In its original broadcast this fall, Ken Burns's 11-hour television series "The Civil War" tested viewers' ability and willingness to tune in for five consecutive nights, even for one of the most acclaimed viewing experiences in television history; for many it also turned out to be a test of familiarity with VCR programming features. Next month "The Civil War" will return to test VCR owners again -- this time to see how quickly they can get to the video store. "The Civil War" will make it to the traditional video retail market in time for Christmas, but only for those customers who get there in time to enjoy it.

The series is being released on tape by Pacific Arts Video through its PBS Home Video label, which has been granted permission to manufacture exactly 10,000 copies of the series. In addition, a limited number of copies will be available exclusively at Waldenbooks through an unusual arrangement with Time-Life Video, which acquired some non-retail video rights to the series long before the spectacular success of its broadcast had consumers clamoring for complete sets on tape.

Pacific Arts executives are still fine-tuning their release strategy, but this much is clear: The package will carry no official retail price -- that is being left to the retailers to decide; tapes should be in stores Dec. 5 or soon thereafter; the boxed sets will be individually numbered in true collectors' edition fashion; and stores will not be able to reorder copies after New Year's Day -- if there are any left over. The cutoff date will not apply to PBS's video arm for institutional sales, PBS Video, which will continue to sell tapes of the series to schools and libraries indefinitely.

While limited editions are becoming more common in the video market -- "The Hunt for Red October" and today's arrival "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" both were placed on moratorium the day they were shipped -- video retailers have never been placed in competition for such a small number of cassettes. To narrow the field, Pacific Arts will offer the tapes only to "authorized PBS Home video dealers" -- those lucky retailers that supported the label's 12-title launch this fall. Consumers who want to be counted among the lucky 10,000, meanwhile, may want to cozy up to proprietors of stores where they've spotted copies of PBS Home Video's tapes of "This Old House" and other network favorites. Despite the high prices that retailers will inevitably ask for the set, demand is expected to be strong. Says a PAV spokesperson, "I'm sure they're going to sell those 10,000 tapes in a moment's notice."

Sturges' Travails

Few Hollywood directors are as worthy of a home video release strategy that would present their films as a unified body of work as Preston Sturges, writer-director of some of America's finest fast-talking, quick-thinking screen comedies. But the folks at MCA/Universal Home Video, which owns the rights to the films done during Sturges' prime at Paramount, thought otherwise, releasing his movies piecemeal on tape over the past few years. Maybe it was the recent publication of his autobiography ("Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges," completed by his widow, Sandy) more than 30 years after his death that convinced them that Sturges still does have a big enough following to merit the star director treatment. Whatever the reason, MCA/Universal will offer a long-overdue Sturges promotion later this month featuring all seven of the Sturges classics to which it controls rights.

Included are two 1944 efforts making their first appearance on video: "The Great Moment," in which the director-screenwriter took a break from comedy to film a biography of the dentist who invented surgical anesthesia, and "Hail the Conquering Hero," starring Eddie Bracken in a vintage war-at-home black comedy. The tapes are priced at $29.95 each, as are the promotion's remaining five comedies, all previously released: "Christmas in July," "The Great McGinty," "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Palm Beach Story."

Price Inchflation

Retailers (and their customers) who are worried about another round of price hikes on rental-market titles have gotten some good news-bad news from CBS/Fox Video. The good news is that CBS/Fox did not follow Paramount's $100 "Red October" lead when setting the price for "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," due in stores in January. The bad news is that it didn't hold the price at $90, the old standard for rental releases, for which CBS/Fox was the last major holdout. Instead they opted for the middle: "Die Hard 2" will reach stores priced at $94.95. The good news for consumers is that Paramount's pricing is not having a direct effect on rental tapes' availability; the studio reportedly placed more than 435,000 copies of "Red October" on video shelves despite retailers' threats of boycotts and cutbacks.