From the Forties into the Seventies, among the most popular genres of series on American broadcast television was the variety show. In fact, many shows today considered classics belong to the genre, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Many of these shows also number among the longest running shows on American television. The Ed Sullivan Show ran twenty three years. The Garry Moore Show ran seventeen years. The Red Skelton Show ran twenty years. Those are impressive numbers for shows of any genre.
Strangely, even though some of the most important and longest running shows in the history of American television, there is very little in the way of variety shows available on DVD. The first three seasons of The Muppet Show were released on DVD with plans to release the rest as well. The whole run of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is being released on DVD, with the third and final season being released next month. Collections of the highlights of The Ed Sullivan Show have been released on DVD under the heading The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, but so far no complete episodes with a few exceptions. Highlights from The Carol Burnett Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Flip Wilson Show have been released in a similar manner. Collections of highlights and a few individual episodes of Heee Haw have been released on DVD. Still, even many classic variety shows have not seen a DVD release. The Jackie Gleason Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Perry Como Show, nor The George Gobel Show are available on DVD at all.
Of course, it would be too much to expect every single variety show to be released on DVD. I honestly don't think anyone is eager to see The Krofft Superstar Hour (with The Bay City Rollers) any time soon. And I doubt Pink Lady and Jeff will ever be seen again except when Trio decides to show the worst shows of all time. And then there is the sad fact that many early variety shows in the Forties and Fifties were broadcast live and at best recorded through kinescope, which means there are many that are probably lost to us forever. American television's first variety show, Hour Glass (which aired all the way back in 1946 and 1947 on NBC), will never see a DVD release for this reason.
Another factor that might explain why many variety shows are not available on DVD is the matter of music. Music rights are handled totally differently from both film and video. When it comes to songs performed on a TV show, the rights to every single song has to be cleared before they can appear on a DVD (odd as it might sound, most TV shows do not get the right to use songs in perpetuity). It is because of music licensing that "Stormy Weather," "Gone with the Wind," "You've Got a Friend," and a few other songs were cut from The Muppet Show Season One DVD release.
It must also keep in mind that a less practical concern with regards to music might keep many variety shows off DVD. One of the primary reasons the variety show declined in popularity in the United States following the Sixties is America's constantly changing tastes in music. It is for this reason that many variety shows also never saw syndication. In fact, when highlights from The Carol Burnett Show were released to syndication in the Eighties under the title Carol Burnett & Friends, only comedy sketches were included. It was felt that many of the songs performed on the series might date poorly.
Regardless of the factors, the sad fact is that many classic variety shows simply are bit available on DVD or are only available in collections of highlights ("Greatest Hits," if you will). To me this is simply inexcusable. Personally, I don't buy the theory that many songs are so "out of date" that they can't be enjoyed by a modern audience. The fact is that people's musical tastes can vary widely, even in an individual. A twenty year old might like Frank Sinatra. A seventy year old might like Fall Out Boy. It is true that the musical tastes of the United States are constantly changing, but it is also true that good music will always find an audience.
Beyond such practical concerns as whether episodes are available at all (many being lost) and music licensing, I really can't think of any reasons to keep many variety shows from a DVD release. Nor can I think of any reason that many variety shows should not be released season by season. Nearly all of the stars of the classic variety shows, from Jackie Gleason to Red Skelton, are still sufficiently well enough that people would buy DVDs of their series based on name recognition alone. As to those who may not be, such as Garry Moore, I might point out that many much more obscure shows have been released on DVD. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, Father Murphy, Here Come the Brides, and Dusty's Trail are all at least partially available on DVD. If TV shows which either a very few people remember (I must confess, I remember every one of the shows I named except Here Comes the Bride) or very few people have even heard of can be released on DVD, I cannot see why a classic variety show can't be.
Personally, I believe most variety shows still have an audience. Many people still have fond memories of these shows. Given how many years many of these series ran, is it little wonder that they do? I rather suspect that if many of these shows were released season by season on DVD, they would sell. Perhaps they would not break any sales records, but they would at least sell better than many more obscure shows. To me there are very few justifiable reasons that many classic variety shows should not be available on DVD.