are shocked to find it."
"Some of this product walks the line of questionable taste in a grocery atmosphere," said Greg Rediske, president of Video Management Co., Tacoma, Wash.
"You have to set your own standards," said Kirkpatrick. "There is a voyeuristic demand for the material, but it's hard to monitor the impact of a backlash if you carry it."
Those standards vary across the nation with many influencing factors. "My main concern is whether the product looks sleazy," said Feiock. "Box art is very important -- because of that we couldn't carry the Jerry Springer tapes. We will pick up the uncensored 'America's Funniest Home Video' tapes, though."
"We've had no negative reaction to the Springer tapes in the stores we've merchandised," said a video manager for a large Western chain, "but there were stores we didn't feel it appropriate to stock. 'Too Hot to Handle' was a huge renter for us and sold well too."
"The only complaint we had about 'Too Hot to Handle' was that we couldn't get it soon enough," said Brenda Vanover, director of video operations at K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va. "I watch screeners to see if the material is right for us. We don't sell the violent tapes, but our attitude toward the category is generally that if lots of customers ask us for it we'll stock it."
"The Jerry Springer tapes were too racy for us," said Jamie Molitor, director of video operations at Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo. "We tend to be conservative. We don't ruffle feathers. We did do well with the 'Cops' series, however."
Observers said it's not surprising that all the above titles come from Real Entertainment, Woodland Hills, Calif., the leading specialist in the field. From "Cops" to Springer to "America's Funniest," the company has built its success on delivering more than commercial television could show, and by priming consumer demand via astute marketing. An aggressive direct-response TV campaign heightens customer awareness before the product is released to traditional distribution channels.
"Reality video is still a strong brand," said Darren Howell, Real's vice president of marketing. "Look at the genre's popularity on TV. Fox and NBC are doing well with it."
Although television provides much of Real's product, the company is expanding its sources as it develops its catalog, adding general-audience titles to its more adult-oriented lines. Its "America's Funniest" series also includes two mass-market titles, "Animal Antics" and "Family Follies." In addition to its TV-derived "Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Revealed" and "World's Scariest Police Chases," Real has entered the rodeo arena with "Bull's Revenge" and the hip-hop floor with "Rapmania: The Roots of Rap."
Following its foray into candid celebrity footage, "Hangin' With Leo" (an "unauthorized documentary" about DiCaprio), Real has delved into a "Papparazzi TV" line with "Hollywood: Wild in the Streets" and "Celebrities: Caught on Camera."
" 'Papparazzi TV' is similar to a video edition of 'People' magazine," said Howell. "It's positioned as an impulse buy."
The identifying characteristic of Real videos is their hype. From their lengthy but descriptive titles to their bold, exclamatory catch lines, their box art is as campily overstated as old movie previews, observers said. "1 Ton of Sheer Terror!" proclaims the "Bull's Revenge" box, along with "The Fury! The Violence! The Victims!" And "Caught on Camera" boasts: "Ripped From the Headlines! The Video Some Celebrities Don't Want You to See!"
This approach makes it easy to see why some supermarkets have problems with this material.
"Most retailers avoid controversial product but there's a demand for it," said Bill Bryant, vice president for sales, grocery and drug at Ingram Entertainment, La Vergne, Tenn. "For the most part it's displayed in in-line sections. Few retailers bring in shippers of it."