What began in fall 1999 with the airing of new episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
on NBC and cable's USA in the same week has grown into the trend that has changed network television forever: It's called repurposing. It saves broadcast networks and studios money. It gives cable networks fresh programming.
And nowadays, it's everywhere.
Last week, Fox announced that it will be repurposing its new Warner Bros.-produced Fastlane
on Viacom's MTV. That was the deal Warner Bros. brought to Fox from the get-go, because the production company knew Fox wouldn't want to pay as much as Warner Bros. needed to produce the young-skewing action hour. Warner Bros. got cash, advertising time and promotion time for Fox in exchange for MTV's right to air the program, said Bruce Rosenblum, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Group.
The deal made Fox, Warner Bros. and MTV happy. So far, though, Fox affiliates are less than thrilled and say the Fastlane
deal violates its repurposing agreement with the network.
Disney is repurposing several of its ABC sitcoms on ABC Family in effort to revitalized the cable network. The shows include 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, Less Than Perfect
and That Was Then
(see page 6).
NBC has had great success running first-run episodes of Dick Wolf's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
and Criminal Intent
on USA, a deal driven by Wolf himself. And The WB has been pleased with its experiment in re-airing original, in-season episodes of Charmed
on sister cable net TNT.
NBC is also trying to buy what could become a repurposing channel, Cablevision's Bravo. Each of the four other major TV media companies already has at least one companion cable network that could repurpose programs from its broadcast network: Disney (ABC and ABC Family); AOL Time Warner (The WB, TNT and TBS); News Corp. (Fox and FX), and Viacom (CBS and TNN).
NBC already owns 17% of Bravo. But as of last week, the two sides were far apart on price. NBC was offering about $1 billion; Cablevision's Dolan family wants almost twice that.
Most think more repurposing is inevitable. "The basic business model isn't making sense any more. Ratings are down, revenue is down, and the cost of production going up. But the need to have quality programming on the air hasn't changed," says Arthur Schreibman, executive vice president of negotiating strategies for Initiative Media, New York City.
But not everyone is a fan. Some affiliates think repurposing hit shows robs them of exclusivity. Some syndicators fear that, if viewers see hit shows on various networks, it devalues the programs by the time they get to the syndication window.
"The real impact would potentially come in the sitcom arena," says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz Television Group. "If we start immediately repurposing upper-end, blue-chip sitcoms and they have concurrent plays, then that could impact what their value is down the road."
But Steve Rosenberg, president of Universal Domestic Television, says it should be a good deal for everyone. "I think it raises the value of programming. The whole idea of repurposing is to take a show, which is now on a network level, and give it the opportunity to be viewed by other people who wouldn't otherwise watch it. That has raised the profile of the product so that, when it goes into its next cycle, it's worth more because it's got a bigger audience to follow it."
Affiliates aren't sure about that either.
"I don't know why a network would take a strong show and dilute it," says Phil Lombardo, president and CEO of Citadel Communications. While some stations allow that the practice might bring some short-term benefits to a network, "it dilutes the long-term value of a show," he says. "It's important as an industry to think long-term."
Generally, says Jeff Block, who runs powerful Fox affiliate KNTV(TV) San Jose, Calif., and is a member of the Fox affiliate board, "a large part of the value of network programming is its exclusivity. Repurposing devalues the brand equity we have. That's why I don't like it. We want to be the only place to get a particular program."
Whether or not anyone likes repurposing matters little, because all the networks have to find a new business model that works if they want to stay in business.
"The rule book is being rewritten," says Mark Pedowitz, executive VP, ABC Entertainment Television Group. But not without some painful edits. ABC wants the right to repurpose more programming on its new ABC Family channel—but it can't do it without affiliates' consent. So far, the station folks are saying no way.
In a reverse example of repurposing, NBC last week ordered four more episodes of Court TV's original Forensic Files.
Earlier in the season, ABC had success running USA Network's Monk
on Monday nights after USA aired it on Fridays, and Comedy Central began running NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien
at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. the next day.
"The smaller cable networks are doing a lot of original programming for very tiny audiences, and, in some cases, it is very excellent programming," explained NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "So we look at them as possible suppliers, and, in this day and age, you can't close yourself off to any suppliers."