Here’s a trivia question that might tax the brain of even the most dedicated TV junkie:
What do the following NBC shows have in common: “Crossing Jordan,” “Fame,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Last Comic Standing” and “Meet the Press.”
Give up? All of them shows get quick repeats on cable following their NBC runs under the still-controversial practice known as “repurposing.”
NBC jockeys for more instant cable replays of its shows than any other broadcast network, by far.
“Every TV station affiliated with NBC has got to be concerned by all of the repurposing that’s going on,” says Steve Wasserman, general manager of KPRC, the NBC affiliate in Houston.
NBC insists it has good reasons for all of the cable transactions it negotiates. “We try not to overdo the repurposing of our shows,” says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. “We’re facing some tough economic realities and repurposing deals make some of these expensive shows possible.”
Zucker is referring to the falloff in dollars from the advance sale of rerun rights to many of these shows, both in the U.S. and in foreign markets. As the production costs of series episodes climb above $2 million — and sometimes $3 million — each, the network has to come up with fresh sources of revenue to cover these outlays.
For the right to repeat the successful forensic thriller “Crossing Jordan” in primetime every Saturday, one night after its NBC run, A&E is ponying up more than $100,000 an episode. To NBC, that’s found money.
And TNT is paying $50,000 an hour to repurpose the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged cop show “Boomtown” Mondays at 10 p.m., with the price going up to $75,000 if TNT continues to share the show with NBC in the fall.
Although “Boomtown” hasn’t found an audience yet on TNT in its first month of repurposing, Jon Marks, senior VP of entertainment research for TNT’s parent Turner Broadcasting, says the show “is delivering an affluent viewer, and will help to drive more sampling when ‘Boomtown’ returns to NBC’s schedule.” For its broadcast run, “Boomtown” is on summer hiatus and will shift from Sunday at 10 p.m., its 2002-03 time period, to the Friday 10 p.m. hour in the fall.
Marks says TNT plans to continue to promote “Boomtown” and to give it the benefit of a “Law & Order” episode lead-in, pointing out that the network’s other repurposing experiment, the WB network’s “Charmed,” started off with modest Nielsens in 2001 but began to build over the next few months.
Two years later, TNT is still repurposing the new episodes of “Charmed” Tuesday at 10 p.m. while scheduling older reruns weekdays at 6 p.m. Despite all of the additional TNT runs, “Charmed” is still doing nicely for the WB in its original run Sunday at 8.
Zucker says the extra weekly run of “Boomtown” on TNT could be a positive for its NBC run “because, like many new shows, it needs as much exposure as it can get.”
NBC is not facing an uproar from its affiliates over repurposing because “they’ve come to understand that good shows cost lots of money,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for the Petry Media Corp., which helps TV-station clients with their program decisions. “If NBC can’t afford to produce a quality show that’s underperforming, like ‘Boomtown,’ it’ll end up scheduling cheaper, lower-quality programs like ‘Fear Factor.’ ”
Primetime is not the only breeding ground NBC uses to get more money for its shows by selling them to cable. The network just engineered a one-year renewal with Comedy Central for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” which has added more viewers to its NBC total with the next day’s double run on cable, at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Comedy Central pays upwards of $150,000 a week for the extra runs, which pull in O’Brien fans who can’t stay up for the 12:30 a.m. telecast on NBC.
Because each of the three daily O’Brien time periods reaches a different audience, Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, says there’s almost no duplication of viewership.
Another non-primetime show that NBC repurposes on cable for the convenience of viewers is the longest-running show in television, “Meet the Press.” For those who want to sleep in on Sunday mornings, that day’s hour shows up on CNBC at 10 p.m.
But Zucker points out that not all of NBC’s repurposing is strictly voluntary. When Universal TV sat down to negotiate the “Law & Order” spinoff shows, it insisted NBC allow it to repurpose each episode on Universal’s sister network USA within a few days of its NBC run. NBC reluctantly agreed because it wanted the spinoffs for its schedule, and they’ve become hits, both for NBC and USA.
For example, despite running in the rather dismal time period of Sunday at 11 p.m., “Law & Order: SVU” on USA wound up the fourth highest-rated rerun series among people 18-49 in all of basic cable during the second quarter, averaging more than a million viewers each week.
If NBC’s affiliates aren’t kicking up a fuss about cable’s horning in on some of the network’s best shows, cable operators are less than thrilled.
“I regard these shows as recycled programming, costing the cable networks less money than original series or movies,” says Jerry McKenna, VP of strategic marketing for cable operator Cable One.
What infuriates McKenna is that cable networks demand more money from him in license fees on the strength of repurposed programming.
But cable systems should be paying the networks less, not more, says Mike Egan, veteran cable consultant and a principal in Renaissance Partners, because “operators need exclusive, differentiated programming that their subscribers can’t get elsewhere.”
As Egan puts it, “Why should a cable operator pay the bill for the rising cost of ‘Crossing Jordan’ on NBC? It doesn’t make any sense.”