TV biz mulls ‘new’ oldies

Every so often a TV idea comes around that’s ahead of its time. Think all those pre-“ER” pilots starring George Clooney, Jon Stewart’s failed latenight program before “The Daily Show,” or ABC’s 1974 series “My So-Called Life,” the teen drama that would have run for years on the WB had that network existed back then.

In 2001, “Two and a Half Men” co-creator Chuck Lorre came up with a Fox pilot called “Nathan’s Choice,” which came with its own “value-added” reruns. The conceit was that the protagonist would face a choice in each episode, and two different endings would be filmed.

Presented with the choice at the outset, viewers would immediately vote online or by phone on which choice they’d prefer, with the alternate version to air later on FX, Fox’s sister cable network. Because of this structure, things could go disastrously wrong for the protagonist, with the wrong decision triggering major consequences — Nathan could even die in one scenario and be back the following week.

“My hope was that the rerun would have real value, because you’re getting to explore an entirely different set of circumstances,” Lorre recalls.

Whatever the specific merits of “Nathan’s Choice” — and however oxymoronic the notion of “fresh reruns” might sound — it’s clearly an idea whose time has come, mainly because giving viewers extra incentive to tune in repeats has profound implications for network TV’s financial health.

In the past, an audience without a multiplicity of options could be counted upon to watch repeats in reasonably high numbers, either catching up on missed shows or viewing them again.

Today, most serialized dramas don’t rerun at all in primetime; ditto for so-called reality shows. Ratings for sitcoms and procedural dramas have also softened, creating a dilemma for programmers, who must provide some original fare throughout the spring and summer if only to prevent audience levels from collapsing, diminishing their ability to promote their new fall lineups.

Programming budgets, however, can only be stretched so far, making some percentage of reruns crucial. So now what?

Over the past few years, various experiments have toyed with how to expunge the dreaded “R” from TV listings, while still enjoying the benefits of that second showing. Most recently, NBC tried “newpeats” — re-editing episodes of its Thursday comedy “The Office” to incorporate deleted scenes. A nifty concept, but it landed with a dull thud.

Alternate endings is one of the more logical wrinkles, along with hosted nights where actors and producers chime in with commentary. Other more limited tactics have included marathons, themed nights and compilation shows recapping serials.

In 2004, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” aired an episode with two endings — one where the criminal got caught in the last 90 seconds, another where she escaped. Shown in different parts of the U.S., viewers could see both online and choose which they preferred, announcing the winner the following week.

Yet these attempts have ultimately amounted to baby steps, seldom supported by any serious follow-through. Several efforts, moreover, were tried years ago — failing to take into account the maturation of broadband, first-person video games and the have-it-several-ways world of DVD extras.

Each permutation of the value-added rerun comes with its own logistical hurdles. “Nathan’s Choice” sometimes featured different actors in the second half, which Lorre says “drove business affairs berserk.” As with any innovation, most will fall flat before anyone stumbles upon a workable template, so be prepared for a lot of other clunky names like “newpeats” (“origin-nots,” perhaps?) before the toads begin to resemble a prince.

What seems equally clear, though, is that broadcasters must eventually find a way to wring more mileage out of episodes on their schedules, not just from selling them in ancillary venues. Nor is beefing up the output of originals necessarily the answer, as evidenced by last summer’s onslaught of quickly-canceled reality shows — lest anyone have forgotten CBS’ “Tuesday Night Book Club” or ABC’s “Master of Champions,” among others.

Lorre still thinks fondly of “Nathan’s Choice” while understanding that the stench of death hovers over any show rejected elsewhere. So like any good salesman with a damaged product, he’s slashed his prices.

“The bidding starts at $18,” he says. “I may have gone too high.”

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