Ever since the broadcast season stretched into May, it's become more common to see repeats in midseason, according to a report from Magna Global USA released Monday. The percentage of midseason repeat shows in non-sweeps months - December, January, and March - have risen from 13 percent during the 1986-87 season to between 36 percent and 41 percent since 1996-97. Repeats during the entire regular season - from September through May - have doubled in 15 years, Magna said. At the same time, the rise of unscripted programming has meant that the summer is no longer all repeats, all the time. Summer repeats have dropped from 79 percent of the schedule in 1997 to 65 percent in the summer of 2003.
"It seems as though a new trend might be starting to develop - an increase in the amount of repeats during the sweeps months," wrote Steve Sternberg, executive vice president at Magna and author of the report.
There are several reasons for this, including the increase in new (and mostly unscripted) programming in the summer, as well as a change in the dynamic of sweeps months, when it's almost any network's to win or lose. Sternberg noted that repeats of audience pleasers like "Friends," "Law & Order," and "The Simpsons" end up doing better than new episodes of weak shows. But Magna suggests that the strategy has short-term gain, yet sets the networks up for long-term failure.
"The networks are pre-empting borderline series just as they need to be promoting them," he said. "It makes it that much more difficult to build successful new product and long-term schedules. Extending the Law & Order and CSI franchises are not going to work forever."
Sternberg said that these behaviors contribute to the networks' erosion of audiences, and schedule shifting, among other things, confuses viewers. It affects planners and buyers because it makes it more difficult to determine program performance. Television usage is still tops in the first quarter, but the gap between the fourth and second quarters is narrowing. And average network ratings in the first quarter aren't higher than in the fourth quarter, even though more people are watching television.