After various fits and starts, repurposed television appears to be picking up momentum again, as cable networks look to drive improved ratings by plugging into top shows and cultural moments before their time has passed.
The practice in which cable channels air episodes of a series shortly after the installments make their primetime debut on broadcast networks grabbed plenty of headlines several years back with the migration of shows like the ABC drama Once and Again to Lifetime Television or 24's move from Fox to cable cousin FX.
While those shifts didn't necessarily pay huge ratings or demographic-delivery dividends, other deals that brought CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Spike TV and The WB's Blue Collar TV to Comedy Central have produced significant increases over previous time-slot occupants.
VH1 SIGNS PAIR
Last week, VH1 closed a couple of repurposing pacts for UPN's America's Next Top Model and NBC's Tommy Lee Goes to College, with the latter to become available to the cable network just three days after it debuts on the Peacock.
There has even been another reverse-repurposing sighting, like when ABC re-aired episodes of USA Network's quirky detective series Monk. Starting on June 8, NBC for the third time dipped into Court TV's lineup, pushing together a pair of episodes of Psychic Detectives for a one-hour run on Wednesdays. The first of the four such shows notched a 5.2 household rating and 9 share in the 9 p.m. time slot.
With repurposing, after negotiating with the broadcast network and running it by the show's producers, a studio cuts a deal that gives a cable network the rights to a show earlier than would have been available in a traditional syndication window. A broadcast network can benefit from additional exposure that can send new viewers to the show's place of origin.
Moreover, the studio or series producer is able to trim their deficit financing before the program even — or ever — makes it to traditional syndication.
Research shows that such deals have been ratings successes for many basic networks.
Though cable executives stress that their heavily promoted original fare typically generates better ratings than the acquired programming, the repurposed shows are solid performers, they said.
WEEK OLD 'COLLAR'
For instance, Comedy Central has a deal to repeat episodes of Blue Collar TV, the sketch comedy show featuring Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy that's now airing on The WB. Comedy Central re-runs the episodes one week after their broadcast debut.
The result: Comedy Central's encores consistently draw more than 1 million viewers, with a median audience age of 32. When it began airing on basic cable last August, Blue Collar TV ranked as a top 5 program among adults 18 to 49 for 16 weeks, outperforming Comedy Central's prime household average by 38%; its men 18-to 49 average by 29% and its adults 18-to-49 average by 17%, according to a Warner Bros. analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Numbers aside, the deal also created a relationship between the basic-cable network and the show's stars that led to a roast of Foxworthy. The Comedy Central Roast of Jeff Foxworthy became the highest-rated show among the 18-to-49 demo in cable this year, according to Comedy executive vice president and general manager Michele Ganeless.
Not all repurposed deals work the way the network would hope, though. Repurposed carriage of Last Comic Standing was an OK performer for the network, she said, and Comedy Central really wanted a deal on The Job, the short-lived Denis Leary series on ABC, “but that didn't happen,” she said.
Cable executives also say they have no fear that repurposing detracts from a network's identity and branding.
VH1 has run marathons of sister network UPN's America's Next Top Model, but Ben Zurier, senior vice president of programming strategy at the MTV Networks unit, said the whole block was specifically promoted as a way to catch up on the UPN show before the season finale on the broadcaster.
Repurposing is “a great way to get what we're looking for: very high ratings, something to keep the ad buyers happy and to get on top of a pop-culture phenomenon,” Zurier said. But the show has to be the right fit: “Dateline NBC is not going to do us a lot of good.”
SOAPNET: WE'RE NO. 8
Repurposing is at the heart of the success of another basic channel, SoapNet, which runs evening airings of four soaps that premiere of ABC and NBC earlier that afternoon. This same-day game plan has made SoapNet the eighth-best basic-cable network among women 18 to 49, sporting a 0.8 average against that demo calendar year to date. By comparison, other women's-targeted services Oxygen and WE: Women's Entertainment placed 33rd and 40th, respectively, according to Nielsen data.
“In the cable world, those are extremely positive ratings,” said SoapNet general manager Deborah Blackwell.
According to ABC network research, quoted by Blackwell, the repurposing has not cannibalized the shows' daytime airings: 77% of SoapNet's viewers tend to be working women and younger than the demo that watches the broadcast networks.
The same-day encores are evidently having a positive impact on the genre overall as network research indicates that 61% respondents said that they watch soap operas more often because of SoapNet.
“It's all about appointment viewing,” she said, adding SoapNet is No. 1 in frequency of viewing and average minutes viewed in the female 18-to-49 demo, according to Nielsen ratings.
By comparison, SoapNet original fare “holds it own,” she said, while conventional syndicated fare like Melrose Place attracts fewer viewers than the originals.
Viewers are clamoring for more soaps to be repurposed, she said. SoapNet could possibly schedule another in the 11 p.m. time slot, but the only other way to meet demand for repurposing in primetime is to start a second channel, she said.
Repurposing deals are structured as “deal sweeteners” when studios want more for a syndication package than a basic cable network wants to pay, said Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution president Eric Frankel. The price demanded usually stays the same, but at least the cable network gets the show now, rather than in, say, 2008.
The proposals serve a purpose, even when the repurposed show is marginally successful. Frankel points to Fastlane, a series about two undercover cops in fast cars that ran on Fox in the 2002-2003 season. The show was repurposed on MTV: Music Television, a strategy that resulted in a 67% ratings lift for the series.
While the series was not renewed for a second season, the show's producers reduced their deficit financing of the program by 25%, according to Frankel.
Another deal may have helped save a broadcast series. In an experiment, UPN placed a few episodes of its teen-targeted Veronica Mars on MTV in order to get the basic-cable network's audience to sample the show. Despite its marginal ratings, the series was picked up for a second season, a decision Frankel attributed in part to the cable-related ratings improvement.
But “you can't take an unpopular show and make it a success by repurposing,” he said.
Nor can such shows perform optimally without great asset management, executives said. Since repurposing agreements are relatively new, producers don't yet have a track record to determine if series are “exhaustible” and how the practice will impact long-term syndication results. No one knows if a program can be exposed too much.
“[These shows] are like heroin when they work. But you can't use them all at once,” joked Steve Koonin, executive vice president and chief operating officer, TBS and Turner Network Television.
TNT has helped build its leadership position through its syndication deal for Law & Order. But there are 15 seasons to work with, so “it would be difficult to burn it out.”
TNT has also worked a couple of repurposing deals for Charmed, which started in 2001 and Without a Trace, beginning last year. The latter ranked as a top-10 program among adults 18 to 54 for the 17 weeks, following its debut last October. In first-quarter 2005, the show (which airs weeknights at 11 p.m.) grew its time period by 43% among adults 18 to 34; 45% among adults 18 to 49; and 33% among adults 25-54.
One show Koonin would like to have a shot at in a repurposing deal is CSI. Turner heavily pursued the series before CBS parent Viacom Inc. decided to keep it in-house, selling it to TNN: The National Network, now Spike TV.
For its part, Spike TV has scored big with its repurposed airings of CSI, which debuted on the network in September 2002. The forensics drama ranked third on the network in its debut season, airing at 11 p.m., behind two runs of World Wrestling Entertainment's Raw. It also helped build an audience when the show was stripped weeknights, as the back-to-back airings have vaulted Spike into basic cable's top 10 in primetime.
Meanwhile, CBS's ratings for the show increased 15% in households, adults and men 18 to 49 during the first season it was repurposed on Spike, according to Warner Bros. research.
KOONIN: I'D SHARE 'CSI'
Despite falling short in its earlier attempts to grab CSI rights, Koonin would like another shot at the franchise's flagship.
“If [the rights-holders] are interested in sharing, I'd love to have a conversation,” he said.
Given its leanings, Comedy Central says it's difficult to find fodder for repurposing deals, but that doesn't mean it's not on the lookout.
“Fox has comedies the closest to [what we want], so I'm sure there will be discussions going forward,” said Ganeless. Comedies on other networks are “less edgy” than those desired by Comedy Central, she said.
Though nobody's prepared to announce any deals, industry executives point to Fox's The O.C. and The Simple Life and CBS's Rock Star, a reality show searching for the next lead singer for the band INXS, as potential repurposing targets.