Reruns are making TV viewers tune out

March 31, 1996|By Renee Graham | Renee Graham,BOSTON GLOBE

As far as television fans are concerned, the most controversial trend this TV season has nothing to do with the V-chip, truth-bending political advertisements or the proliferation of ridiculous Aaron Spelling dramas.

For those who arrange their weeknights around the tube, recent weeks have been unfulfillingly filled with reruns.

Where once repeats were consigned to the post-season summer months, they are now just as likely to pop up right in the middle of the television season.

So what gives?

Well, as with almost everything in TV land, it's a byproduct of the ever-increasing competition between the networks, where programming moves are scrutinized with the kind of ferocity and forethought once reserved for generals concocting battle plans.

More and more, networks are airing reruns during the season so they can save new episodes of popular series for the all-important sweeps periods.

"Most programs have 22 to 25 new shows a season, and we usually start in September. Do the math -- if we run all our new episodes consecutively, we'd run out in February or March," said one network executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"If we slip in reruns from time to time, we can keep the season going longer," the executive said, "and we can have new shows in May when we need them."

Sweeps season

May is the final sweeps period of the TV season. Sweeps, which also occur in February and November, are the months when networks determine advertising rates. The higher a show's ratings, the more networks and local stations can charge for ads.

Certainly, the networks don't want to air reruns during sweeps.

It's gotten to the point that when the networks do broadcast fresh episodes, they promote them like special treats. Michael Richards, the manic neighbor Kramer on "Seinfeld," was featured in TV ads last week, twisting and touting a new "Seinfeld" episode. Not surprisingly, the show was rated No. 1.

Brian Robinette, an NBC senior press manager, said times have changed since the 1960s, when some programs produced more than 30 new episodes per season. With a smaller complement of shows, he said, programmers have to be more creative in using the episodes they have over the course of a season.

"At the beginning of the season shows are front-loaded to get people back into the swing of things after a summer of largely reruns," he explained. "And then the main three sweeps periods are going to have a lot more originals. Unfortunately, we have to space shows out a little bit. We try not to go too far without having an original episode."

It takes about eight working days to produce an hourlong drama, Mr. Robinette said. Scheduling reruns gives a program's staff and crew the opportunity to complete new episodes.

What about the viewers?

But "typically, what works from a programming point of view rarely works from a viewer's point of view," said Megan Gaigel, a New York television writer.

"Saving episodes for big ratings periods makes sense," she said, "but it becomes very frustrating for loyal viewers who find their favorite shows in repeats, or in one recent case, suddenly preempted."

Ms. Gaigel was referring to the March 12 episode of ABC's popular police drama, "NYPD Blue." Viewers who tuned in that Tuesday night for the hard-hitting program instead found a repeat of the pilot for a cop show, "High Incident," which had just run the night before.

Whether this was done to save remaining new episodes of "NYPD Blue" or to placate Steven Spielberg, the co-creator of "High Incident" (it's produced by Dreamworks SKG, his company with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg), is irrelevant to fans.

The sudden switch sent irate viewers scrambling from their television sets to their computers, where they mobbed the Internet and on-line services with complaints.

"It's insulting to your audience," one viewer wrote to ABC's "NYPD Blue" message board on America Online. "You have a responsibility to put it on regularly." Another posted this message: "Either put 'NYPD Blue' on this week, or I will be forced to look on cable for something decent to watch."

Dorothy Swanson, president and founder of Viewers for Quality Television, has heard similar complaints from her organization's members.

"People complain constantly. I totally missed the last 'Law & Order' episode because I assumed it was a rerun, and it wasn't," Ms. Swanson said. "For whatever reason the networks perceive this as necessary, if I'm an example of viewers that are lost, then it's not a good tactic."

Still, a network executive defended the practice, saying it can benefit viewers.

"Not everyone sees every episode. The occasional rerun is a good way for folks to catch up with shows," he said. "Some episodes are very popular, and I don't think viewers mind seeing them more than once."

Continuity problems

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