It's taken more than 50 years of TV evolution, but the prime-time rerun is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
With the six broadcast networks unveiling their 2004-05 schedules to advertisers this week, it's become clearer than ever that TV bosses are taking sledgehammers to the templates that have ruled nightly household viewing since the waning years of the Truman administration.
As they try to stave off fierce cable competition and chase the young adults prized by advertisers, networks are loading up on high-concept reality shows and rejiggering lineups at the last minute. As a result, they're using reruns more sparingly than ever or, in many cases, banishing them entirely.
Admittedly, this is one funeral that might not attract many mourners. Indeed, viewers have grown so averse to repeats that a few years back, NBC tried to reposition the encores with a chirpy marketing slogan: "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you!" But the decline of reruns signals larger changes that are having an enormous effect on viewers as well as on the TV industry itself.
In a rare act of public self-reproach, networks are admitting that, if anything, they've waited too long to nix the stale stuff in their schedules. During the 1993-94 season, broadcasters controlled a 60% share of TV viewership. For the 2002-03 season, that figure was barely 50% -- thanks in large part, executives say, to too many network reruns.
"It's why cable has made its headway and why we [broadcasters] have had significant audience erosion," said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who will officially unveil her network's schedule in New York this afternoon. "If you're not giving the audience what they want, they're going to go somewhere else to get it."
NBC and Fox are casting aside the traditional September-May season and aggressively touting year-round schedules, with no repeats for such series as NBC's "The West Wing." Because the White House drama will produce only 22 episodes next season, the network will fill up the remaining weeks of the 35-week TV season with specials and eight episodes of the new drama "Revelations."
Next season Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, mired in fourth place behind CBS, NBC and Fox in the ratings, will show only first-run episodes of its cop show "NYPD Blue" and the spy drama "Alias." The WB network will do the same with its returning youth-oriented dramas "Everwood" and "One Tree Hill." UPN, which announces its schedule today, hasn't indicated whether it will cut back on repeats.
Meanwhile, reality shows like Fox's hugely popular "American Idol" seldom if ever air repeats because encores of unscripted shows have usually tanked in the ratings. The effect on prime time is dramatic. WB executives said they would air 470 hours of original programming next season, a year-over-year increase of 21%.
Network bosses say they have little choice: When young viewers see reruns these days, they tune out and flee to cable, the Internet or who knows where else. Double-digit percentage declines in the number of young male viewers watching TV last fall led to hand-wringing in executive suites.
Many upscale viewers in their 20s and 30s are buying digital video recorders, such as TiVo, that can record and store episodes at the touch of a button, thus making repeats redundant.
And with a growing number of series being rushed onto DVDs, the need to catch broadcast repeats diminishes.
When repeats do appear these days, it's often for strategic reasons. For example, Fox last summer built awareness for its youth soap "The O.C." by running new episodes twice in the same week, and NBC earlier this year aired repeats of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" the Wednesday after its initial Thursday airing. It's a model that has long proven successful on cable networks such as HBO, which repeats its series at least once during the week.
But with both "The O.C." and "The Apprentice," the moves were designed mostly to build awareness of new shows, not simply to fill up a time slot.
Cutting back on reruns this coming season marks a sharp break with a well-established tradition. For decades, episodes of comedies and dramas aired two or even three times during the year, especially during the slow summer months. No one loved them, but they were, like car payments and the common cold, an inescapable fact of life.
Even now, repeats of older shows such as "Seinfeld" and "Friends" remain among the most-popular syndicated programs, but those typically air outside of prime time on local stations, not national networks.
NBC's "Law & Order" franchise and CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" still perform well in repeats and are used to plug holes in their respective networks' lineups, but those shows have broad appeal across age ranges and are not as dependent on fickle young viewers.
As Jordan Levin, co-chief executive of the WB (the network partly owned by Tribune Co., parent company of The Times), says, "Dramas that seem to appeal to younger viewers don't repeat."