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Broadcast Showings of Cable Series: Something Borrowed, Something Blew
April 8, 2008  | By David Bianculli
The ratings are in. The first outing for NBC's Sunday-night duo of recycled Monk and Psych episodes (first seen on USA Network) drew only 5.6 million and 4 million viewers, respectively, and only a fraction of that in the coveted younger demographic. So should the strike-induced move be considered a failure, or a success?


It's a failure because, by broadcast network standards, those aren't exciting numbers. NBC's own Friday Night Lights averaged more than 6 million viewers for the season, yet was renewed by the network only because it found a way to share costs with DIRECTV. Even Dexter, the Showtime cable series now shown on CBS on Sundays, does better than the NBC recycled offerings. Last time out, the recycled CBS showing of Dexter drew 7.1 million viewers, a much healthier showing.

So when Monk and Psych wind up a distant fourth in the young demographic, and don't even do that well overall, that's an outright failure, right? Not necessarily.


First of all, the broadcast audiences for Monk and Psych, relatively small as they are, are much bigger than the audience levels they earn on cable. Dexter on CBS is seen by about seven times as many people as the number that watched season one on Showtime. In terms of exposure, and crossover audience back to the cable sister network, that's publicity you can't buy. And NBC's chosen Monk opener was a good one, showcasing guest star Andy Richter and presenting both the comic and dramatic elements of Tony Shalhoub's disordered detective.

In the cable world, buzz doesn't always equate to ratings anyway -- or is relative to that smaller universe. Friday's final-season premiere of Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, for example, attracted 2.1 million viewers to its initial airing. For cable, that's a hit. For broadcast, that'd be an embarrassing, instantly cancelled miss.

But while these "repurposed" cable shows help the cable networks that originated them, do they really help the broadcast networks? When they're better shows, you'd like to think so. But what the networks aren't considering, much less measuring, is critical and audience perception of these shows.


TV critics aren't going to pay much attention to the CBS Dexter or the NBC Monk, other than an initial story on what's edited for broadcast standards. They've literally seen it all before. And viewers, too, I suspect, perceive the shows as reruns, just from another source. What broadcast TV needs, now more than ever, is originality -- not repackaging and repurposing.

Here's a prediction. This fall, when DIRECTV gets to televise episodes of Friday Night Lights months before NBC shows them, TV critics will review the DIRECTV premieres, and all but ignore the shows once they're repeated on NBC. The broadcast ratings will be even lower than they were this season, because any of the show's fervent fans with access to DIRECTV will have seen the episodes already. And NBC will look at the ratings and conclude they should have dumped the series in the first place.

That's the wrong lesson. Making that show in the first place -- like making 30 Rock -- is one of the few good moves NBC has made the past couple of years. Showing them in, and as, the second place, is a lot less commendable.




tpy said:

More fuel for the "not necessarily" bad news fire:

For NBC or CBS to put out a new (and almost certainly inferior) show into the slots that they gave over to Monk, Psych, or Dexter would probably cost them about $2 million per episode to produce (less for reality shows, from what I can tell). Considering how little (in comparison) it cost to show the cable-first shows, even if one of these brought in 20-40% less than a show that the network paid full price for, shouldn't it be much easier to make a profit?

However, if the target demo (which includes me) is not likely to watch on network what we've already seen on cable (again, me), especially if our DVR is set to only record new episodes (yup, me), that would be a serious problem. But perhaps still not enough to make up for the considerable savings.

I don't know enough about the economics of television production to be more conclusive, but it strikes me that the relatively inexpensive cable-first shows look bad from a Nielsen perspective, but might not be so bad for the bottom line.

Comment posted on April 8, 2008 3:08 PM

henri said:

I'm now 100% sure I do not understand the business of TV...

How does the economics of this work? FNL was too expensive to make, but BSG is good for 4 seasons?

The BSG budget must be much larger than FNL, no? (I love both shows btw)

Is it that cable shows get repeated a lot more than broadcast?


- I don't have DirecTV, but i'll be bittorrenting the FNL episodes the night the first play, not that my vote counts with anyone.

Comment posted on April 8, 2008 9:21 PM

Sherman said:

David -- Thanks for the many years that your column has enriched my television enjoyment.

Regarding your prediction I find it hard to believe that critics would review the DIRECTV premieres and then ignore the NBC broadcasts because: (1) DIRECTV has such a narrow audience, and (2) when have critics ever missed the opportunity to support this gem of a show?

I think one of the bigger issues is how popular FNL will be on the file-sharing sites before the NBC broadcasts. Only a small minority of folks will switch to DIRECTV and the temptation to jump the gun on FNL will be high.

Personally, I'll continue as I have for the last two years: tell everyone I know about this wonderful show, watch/DVR on NBC, rewatch with friends, then buy the DVDs to watch again and lend out.

Comment posted on April 8, 2008 10:25 PM

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