Online episodes take a toll

In their rush to get shows online, webheads may be inadvertently strangling TV’s golden goose: repeats.

Viewers hate ‘em, but for 50 years, reruns have been a bedrock of the network TV business model. But now, ratings for on-air repeats are eroding — and a key reason is the relatively new phenomenon of networks letting audiences watch full episodes of shows online.

“There are some shows I don’t even bother TiVo-ing because I know I can just watch the episodes on the website,” one network exec admits. “At some point it has to have an impact on the ratings. … You’re training the audience to watch these shows on other platforms.”

Of course, networks make money from online streaming, too. And many believe that putting a show online will ultimately lead to higher overall viewership for a show.

“We’re trying to create a circle of life,” says ABC scheduling czar Jeff Bader. “There are many places to watch a show, but primetime is where it begins.”

Still, the total coin generated by alternative platforms doesn’t begin to match the coin generated by traditional viewership — resulting in a net loss for the nets, at least for now.

While viewers might not care about the decline of repeats, nets have reason to mourn.

That’s because repeats are essentially free programming. Studios don’t charge anything extra for second or third runs of a show, allowing nets to amortize the huge license fees they pay for every episode of a primetime drama or comedy.

Some observers predict that nets will soon have to choose between charging less money to advertisers for lower-rated repeats or shelling out more coin to develop new programs to replace the reruns. Either way, nets figure to lose money.

TV’s repeat equation has changed dramatically in just a few years.

As recently as three seasons ago, nets could count on a repeat broadcast of a hit drama to retain as much as 80 percent of its original audience. Comedies did even better.

Now, even procedural skeins like “CSI” and “Law & Order: SVU” — with chief selling points being their repeatability — sometimes hold on to less than 60% of their audience when it comes to repeats.

This early erosion is just the tip of the iceberg, industry observers warn.

“You will see an increasing gap between (the ratings) for an original and a repeat as viewing moves to other platforms,” says David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp.

It’s not just online streaming that’s causing repeat numbers to shrink. Among the other culprits:

  • Networks have abandoned repeat-friendly genres like comedies and non-serialized dramas.

While the “CSIs” of the world may be losing their luster as repeats, they still hold up far better than serialized skeins like “Heroes” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” Some nets have abandoned repeats altogether for certain shows (“Lost,” “24”).

Worst, the decline of the multi-camera sitcom has robbed the nets of their best repeat performers.

“Those shows are very repeatable, and there’s been an irrational move toward serialization, which limits your ability to repeat shows,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.

  • DVRs. Most homes don’t have digital video recorders, but they’re widespread enough that broadcasters are seeing their effect on rerun ratings.

Take the case of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI,” both of which began airing opposite each other Thursdays at 9 this season. Not long ago, a fan of both shows would have to choose to watch one now –and catch the repeats of the other later in the season.

TiVo and other devices, however, let auds record multiple skeins at once, and watch them on the same night if they wish. That means fewer people with an incentive to watch the repeat broadcast a few monts later.

“DVRs haven’t helped,” sighs Vince Manze, NBC’s newly installed prexy of scheduling. ” You can program a whole season with the touch of a button.”

  • DVDs. As in the feature world, the window between when a network airs a show and when it’s available to buy has shrunk dramatically, sometimes to within a few days of a season finale. There’s evidence that some auds are choosing to watch some shows strictly via DVD, not wanting to hassle with commercial breaks and delays between episodes.

  • Repeat abuse. Procedurals like “CSI” and the “Law & Order”-branded skeins aren’t performing as well in repeats lately in part because networks have “run the sprockets off them,” as one exec puts it. Both shows have become marquee Saturday night programming for their respective nets, while CBS regular uses “CSI” repeats to plug sked holes such as Tuesdays at 10.

It doesn’t help that cablers such as TNT, USA and Bravo collectively run repeats of the big procedural franchises dozens of times each week, making the shows omnipresent.

“They’re so ubiquitous now,” Beckman says. “There are just so many more platforms now, so what a shock — the ratings start to decline.”

n Year- round programming. Time was, network schedulers could count on certain times of the year in which most other broadcasters would air repeats. In the same way all radio stations mysteriously air advertising about the same time, viewers flipping around the TV dial would inevitably find themselves choosing among a slew of reruns.

“We used to have patterns, where you’d have repeats against repeats,” says Manze. “Now it’s competitive in every time period. You have lots of competition against repeats.”

While the repeat problem is a clear and present danger, it’s also not inspiring panic on Network Row. That’s because there’s a major upside to the new technologies: money.

“We used to have one revenue stream, and now we have lots,” Beckman says.

While network ad time is still much more valuable because of broadcasters’ reach, advertisers actually pay more per viewers who watch a show online. Sales of shows via DVR or iTunes also bring in revenue that largely didn’t exist five years ago.

What’s more, nets remained convinced that exposing shows online will inevitably lead auds back to the first-run broadcasts on TV. Viewers might not be watching repeats on-air as much as they used to, but viewers are at least watching the shows.

That said, network insiders predict that viewers will continue to see fewer and fewer repeats. This summer, for example, could see the recent trend toward original summer programming explode as nets opt for more unscripted fare than ever before.

Manze is even keen on bringing back largely abandoned genres that used to take the place of repeats. “I’d like to open us up to big event miniseries, which we haven’t done in a while,” he says.

Some predict a further rise in the number of reality shows, as cheaper-to-produce unscripted fare becomes more attractive.

What nobody expects, however, is a sudden retreat from the new technologies that have made on-air repeats less attractive.

“Nobody wants to kill the network, but this is here,” Manze says. “You can’t unteach people to stream shows. We need to embrace it.”

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