Baby, We Were Born To Rerun
By Brian Lowry -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/30/2004 8:00:00 PM
Due to a TiVo mishap, I recently missed an episode of HBO's gritty western Deadwood, which made me really %*@+#-ing mad. (Watching too much of the show, I've noticed, tends to make people speak as if they live in Deadwood.)
Then I remembered, no sweat: The series would repeat the next day—and a couple more times that week—allowing me to get my fix later.
Seldom, if ever, will you hear an encouraging word said about reruns, and the prevailing opinion within the media (summed up in the upfront presentations and subsequent press coverage) is that they are being eradicated from broadcast TV almost as fast as traditional sitcoms. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, although it makes for less compelling headlines.
Rather than going away, reruns are morphing into a new phase of their lives—one in which they are deployed more immediately, and strategically, than they have been in the past.
Indeed, NBC, CBS, and UPN have all built near-instant reruns into their prime time lineups, announcing plans to repeat The Apprentice and America's Next Top Model a few days after their initial telecast. As for CBS, the network will seek to forestall viewers' weekend trips to sister Viacom unit Blockbuster with Crime Time Saturday, a rotating rerun wheel using Jerry Bruckheimer-produced series, such as Cold Case and Without a Trace, as the spokes.
Similarly, Fox will air several series twice a week through the summer, mirroring HBO's "have-it-your-way" model, after successfully establishing The O.C. last year by blanketing its lineup with the soap.
Part of this has to do with simple economics, since reruns represent an inexpensive means of balancing the cost of a prime time schedule.
Moreover, so-called reality programs lack the shelf life of scripted fare, making it incumbent on networks to cash in to the extent they can now, before names like "Omarosa" and "Trista" take their inevitable trip down the modern memory hole.
There are other good reasons, however, to deploy repeats early and often—again taking a page from cable, where movies and series run and rerun until the sprockets come off. That's why TNT plays the same movie on three consecutive nights and The Shawshank Redemption and Die Hard are seemingly always on somewhere.
Of course, the cable gnats weren't around to nibble at network shares back when broadcasters could comfortably view the summer as rerun city. Yet an equally important game-changer involved the ascendance of serialized or semi-serialized dramas, such as ER, The West Wing, and 24, which require viewers to keep pace with continuing storylines. (By contrast, fans of Bonanza could miss an episode with impunity, knowing that, if Hoss or Little Joe came close to marrying, the girl would do the honorable thing and die.)
What's happening now, in fact, reflects a schism among various kinds of dramatic programming, with reruns adapting to each form.
Procedural crime shows have spread like locusts, offering the networks self-contained bliss. As such, we'll see enough CSI and Law & Order repeats this summer to convince a casual observer that domestic crime rates are at an all-time high.
As for serialized shows, their reruns have migrated into an entirely new medium: namely, the DVD. In fact, I know people who consciously eschew 24 on Fox in order to watch each season at their leisure—usually in some sort of three- or four-day marathon.
The point is that, with the exception of cheap reality or talk shows, broadcasters can't make a business out of single airings of scripted series. Which means they have to find some way to amortize costs—if not on their own air, then through some other conduit. Despite audience erosion, there's also ample evidence that people possess a near-insatiable appetite for scripted programs they really like, which will endure long after folks have stopped debating how Donald Trump does that with his hair.
A few years ago, NBC sought to address this whole conundrum with an ad campaign titled "It's New to You," the point being that, if viewers missed episodes of favorite series, they weren't really reruns. Chalk it up as one of those logical ideas that the public simply didn't buy, a bit like Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign pledge to raise taxes.
Still, to say reruns are out, as many have, misses the point. Yes, the old rerun formula is changing, but, of necessity, there will always be plenty on—or available for purchase—offering that comfortable feeling of déjà vu all over again.
I could explain why, of course, but that would be repeating myself.
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