The broadcast networks this month are rolling out a slew of new shows aimed at bringing more viewers into their respective tents, but in the race to see who wins the crucial adults 18-49 demo for the season, creative use of repeats could prove to be a more important factor than originals. At least that's one conclusion reached in a report issued last week by major media agency Magna Global USA.
"The network [ratings] races are so close, that both the number and performance of repeats can affect the overall standings," said Steve Sternberg, evp and director of audience analysis at Magna Global.
Sternberg said networks that air fewer repeats ideally are better off, but with economic realities making it necessary for them to air shows more than once to cover costs, just where and when they schedule those repeats has become more important, especially in a tight adults 18-49 demo race. One example he used was Fox's pre-emption of lower-rated first-run comedies Arrested Development and Kitchen Confidential during the November sweeps in favor of a repeat of new hit drama Prison Break, leading into a first-run episode of the latter. "It's hard to argue ratings-wise" with such logic, said Sternberg.
While the percentage of regular program hours the networks devote to repeats in prime time has remained stable over the past few years, Sternberg said "there have been significant changes regarding when and why the networks schedule their reruns." He said not only Fox has replaced lower-rated series with repeats of higher-rated series during sweeps months. "Reruns of shows like Law & Order and CSI perform better than original episodes of marginal series, making it very tempting to use them during the sweeps when a regular series falters," Sternberg said. "This strategy certainly has short-term benefits, as these repeats tend to do better than the shows they replace."
During the 2004-05 season, CBS repeats performed the best among adults 18-49, producing a cumulative 3.4 rating, only 19 percent lower than the 4.2 rating produced by its first-run shows in the demo. ABC, NBC and Fox all saw their repeats perform more poorly, at 2.7, 2.6 and 2.6, respectively, for their repeats, between 32-37 percent lower than their first-run shows.
It seems the strength of CBS' repeats in the demo are providing the network with an advantage over its sibling nets, perhaps because its procedural dramas perform better in repeats than the other nets' serialized dramas. Sternberg said CBS beat NBC last season by a half rating point in 18-49 overall, because its repeats generated higher ratings than NBC's. He also believes that Fox edged out CBS by one-tenth of a rating point in the demo last season because Fox aired fewer repeats (15 percent vs. 21 percent) than CBS did.
While it may be how repeats are aired that makes the difference in the 18-49 race, network executives, at least publicly, would not agree they have a repeat strategy aimed at that goal.
"We are always looking for ways to maximize our audience," said Kelly Kahl, evp of program planning and scheduling at CBS. "As more of our procedural dramas become successful franchises, it does become more tempting to use them [in repeat] to replace shows that aren't working, but we don't have a particular strategy to do that. We have about eight shows that we can repeat anywhere on our schedule, but we also want to make sure the audience doesn't get tired of them."
Kahl also said winning the 18-49 demo race is not necessarily CBS' top priority: "We're not going to hurt the long-term growth potential of a show by pulling it for short-term ratings."
Preston Beckman, evp for strategic program planning at Fox, said, "Some of the best, smartest scheduling moves are done out of desperation. We felt we were not doing much business on Monday from 8-9 p.m. and put a repeat of Prison Break there, leading into an original of the same show. The best lead-in to a show is the same show, because of the natural audience flow." He added that Fox will do the same with drama House on Jan. 9.
Jeff Bader, evp of program planning and scheduling at ABC, said he does not believe the networks have geared up to use more repeats to replace lower-rated shows than in years past. "This is a strategy we have always used," said Bader. "We did it with Home Improvement [in the mid to late 1990s]. ... But we didn't do it in the November sweeps. What you are trying to do is to tweak your numbers up wherever you can, but you never want to hurt your regular programming."
Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at Mediaedge:cia, doesn't believe the networks should spend much energy trying to win the 18-49 title, so long as they all produce solid ratings. "It really doesn't matter who wins the 18-49 race," Scanzoni said. "All of the Big Four networks are so close. A tenth of a rating point each way doesn't matter. And there are so many other factors advertisers use when buying networks and shows."