TV Reruns Are Cash Cows For Multiple Reasons

Reruns used to mean watching the same network episodes over again, say during the summer. Years later, viewers could catch a favorite show on cable. These days, reruns are tucked in just before prime-time lineups. And now binge viewers can catch them online with services such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's talk now about reruns. They're being viewed in a different way than reruns once were, say, in the '60s and '70s, where summer reruns meant watching the same episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" or "The Brady Bunch" over again. Or in the '90s, where you might go to basic cable to catch reruns of "Law and Order." Or even nowadays, when you could see reruns of "The Big Bang Theory" tucked in just before primetime.

Now, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says reruns are more important than ever before. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: That's a bit of a surprising thing to say.

DEGGANS: People don't understand that reruns are where TV outlets often make their money. They don't necessarily make money when an episode airs the first time. They either make money when they air it again and they get that advertising revenue. Or they sell the episodes in a package to a place like Netflix or Amazon On Demand and they make money that way.

And another important use for reruns is to build audience and enthusiasm for a series. We saw this with "Breaking Bad." People didn't really pay that much attention to the show outside of its core audience in its first three seasons. But they started hearing about this show and they went back on Netflix and it built their enthusiasm for the show. So by the time it had its final season, there was this huge audience that got funneled into it and it got some of the best ratings the show had ever seen. So Netflix is the new home of the rerun, in an odd way.

MONTAGNE: Netflix and the ability to pick and choose, which we have now gotten so used to that - practically insist upon it, right? I mean, sounds like a win-win; viewers catch up, Netflix gets customers, studios that make the shows make money from Netflix. So...

DEGGANS: Well, as you can imagine there's a fly in this ointment. And the fly is that production companies that make these shows, they actually control when a cable company or when a network can actually air the episodes. And they have these agreements with Netflix that says they can only put up the last five episodes of the current season of a show on their Video On Demand channels.

So let's say "Sons of Anarchy" is showing its ninth episode of the season right now. And you're a fan and you want to see the first episode of the season. Well, the Comcast On Demand or Bright House Networks On Demand, they can only go back to Episode 4. So you won't be able to see that first episode of the season because they don't have the rights to air it. And so that's a tension between the cable companies and the broadcasters and Netflix, that I think they have to resolve.

MONTAGNE: All right, so a lot of places we could possibly watch. But in a way, is this not confusing for viewers?

DEGGANS: Oh, I think it's very confusing for viewers because we're an on-demand video culture right now. We are used to seeing stuff when we want, where we want, how we want. And so, like I said, if you're a fan and you come to "Sons of Anarchy" and you realize, hey, I didn't see the first episode of the season. And maybe I'm a little confused, I want to see it. And then you go to Comcast On Demand and try to see it, you can't see it. And you sort of go, well, why is that? And so, I think the industry is trying to cater to those demands and I think eventually are going to figure something out.

MONTAGNE: Well, all in all though it sounds like Netflix has a lot of power.

DEGGANS: It certainly does, because when a place becomes the home of the rerun, after a while you start to associate that show with that place. And I think that's another concern that cable channels and networks have, is that people don't necessarily see a show like "Breaking Bad" or "Sons of Anarchy" or "Sherlock" as a creation of FX, or a creation of AMC, or a creation of the BBC. They see it as I learned about it on Netflix, I watched it on Netflix.

So that's an important branding issue, as well, and I think something else that the industry kind of has to figure out.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, Eric, thanks very much for joining us.

DEGGANS: All right, thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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