Friday, May 4, 2012

The Depreciating Rerun


In case you didn't know, this spring has been pretty bad for TV ratings. The pundits take a couple different approaches to this:

1) OMG! These series lows are unfathomable!
2) Nothing to see here. Happens every spring.

The people in Camp #1 often propose stuff like a shortening of the traditional TV season to cut down on the late spring ratings pain. As Deadline notes, CBS is actually self-imposing something along these lines this year; their last original series programming airs six days before the end of the regular season.

Is a more formal solution feasible? Admittedly I'm not privy to all the logistics, but I would think that if all parties insist on it, they could make something happen. Will there actually be such a movement? I think it's pretty unlikely. After all, Camp #2 has a point; there is a spring downturn every single year. But in terms of looking for warning signs within the numbers, there are two things worth keeping an eye on:

1) Are the spring declines getting meaningfully worse? The spring declines are unfortunate but also nothing new. If they've been OK for all of TV history, that means they have to be getting bigger to become a real part of the discussion, so big that there is an extremely compelling case to concentrate originals more in the highest-viewed parts of the year.

2) Are the "filler" options that round out a 36-week season less valuable? We all know that new technologies are chipping away at the ratings of... well, everything. But it intuitively seems like those technologies should be having an even greater impact on repeat telecasts. Watching an original episode on live TV still at least has the immediacy going for it, but why bother with the networks' erratic repeat schedule when there are umpteen other ways to catch up on your own terms?

I'm holding off on the first question till all the spring data is in the books, but it certainly looks to me like there's at least an interesting debate as to whether this spring is worse than previous springs. For today, we're hitting #2: are reruns getting significantly weaker?

The Depreciating Rerun

Year Rerun A18-49+ Movie A18-49+
2006-07 59 51
2007-08 56 54
2008-09 53 52
2009-10 50 46
2010-11 52 48
2011-12 50 45

What this table means is that in four of the last five seasons, the average rerun rating has declined at a speedier rate than the average original rating (always 100 A18-49+). (Movies are also noticeably down over time.) It's subtle, but it adds up. Five years ago, the average repeat did about three-fifths of what the average original pulled. Now, the average repeat manages just half of the average original.

But who really cares, right? Maybe the ratings value of a repeat is depreciating, but it's not like they're paying much for those airings. And indeed...

Filling 100% of the Real Estate

...there has not been much of a change in the percentage breakdown of primetime real estate over the last five years.


Pretty boring, right? The combined big four networks have not really seen much of a shift. They're able to fill about 60-65% of time with original series programming. Throw in sports and specials and about 75% of the primetime real estate is "designated" stuff. It's really tough to get to 100% without a whole lot of reruns and, indeed, just a little over 20% of it is repeat series programming almost every single year. Usually there are a lot more series repeats than sports, movies and specials combined.

Maybe the repeats are very subtly trending down and the originals very subtly up. But for the most part, it looks like the big four networks are collectively still pretty satisfied with the same ol' percentages. That would seem to suggest no real "problem" with the current broadcast season.

But I would argue that it goes deeper than those percentages. Rerun strategy is changing. Again, it's subtle, but it's happening. The reason I think the percentages are holding up is because two of the common ways to use repeats - the in-timeslot repeats* and the Saturday filler repeats - are still alive and well.

*- By this, I refer to the shows that get pasted to a timeslot for the full season and thus have to air 10-15 repeats in the regular timeslot. Most of the CBS schedule still falls under this umbrella.

It's the other way of using reruns that seems to suggest what's to come:

Rerun as Replacement

In my intro to the A18-49+ project, I opened with the comparison between two CBS Tuesday 10/9c shows, fall 2006's Smith and fall 2011's Unforgettable, just to drill home the point that ratings standards were a lot higher then than now. Smith's 2.8 in fall 2006 got it pulled from the schedule after three episodes, while Unforgettable's low 2's were worthy of a back nine order.

As I said, Smith was weaker in the landscape of fall 2006 than Unforgettable was in the landscape of fall 2011. But was the difference really compelling enough to make the difference between three episodes and 22? Probably not on its own. But these pull-me-now situations are all about replaceability. Do we have a reasonable replacement show that can do better immediately?

In Smith's case, that was a yes: a repeat of CSI did a stout 3.2 the very next week. Even when the NCIS / The Unit lineup went into repeats a couple weeks later, they still got a 2.9 at 10/9c with a repeat of Criminal Minds!

In 2006-07, ABC ran repeats of Grey's Anatomy on Friday at 8/7c for almost the entire season. Repeats of House for much of the mid-aughts did better than practically all of Fox's fall dramas and got pretty long regularly-scheduled runs. For awhile it seemed like a Bones/House encore night was much stronger than anything else Fox could put on Friday.

But as repeat ratings have gotten weaker, they've become less attractive for these kinds of replacement roles, especially over the long term. Nowadays, there's really only one show left (The Big Bang Theory) whose repeats can vastly outrate a reasonably-rated original. And nobody's leaning on out-of-timeslot repeats to get through the Friday schedule anymore. Aside from some early encores of new shows for additional sampling, pretty much the only Friday repeats this season were of shows that were regularly scheduled there in originals. Even Saturday may be under siege; NBC has run ridiculously weak originals for much of their Saturdays this spring, while Fox is eschewing their largely-encore Saturday schedule of 2011-12, first for Q'Viva! The Chosen and now for sports.

There's still the occasional new show that comes in well below what reruns would do. For example, NBC pulled Free Agents and got instant improvement with repeats of Whitney. But Free Agents (42 A18-49+ in its last episode) was a much bigger flop than something like Smith (75 A18-49+ in its last episode). It has slowly but surely become harder for a new scripted show to come in below the "Rerun A18-49+" line:

Year Rerun A18-49+ Newbies Below
2006-07 66 42%
2007-08 62 19%
2008-09 58 32%
2009-10 53 15%
2010-11 56 29%
2011-12 51 15%

This is not quite as clear a trajectory because it's largely dependent on the state of development that particular year; and as I explored last week, that's pretty variable. But in both the "good" development years (2007-08 (also the writer's strike depressed the original average here), 2009-10, 2011-12) and the "bad years," (2006-07, 2008-09, 2010-11), it's slowly getting tougher for a new show to fall below the repeat replacement line. Splitting them into two-year chunks, 32% of new shows did worse than the average rerun in the first two years and just 21% in the last two years.

So... Does This Mean Anything?

As I said above, I think an actual formal shrinking of the broadcast season is probably extreme, especially based on these numbers alone, and especially with all those percentages of real estate not really changing yet. And the return of the sitcom (usually a good repeater) means there may be stronger repeat properties on the schedule going forward; this is evident on ABC, where Comedy Wednesday has made their network a stronger relative repeater over the last couple years.

But I have a feeling that eventually, we'll start to see the gap between original % and repeat % widen. Networks continue to come up with creative ways to chip away at the repeat percentage. This can take a few forms:
  • More new series/timeslot sharing. As I pointed out in the new show post, the number of new series has drastically increased in each of the last two seasons. This is one we can get some sense of from upfront week; there are already rampant rumors that the CW, for one, will pick up a record number of series from what was already a heavy pilot order.
  • More specials. For a couple years, the CW was going totally dark during the holiday season and just running series repeats. But this season, they ran seven hours of holiday-time specials (up from two last year) and seven movies (up from zero last year). Additionally, the presidential election will help create a lot of special real estate next fall.
  • More sports. Fox's "regular" Saturday lineup has run about 21 hours of encores this season. Expect that to decrease with sports coming in.
The fact that all these things are already happening suggests that the broadcasters are becoming less accepting of what repeats are doing for them. But while these alternative options may do better ratings-wise, it doesn't seem a given that they're more cost-effective. So that'll be something to watch moving forward. If the networks continue to have problems with "filler," maybe they will ultimately consider something more drastic.

Next week in A18-49+, sports and specials.

2 comments:

Spot said...

Great post (great blog, BTW). I've always mischievously wondered whether it isn't time for networks to just go back to 38-episode seasons. No, they can't do that, but the basic model they're using -- 22 episodes spread from September to May -- doesn't really work. (I noticed that when networks began cutting season orders back to 22-24, they also had shorter seasons. MARY TYLER MOORE or ALL IN THE FAMILY ran from September through March and had very few repeats within a season.) And of course now it's easier to find something to watch other than a repeat, plus more and more shows are heavily serialized (even the procedurals) and hard to repeat effectively.

Spot said...

Certainly puts a couple things in a new light. I noticed a lot of broadcast stuff seemed to be airing on "cable-esque" patterns this year (esp. Fox Mondays), and CBS certainly hasn't seemed eager to pull its drama newbies quick, since this was the second straight fall every such show got an extension.

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