TV viewers should brace for a case of double vision this fall.
More than ever, the broadcast webs are looking to share the second run of primetime series with cable counterparts. Episodes of Fox’s frosh drama “24” will appear on sister cabler FX mere days after the initial network run. The witches of WB’s “Charmed” will haunt sibling TNT four days after its airing on the Frog.
NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” will continue to get a dual window on USA (frosh NBC drama “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” will also soon be seen on USA). Lifetime will again run the immediate repeat of ABC’s “Once and Again” this year.
The program-sharing pipeline has reversed as well, with the nets importing cable programs as a low-cost way to fill their scheduling holes.
Most recently, the WB pacted with TNT to secure repeats of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” which took the place of reality skein “Lost in the USA,” which the weblet dropped in the wake of Artists Television Group’s demise.
Calling a truce
Blame TV’s tough economics for this sudden cease-fire in the epic battle between network and cable. The broadcast webs are looking to cut or subsidize their series license fees, and sharing those costs with a cable net is one way to do it.
“It’s probably the reason why I took this job,” says Turner CEO Jamie Kellner, who has been preaching the repurposing gospel even before taking over the stable of cable webs (alongside his WB weblet) this spring.
“The old model of playing a program once a week when the network wants the viewers to watch is an old-fashioned idea. This is going to be a part of the future of the broadcast and cable business.”
Kellner predicts a day when the broadcast webs follow a cable model and start offering their primetime fare four or five times a week, time-shifted in different slots and on multiple channels.
“There’s a positive potential to offer viewers greater choice, convenience and control,” agrees Fox Television Entertainment Group chair Sandy Grushow.
The broadcast vs. cable thaw first came about on the theatrical movie side: As the price for acquiring films grew, broadcast and cable webs partnered up to share the cost and the broadcast window.
‘Unit’ breaks ground
Then came “SVU.” Although ABC experimented in summer 1991 with “Hi Honey, I’m Home,” a short-lived laffer it shared with Nickelo-deon for a few weeks, “SVU” was the first regular-season primetime series to receive an immediate second run on cable.
NBC wasn’t too keen with the idea at first, but agreed to production company Studios USA’s request for a dual window in order to pick up “SVU” — as well as secure a license renewal to the original “Law & Order.”
In exchange, Studios USA sliced $125,000 per episode off “SVU’s” license fee. That number would raise to $250,000 a seg should NBC ever allow USA to air the second run of “SVU” in primetime (an unlikely prospect, given net affiliate concerns).
Of course, repurposing isn’t as easy as calling up your cable sibling and making a deal. The networks must make sure that the show’s profit participants (producers, actors, anyone else with a stake in the show) are OK with any dual-window run. And the studio must give its final blessing (especially if it’s not the net’s corporate sibling).
“Multiplexing, the wholesale repeating of a schedule, is not something that’s in the interest of a studio unless the network and cable channel are prepared to make an economic model that changes that,” says 20th Century Fox TV prexy Gary Newman.
Otherwise, producers and profit participants — worried that a dual window may hurt a show’s backend potential down the line — might call foul.
Nets and studios are more mindful these days of avoiding lawsuits such as Steven Bochco’s action against 20th Century Fox or “Home Improvement” producer Wind Dancer’s beef with Disney.
Beyond profit participants, the nets must ease affiliate concerns.
While the affils have begrudgingly allowed their nets to play the repurposing game, station execs worry that too many shared windows will destroy the draw of broadcast television.
Limits are in place at most webs as to how much programming can immediately be repeated elsewhere.
“The problem with repurposing a show for more than one season is if you have a hit on your hands,” Newman says. “It’s probably foolish to continue to repurpose at that point, because you won’t maximize the value of your show. But not all shows are in the same situation.”