Because different networks have significantly different programming strategies and financial models, you can make the case that comparing the more than 1,000 rerun episodes of “Big Bang” aired by TBS last season to the 20 episodes of ABC’s “Scandal,” to the roughly 100 episodes of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (including repeats), is like comparing apples to oranges to tangerines. But off-network series repeats (and some original cable series) air so frequently not simply to offset their high cost, but also because people are continuing to watch them.
Ironically, Netflix, the viewing source that gave binge-watching its name, probably has less instances of binge-viewing than any top-10 cable network with stacked programming. I would think viewers spend more time every month watching “Modern Family” on USA, “Full House” on Nick at Nite, “Criminal Minds” on ION, and “South Park” on Comedy Central than they do watching any single series on Netflix (although Netflix in total probably has more instances of binge-viewing than all of them combined).
So what does this mean for advertisers?
It’s not just that people are continuing to watch these shows. Their audiences are extremely loyal, and often not that easy to reach elsewhere. For example, “Big Bang” on TBS reached only about 30% of all adults 25-54 last season, but was still the most-viewed scripted series on television among that demo. ION’s “Criminal Minds” only reached about 15% of all adults 25-54 during the same period, yet was the fourth most watched scripted series on television. That represents an extraordinary amount of repeated viewing to a single show among a small group of extremely loyal and attentive viewers.
Doing some simple math shows that between October and July, while the average time spent viewing TBS’s “Big Bang Theory” among all adults 25-54 in the U.S. was about 4 hours, 30 minutes and about 2 hours, 15 minutes for ION’s "Criminal Minds," the time spent viewing among actual adult 25-54 viewers of these shows was roughly 16 hours apiece. Nielsen doesn’t readily provide this data by program, but it’s easy to calculate.
The significance of this goes well beyond just the amount of time people spend binge-watching these shows. It's even more telling that these folks watch fewer channels overall, and less other programming. Most binge-viewing of original scripted series on broadcast and cable is done via DVR, with significant commercial avoidance, but binge viewing of off-network repeats is largely live. These are two substantially different categories of binge viewers, with the former likely being more typical of Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime binge viewers.
Advertisers need to ask, who are these folks who spend so much time watching “Modern Family” on USA over and over again? Do they watch much other stuff? If so, what? Can they be reached elsewhere? Are they worth reaching? Are they substantially different from other viewers in the same demos? These questions are not difficult to research, and the answers would probably surprise a lot of people.