Monica Petrov of Richfield wanted a DVD of a favorite old TV show, "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." So she went online, searched for a copy and bought it.
Unfortunately, the 1980s TV series has never been officially released on DVD. What Petrov got was a set of shoddily produced bootleg discs and a lesson in buying TV DVDs online.
While the TV genre is thriving on DVD, hundreds of shows still haven't been released officially. Unscrupulous sellers are filling in the gap by making and selling DVD copies of such shows to unwary buyers online. The bootleggers even sell poor-quality copies of TV shows that have been officially released on DVD.
Petrov said she didn't know that "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" had never had a legitimate DVD release when she ordered her copy of the entire series for about $175. The first thing that seemed unusual was that the DVD came from Canada. She opened the package to find that she had been sent three copies of the set's first three discs. She also suspected immediately that the quality was poor just from the artwork.
"The set looked hokey," she said. "I could have made the covers myself on the computer."
Then she played the discs.
"On the first episodes, the quality was so dark you couldn't even see them," she said. "They got better, but then there were commercials."
It was obvious, she said, that the discs were transferred from VHS tapes recorded off of TV broadcasts.
"I still have tapes from when I recorded the show way back when, and my tapes are better than these things," she said.
Petrov contacted the seller and demanded a refund. After some stonewalling and offers to replace the duplicate discs, the seller finally relented after Petrov threatened to dispute the charges through her credit-card company.
Petrov was lucky, said Gord Lacey, who runs the authoritative website TV Shows on DVD (www.tvshowsondvd.com).
"I can't tell you how much e-mail I get about bootleg TV DVDs," he said. "People are getting charged and not receiving the material at all. They are getting charged and receiving something that is of such poor quality that they want their money back. Or they're getting shows that are missing episodes, or missing discs, or getting duplicate discs. Or they're getting material that's not even what they ordered."
He added, "I would say the majority of them are recorded off TV and burned to disc. It's poor quality, the packaging is horrible and people are getting ripped off."
Lacey said the No. 1 problem in online sales of pirated TV DVDs is Google. The ubiquitous search engine makes it easy to find the discs -- just type in a show name and the word "DVD" -- and it often lists sellers pitching illegitimate discs among its featured paid ads, he said.
As an example, I did a search on Google for a DVD of "My So-Called Life," a cult-fave 1990s TV show that was recently officially re-released on disc by Shout! Factory for a retail price of $70.
The second listing among Google's three "sponsor links" in a yellow box at the top of the page appeared to be for an illegitimate copy selling for $50. The same was true for a $130 set being sold by the top sponsor link on the right side of the results page.
In both cases, the discs were advertised as being "region free," which means they can be played on any DVD player worldwide -- unlike most official U.S. releases, which are restricted for playback only in North America. The discs appeared to be illegal copies of an earlier release of "My So-Called Life" that is out of print.
Representatives of Shout! Factory confirmed that the discs were not its official release of the show.
"Our biggest concern is that when these shoddy bootleg releases are purchased, the consumer will come away disappointed and it will be reflected in their future buying habits," said Garson Foos, president of Shout! Factory.
That's exactly what worries Lacey, who as a fan says he'd like to see all TV shows officially released on DVD.
"For every bootleg set that is sold, that could be one fewer customer when it is released legitimately," he said. "If a show is not being released on DVD for perceived lack of interest, every sale is going to count."
Lacey said he has blocked automatically generated advertising by more than 100 bootleg DVD sellers from his site. He hopes to add a feature eventually that will allow users to enter the Web address of a retailer to see if it sells legitimate DVDs.
For anxious fans who can't wait for their favorite TV show to be released officially on DVD and might be tempted to take a chance on a bootleg copy, Lacey offers this warning:
"When you order these DVD sets, you are ordering from a criminal. Why would you want a criminal to have your credit card?"
Randy A. Salas 612-673-4542.