Whatever Happened to Reruns?

Ever since TiVo and ReplayTV blasted into the television environment, Madison Avenue and broadcasters have lamented that these devices will murder advertising, as users of these Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) skip through commercials.

More significant, however, is what DVRs and their transportable cousins, recordable DVDs--in all variations--may do to the syndication business, the off-hours lifeblood of local broadcasting. Indeed, Hollywood is already cannibalizing its own syndication opportunities as it releases DVD versions of recent TV series. The DVR and DVD-R double punch is merely an accessory to that process.

Of course, an array of other factors is changing the world of reruns. Most notably, the current popularity of short-run reality series supplies the networks with inexpensive, disposable programs--often displacing scripted situation comedies, which have been the mainstay of the syndication aftermarket.

It is widely assumed that reality shows have relatively little afterlife --especially series that focus on a competition, such as "Survivor," "American Idol" or the various matchmaking programs. To be sure, Reality Central, a nascent cable channel, plans to pick up and rerun some of these series, but that network's debut is still at an unspecified future date.


More pertinently, "The X-Files" experience presages the home video future of syndication. Broadcast channels carrying reruns of the popular Fox sci-fi show could not at first figure out why local ratings suddenly tanked last year. Then someone pointed out that Fox had released full-season bundles of "The X-File" DVDs. The show's aficionados--and there are millions, according to sales figures--could buy boxed sets at prices ranging from $100 to $150 per year. And they watched the shows whenever they wanted--not according to a station's time schedule.

The X-Files situation was hardly unique. TV shows generated about $1.5 billion in DVD sales last year, nearly triple the 2001 figure. More than 525 TV titles were released in 2003, including many classic episodes from studio and network vaults; those oldies-but-goodies are less likely to affect current syndication. But Amazon's tally--11 of its 30 top-selling DVDs last year were TV series--is a harbinger of what may happen next. Among those Amazon sales hits were "Friends" and "Sex and the City," both just completing their final seasons and ready for syndication albeit with reduced appeal if their dedicated fans buy the DVDs before those shows hit rerun schedules.


Some studio number crunchers have determined that there's more revenue in a seasonful of DVDs than in the lifetime value of households' viewing ad-supported presentations of those shows. One studio recently acknowledged that DVDs from its TV shows account for only six percent of its total DVD sales, but the category generates at least seven percent of its revenue. That advantage is expected to expand.

Other studios are already implementing direct-to-DVD release for some of their original TV programming, especially in foreign markets where the shows may never find broadcast or satellite slots.

Such choices about distribution decisions recognize DVD's vast global success as a playback medium.


Next comes the DVR factor and more pertinently the recordable DVD-R opportunity. Right now, early adopters are figuring out the differences between formats; for example: DVD-R offers permanent storage that cannot be erased, while DVDÐRW can be erased and written over many times.

As DVRs and the new DVD-recordable devices fall toward the $200 range, usage continues to grow. Aficionados can easily pluck their favorite shows during first run, network reruns or first syndication cycle--never again needing to tune into syndicated reruns.

New combination models that include hard disk drive (HDD) DVRs and a recordable DVD drive are coming to market from JVC, Pioneer and other manufacturers--some versions include up to 300 hours of storage capacity. The DVD recorder makes it easier to offload the shows from the HDD onto a portable medium for use on DVD players elsewhere in the house, at vacation homes and via the backseat DVD display monitor in your car.

Although today's versions of these DVR/recordable DVD devices are pricey--typically $1,200 to $2,300--the prices are likely to drop into the $300 range. At that point, look for greater interest in setting up such off-air or off-cable capture despite the barriers to be erected by copyright police.

Critics contend that such recording requires too much effort for couch potatoes. Their expectation is that such off-air recording will go no further than the time-shifting gambits in the early home videocassette recorder days. That is, fans may try to capture and keep their favorite shows, but ultimately they will wind up with boxes full of recordings they never view.

Moreover, the copy protection schemes being implemented to prevent such home recording may limit the usefulness of such duplication for sharing among friends.

On the other hand, the ability to have a "fair use" copy of favorite shows or specific episodes appeals to the young audience that has embraced music downloading services. That is why Hollywood is trying to establish copy protection rules for movies as well as TV shows.

It is also the reason that station technicians may find evermore complex components within their video feeds as various watermarking, encryption and other anti-piracy tools are embedded in shows.

Other factors--including networks' current trend in ordering short-form series (eight to 13 episodes)--further affect the nature of syndication, which has relied on inventories of 100 or more segments to enable daily stripping. The reduction of off-network syndicated fare may augur the introduction of more original or even local productions that avoid the home recording distraction.

Nonetheless, home recording and playback--whether via DVR, recordable DVD or other technology threatens to change the program patterns far more significantly than what we saw when VCRs were added to the home viewing equation more than 20 years ago.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.