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New Lease on Life

Struggling broadcast shows make leap to cable 10/24/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Pint-sized rapper Flavor Flav and underemployed actress Brigitte Nielsen make such a deliciously captivating duo on VH1's The Surreal Life, the kooky reality show starring has-been celebs, that it's easy to forget that the series was once a castoff.

When the WB, which originally ran The Surreal Life, canceled it in April after two seasons, VH1 stepped up and commissioned a third run. Six episodes into that run, the show had boosted VH1's viewership numbers in its time slot to 1.4 million—a 138 percent over the prior year—prompting the cable channel to order up a fourth season and to design a spin-off for Flav and Nielsen, called Strange Love.

It's just another twist in the broadcast-to-cable migration of programming. Repurposing broadcast hit shows on cable is by now a venerable practice, but cable is also being used as a sort of hospice where ailing broadcast content can go either to die with dignity (see Fox's The Next Great Champ,
which shifted to Fox Sports Net this fall) or to cheat death, as with The Surreal Life's second life.

Cable can also be used by broadcasters strictly for promotional stunts—as with the Arrested Development
marathon that Fox staged on FX last week.

The motivation, in most cases, stems both from broadcasters' eagerness to recoup some of the daunting expense of producing television shows and from cable's thirst for programming it can't afford to produce. With production costs rising about 55 percent for comedies and 35 percent for dramas over the past 10 years, cable is becoming an increasingly interesting option for broadcasters intent on wringing a few dollars out of their programming.

In the past, broadcast networks simply canceled poorly performing shows, or shelved them until summer months, when low ratings mattered less. Fox may have discovered the cable alternative with its on-the-fly decision this fall to transplant The Next Great Champ
from broadcast, where its punchless early performance was dragging down the schedule, to Fox Sports Network. The first episode that had not appeared on Fox drew 271,000 viewers when it aired on FSN on Oct. 17—a 46% increase over the boxing FSN had been running in the time slot.

By sending an ailing show to cable, broadcasters can free up room for a possibly stronger replacement while bringing in a few more dollars.

"It's great we can keep it in the family on FSN"—a network "better suited to serve the boxing fan," Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said in a statement. Or as Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vice president and director of marketing giant Starcom Entertainment, puts it: "At some point you have to take a hit. Next Great Champ
isn't going to set the world on fire on FSN, but it's not a total washout."

The proliferation of reality shows likely will boost the number of shifts to cable. New episodes of scripted series are generally ordered only after the first few perform in the ratings, but reality shows are often shot and produced long before the first episode airs. So when a reality show busts, the un-aired episodes are there for the plucking.

"It's almost like disposable television," says Caraccioli-Davis. "The shows are in the can."

Why would cable want the scraps? Because the shows are cheaper and of better quality than typical cable fare. Last year Bravo picked up all 13 episodes of the canceled Fox police drama Keen Eddie, paying producer Paramount just more than $50,000 an episode for content that originally cost around $1.5 million an episode to produce. Fox's viewers weren't keen on Eddie, but the show has found a niche audience at Bravo.

"It's not dumpster diving," says one industry insider, scoffing at fears that advertisers will shun shows tainted by broadcast failure. "Somebody's trash is somebody else's treasure."

That's how Comedy Central felt about airing the finale of NBC reality contest Last Comic Standing.
While an adequate performer during the summer, the show bombed on the fall schedule, so NBC canceled it without actually producing the final episode and naming a winner. But Comedy Central had already been repurposing the show, airing each episode within a week of its NBC debut. Under the licensing agreement, the broadcaster had already agreed to produce the Oct. 16 finale for Comedy Central's use.

Still, in effect, the finale became "a world premiere for us," says Susie Kricena, vice president of programming and acquisitions at Comedy Central.

It got even better for the cable channel: Possibly hedging its bet in case it decides to revive the series next summer, NBC promoted the finale, steering fans to Comedy Central. Some 731,000 ultimately ended up tuning in for the Oct. 16 show.

More traditional repurposing from broadcast to cable has centered on healthy shows, as broadcasters seek extra cash and exposure for new programs, and cable channels pursue popular shows that they don't have to underwrite themselves. The practice is not the red-hot trend it was three years ago, but it's still going on, especially when a show's network and producer are in the same corporate family.

In one of the first repurposing deals of this season, MTV picked up the rights to UPN's Veronica Mars. Paul DeBenedittis, MTV's senior vice president of programming and scheduling, says he pursued the show because its protagonist, an empowered female high school detective, resonated particularly well with the MTV audience.

"It's about the product first and the network second," he says. "No one's beating down our door to do this. We're proactive. We see something we really like and we say, 'Let's work with you.'"

And this fall, TNT began showing repurposed episodes of Without a Trace, which it acquired from Warner Bros. Domestic Cable for $1.35 million an episode—the biggest fee the cable network had ever paid for an off-network show. The deal includes more than 100 episodes; TNT will go to a five-times-a-week schedule for Without a Trace
in the fall of 2006.

Then there's an altogether different broadcast-to-cable flow. Sometimes, it's just a case of a broadcaster being glad to have a cable channel help pump up visibility.

This fall, Fox found itself sitting on the second season of critically acclaimed but little-seen comedy Arrested Development. With its fall schedule dominated by Major League Baseball post-season action, Fox reluctantly resolved to wait until Nov. 7 to launch the show's second season. But the network figured out a way to try to keep the buzz alive: a 10-episode marathon on its cable sister, FX, on Oct. 16.

Chuck Saftler, vice president of programming and acquisitions for FX, says of the marathon: "This is an opportunity for FX to help give exposure to a show people have heard a lot about, but haven't had a chance to see."

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