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